Heading for a Fall

A preview of TV's new obsession: fatherhood

LAWRENCE PRESSMAN and NEIL PATRICK HARRIS in DOOGIE HOWSER, M.D on April 29th, 1989. Credit: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty

Fathers and sons! Dads and boys! Pops and tykes! Sires and sperm! They're everywhere, and they're bigger than cats, bigger than science fiction, maybe even bigger than Madonna! Don't scoff — the father-son thing is the hottest subject in Hollywood, the wellspring of summer blockbusters (father-son friction fired up movies like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Field of Dreams and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids). Now it's the big thing on the small screen this fall. Hey, mothers and daughters, go rent a video! Us men got some problems to iron out with Pop, and the men who run network TV have generously given us a season to do it in.

Ten new shows this fall will feature especially intense and troublesome father-son relationships. Seventy percent of these shows star dads who are single, while the rest feature dads who shoot guns (twenty percent) or own furniture that speaks (ten percent). By interpreting these statistics, we can see that despite Dad's newly found popularity, he has been unable to climb out of the networks' mutant-family-configurations rut and find himself a mom, though he may be a pretty good shot and enjoy talking to chairs.

"Family shows, especially comedies, have been historically stable," says NBC vice-president of programming Warren Littlefield. "But we know that viewers like a little bit of a twist — so it's like 'Let's try dads.' There's also an assumption that parenting comes naturally to mothers and unnaturally to fathers — and that's funny."

"When Taxi and Cheers and Mary Tyler Moore were on, people were on their own a lot more," says Earl Pomerantz, an executive producer of the new CBS sitcom Major Dad. "Now people are having families — and fathers are being invited back into the family situation."

After a few months of the new season, viewers may feel inclined to rescind the invitation. In ABC's Doogie Howser, M.D., the central character, played by Neil Patrick Harris, is a sixteen-year-old boy genius who's a resident surgeon in a major metropolitan hospital — but his stiff-necked dad still won't let him borrow the car to take his date to the big dance. This is something we can all relate to, right guys? The premise of this Stephen Bochco comedy would probably work as a five-minute sketch, but to fill out a half-hour, the show forces us to enter the dramatic side of Dr. Doogie's world: Before the first episode ends, Doogie gets his first kiss, loses his first patient and, you guessed it, makes up with Dad. ("I'm so proud of you, son." "I love you, Dad.")

The boy prodigy in CBS's Top of the Hill is somewhat older but just as busy. Thomas Bell Jr. is a twenty-nine-year-old surfer who has been elected to fill the congressional office that his father, Thomas Bell Sr., was forced to leave for medical reasons. Happens all the time! Although he's basically been a beach bum all his life, Bell, played by William Katt, is full of naive idealism and looks a lot like Joe Kennedy Jr., so no one laughs at him outright. But Tom senior hangs around trying to get Tom junior to compromise his values in the name of Washington deal making.

All the ingredients are in place for some father-son fisticuffs mixed with a little populist-politico bashing, but in the pilot Junior suddenly flies to some tiny Latin American nation to rescue an imprisoned drug agent, and the result is a shoot'em-up Mr. Smith Goes to Central America. If somebody can figure out what this show's about, tell the producers.

In ABC's Life Goes On — the kind of TV-show title that has family warmth and father-son understanding written all over it — the son is Corky, an eighteen-year-old with Down's syndrome. Corky (Christopher Burke) is going against the odds and trying to make it in a regular high school. His parents are real proud of this — "When was the last time I told you how proud I am of you?" Dad tells Corky. When Corky runs afoul of the school authorities halfway through the first episode, you can start the twenty-minute countdown to a hug-filled resolution.

The ABC sitcom Homeroom offers a fresh twist on the father-son fixation: The chief domestic conflict is between father-in-law and son-in-law. Darryl Harper (Darryl Sivad) has quit his advertising job to teach fourth grade in an inner-city public school, and, hoo-boy, his wife's father doesn't like it at all. "What kind of man gives up his high-paying advertising job to play wet nurse to a bunch of future delinquents?" he growls. Dad shouldn't worry so much: The school where Darryl teaches is a cynical advertisement for the state of public education — the supposed inner-city classroom is clean, well lit and full of smiling, happily integrated students. It's the perfect antidote for all that worrisome news about inner-city classrooms as poorly funded excuses for education.

In NBC's Baywatch, the father, played by David Hasselhoff, is the head lifeguard on a Southern California beach. He and his ex-wife squabble constantly about his visiting rights with his cute thirteen-year-old son, who understandably prefers hanging out at the beach with Dad and Dad's lifeguard buddies to living with Mom and going to school and stuff. The son's Hamlet-like dilemma, however, is overshadowed by a preponderance of bikinied-butt shots. The ninety-minute pilot shown last spring featured at least three lives saved by artificial resuscitation and at least three slow-motion montages of well-oiled bods running along the surf clutching flotation devices. Look for a season packed with sudden riptides and sandy father-son hugs. ("I think you're awesome, son." "You're gnarly, Dad.")

The father-son fun of the new TV season even extends beyond the sitcom and the family drama. Once upon a time, action shows were for action — leave the dad and kids behind. Remember watching Steve McGarret pause in pursuit of Wo Fat to remind a cute twelve-year-old to brush his teeth? Of course you don't. But now, it seems, no TV genre is safe from the dreaded dad element — welcome to the era of cops-and-slobbers. NBC's new cop show Hardball has action, violence, big guns and tender moments.

Richard Tyson plays a young cop who's just lost his dad. He teams up with the next best thing, a crusty, aging cop, played by Beverly Hills Cop vet John Ashton, whose daughter has run away. In the pilot, the two join forces to guard a woman and her cute son against hired killers. "If someone kills my daddy, will you be my new daddy?" the kid asks the younger cop, further entangling the show's Oedipal knot. If you like seeing hard-boiled cops singing "Ain't It Great to Be Crazy" to ten-year-olds and running out and blowing away bad guys in a Chinese restaurant while fish tanks explode, Hardball is the show for you.

In Wolf, CBS's new cop show, we encounter the new season's most irritating dad: He's cranky and mean, and he mutters curses in Italian and forgets to turn off stoves, causing fires. His son, former detective Tony Wolf (Jack Scalia), fights with him throughout the show, eventually puts him in a home but hugs him in the end.

This, however, is only one of four major subplots in the Wolf pilot, which are loosely held together by the ambience of the San Francisco waterfront: Scores of smoky-bar locations are filled with grizzled mariners whom you expect at any moment to start singing, "Yo-ho, me mateys, yo-ho!" One of the bars is owned by Connie, an old friend of Wolf's who is also a single mother with a teenage daughter to whom Wolf is a surrogate father.

But if fathers and sons aren't your thing, there are always fathers and daughters. The father in CBS's Major Dad is a soft-core version of The Great Santini. Gerald McRaney plays Major J.D. "Mac" MacGillis, a career marine who meets Polly, a single mother of three cute girls, when she writes a newspaper article critical of the marines. Although he describes her as "a fire-eating liberal," he proposes to her after one date. The major brings this no-nonsense attitude to bear when dealing with Polly's kids, innovatively combining the Reagan Doctrine with Mr. Belvedere.

If foster fathers are your bag, ABC offers The Young Riders, a well-shot, panoramic drama about the young orphan riders of the pony express that is completely ludicrous but fun to watch. Anthony Zerbe plays the single-father figure to the daring young men (and one woman) who keep the mail a-movin' in those dark days before Zippy (the Mailman, not the Pinhead). Zerbe, better known as a James Bond bad guy and generic TV villain, always puts on a good show, but in this one he's saddled with speeches like "You'll be riding into history…You're going to tie these United States together." The kids who ride are decent actors but look too coifed for impoverished rough-riding orphans. The effect is Tiger Beat meets Knott's Berry Farm.

New shows featuring single moms would seem to break with the new season's daddaist tradition, but many of these women are gifted by scriptwriters with gruff, dad-like attributes. NBC's Sister Kate is a sitcom about a single nun who takes over an orphanage. She's a sister from the Order of the Crusty Yet Sacred Heart, reeling off lines to her charges like "Don't cry — it gets on Sister Katharine's nerves." The precocious orphans reply with zingers like "You're really a nun? Where's your guitar?" Stephanie Beacham, whose last role was as a catty bitch on The Colbys, works hard to make Sister Kate fresh and interesting, but it's going to take a couple of episodes about stigmata to make this sitcom anything more than a retread.

Teddy in the CBS show The Famous Teddy Z is being raised by his crusty, tough-as-nails Greek single grandmother, who wants Teddy to go to work in the family bakery. But Teddy (Jon Cryer), who's been temping in the mail room at a major talent agency, is suddenly promoted when the difficult megastar Harlan Keevo (modeled on Marlon Brando) chooses him as his agent. This shakes up both Teddy's grandmother ("What do they make at this company?" she demands. "They make phone calls," Teddy replies) and Keevo's former agent, Al Floss, played with tremendous bile by Alex Rocco. In the tradition of Louie De Palma and Ted Baxter, Floss is an outrageous ass who energizes the show, making The Famous Teddy Z a sitcom to watch. Because of its prime slot — 9:30 on Monday between CBS successes Murphy Brown and Designing Women — people probably will.

Though single-dad-ish parents and their scarily precocious could-be-middle-aged-midgets children make up most of the new season, ABC's Family Matters (a spinoff featuring the family of the elevator operator on Perfect Strangers) is a sitcom with an actual traditional family — in fact, it's a family that doesn't quit: Dad, Mom, three kids, an aunt, a cousin and the latest addition, Dad's cantankerous mother. Though the fare is pretty much what you'd expect ("Dad, why can't I go to the party tonight?") and the writers never hesitate to go for the let's-hug-and-be-happy ending, there is some believable dialogue and good ensemble acting. You just feel like you've seen it all before ("Carl, your mother is driving me crazy!").

Which brings us to NBC's Nutt House, Mel Brooks's latest TV sitcom, which is about a bad hotel run by an assortment of crazies. The premise heist from Fawlty Towers would be forgivable if the show were funnier. But Nutt House replicates in a half-hour what we've come to expect from Brooks's full-length features lately: a lot of gags with a couple that actually make you laugh. Harvey Korman plays the hotel's manager, the Nutt House's Basil Fawlty, and Cloris Leachman, with a huge padded butt, is the oversexed head of housekeeping. The problem is that while both Korman and Leachman have their scenery-munching moments (when Leachman asks Korman if there's something she can do, Korman says, "Find all my enemies, kill them, and throw their bodies into a pit"), there are no real foils for their over-the-top antics — everyone in the Nutt House, down to the half-blind elevator operator, is a card-carrying card. The result is a lot of punch lines with little setup.

Comic Jackie Mason has better luck with a more standard sitcom form. In ABC's Chicken Soup, Mason plays Jackie Fisher, a guy in his fifties who has decided to ditch his job selling pajamas and start anew. He lives with his single mother and dates his neighbor Maddie, played by Lynn Redgrave, who is a single mother to a precocious son and daughter. Short, Yoda-like Mason and tall, elegant Redgrave make the most unlikely pair on TV since Jerry Van Dyke and his mother, the car, and there's something refreshing about Mason's honest, untelegenic presence. "I'm lucky I have a girlfriend who's so tall — she can't see what I look like," he says in one of the monologues that book-end each episode. It will be interesting to see if the country warms to Mason's borscht-belt material, manifest in jokes about how incapable Jews are when it comes to fixing cars, and his machine-gun delivery, which seems somehow incomplete without a rim shot.

Another show that promises something different is CBS's Snoops, which pairs Tim and Daphne Reid (both veterans of the now-out-of-business Frank's Place) as Chance and Micki Dennis, a husband-and-wife mystery-solving team living in Washington, D.C. The absence of children and pets is probably reason enough to welcome Snoops, but the Reids also bring chemistry to the screen — a rare commodity in the world of slapdash TV casting.

Finally, a few awards:

The Nightingales Bronzed Bedpan for Ensemble Acting and Ass Shots. The hands-down winner of this coveted award is ABC's Living Dolls, a sitcom about four teen models living with single den mother Trish Carlin, played by Michael Learned with Suzanne Pleshette-like authority. Thrown in for guffaw-inciting double takes is Trish's fourteen-year-old son, who will probably make John Ritter in Three's Company look sexually fulfilled. Look for lots of arguments about whose turn it is to pick up the dry cleaning, jokes about fattening food and spontaneous aerobics classes.

The Geraldo Rivera Platinum Microphone for Prime-Time Journalism. This goes to CBS's Rescue: 911, a new real-victims-for-real-paramedics show about the brave men and women who save lives with their clothes on (for alternative, see NBC's Baywatch). William Shatner hosts.

Runner-up: ABC's Primetime Live, hosted by Diane Sawyer and Sam Donaldson, which, unlike most news shows, relies mostly on nonconfrontational interviews with people who were in the news two to three months ago.

The Marlin Perkins Tin Tranquilizer Dart for Animal Stunt Work. In A Peaceable Kingdom, on CBS, Lindsay Wagner plays Rebecca Cafferty, the managing director of a major metropolitan zoo. She's also a single mother to three cute kids, and they all live in a house that's located on the zoo grounds. In addition to the predictable "aw, shucks" shots of cute animals and "crazy" antics (Hey! Is that a sea lion in the living room?), this show ambitiously attempts to show the politics that go into creating a zoo. Unfortunately, the package comes with some pretty bad dialogue, i.e., "With this gorilla exhibit… don't you think you're putting all your eggs in one basket?"

The Steve McGarret Silver Forelock Comb for Loner Achievement. Two new dramas this season deserve special citation for breaking with the family-action-adventure trend and bringing us two loners with their own special styles. NBC's Mancuso, F.B.I. is a spinoff of the controversial Favorite Son miniseries. Mancuso is a tough fed with no kids or dogs or cats. You get one no-illusions kind of guy ("There are no heroes," Mancuso says with a straight face, "only sandwiches") and lots of shots of the Lincoln Memorial at night. Robert Loggia, who played Mancuso in the miniseries and reprises the role here, is a solid actor who can give a show rife with outlandish political plots — plots that are consistently upstaged by reality — a certain credibility. Another loner is Richard Chamberlain, who stars in CBS's Island Son as an idealistic doctor who does battle with his hospital's impersonal, uncaring, corporate-minded bureaucracy. The hospital is in Hawaii, which explains all the shots of waves and poi.

The Flying Nun Golden Chalice for Stupidest Sitcom. This year's fierce competition came down to two finalists: Free Spirit and The People Next Door. ABC's Free Spirit will excite all those viewers who mourned the demise of Nanny and the Professor: A beautiful young witch with untold occult powers becomes a housekeeper for a single father and his three cute kids. Go figure — there must be something about scrubbing toilets for middle-class mortals that having untold occult powers just doesn't provide. Look for lots of poltergeisting appliances and suspicious, eaves-dropping neighbors.

The People Next Door, on CBS, concerns Walter Kellogg, a single-father cartoonist who, with his son and daughter, moves in with his wife-to-be, Abigail, and her crabby older sister. Sounds pretty standard, right? But wait — whenever Walter lets his imagination run wild, the furniture starts babbling, and tiny, three-inch-high chroma-keyed bad actors are turned loose like so many roaches. This perhaps wouldn't be so irritating if Walter's imagination had a bigger budget: The talking green beanbag with the orange eyes gets tiresome very quickly, as does the wisecracking court-jester face carved into the mirror frame and the big moose-head puppet mounted on the wall. As Walter's son says, "It's really embarrassing, Dad."