What Defines a “TV Single Dad?”
If you think this is an easy question to answer, guess again. Wide boundaries outline the category of “Single Dads” on TV. After devoting an embarrassing amount of time studying the phenomenon, I’ve come up with four cardinal rules to identify TV Single Dads:
1. The Mindy McConnell Occupancy Rule
“The TV Single Dad must be seen in an active parental role, living with and providing support for the children without assistance from their biological mother or stepmother.”
Dad must be an obvious participant in providing for the children’s well-being; food on the table, sharing the same roof, taking her to school. Therefore, this rule excludes Mindy McConnell’s dad on Mork and Mindy, since Mindy doesn’t live in her dad’s house and is not having her basic need for shelter met by him. Her relationship with her dad is more like being a neighbor than a daughter. This situation is typical with many adult children of Single Dads on TV.
On the other hand, Ben Cartwright on Bonanza does qualify as a TV Single Dad under this rule, since he provides a roof over his sons’ heads, even though they’re all obviously adults and capable of fending for themselves.
2. The Grandpa Munster Mortgage Act
“The TV Single Dad must be the actual head of the household in which the children reside.”
Grandpa from The Munsters is knocked out of contention by this act because, although he is Lily’s father, Herman Munster is the head of the household. Grandpa lives with Lily and Herman, not the other way around.
Fred Sanford does qualify by this rule, however, even though it often appears that it’s really his son Lamont whose efforts are keeping the roof over their heads on Sanford & Son.
3. The Mike Brady Clause
“The TV Single Dad must be single for the majority of the run of the series.”
Face it: without this rule, Mike Brady could arguably be counted as a TV Single Dad, even though he stopped being single about twenty minutes into Episode One of The Brady Bunch.
On My Three Sons, however, Steve Douglas does count, because for the majority of the series he was a single dad, even though he remarried during the final season of the show.
Note that the Mike Brady Clause also covers retroactive revelations of single dad-hood: On the final episode of MacGyver, it was revealed that MacGyver was a single dad. Too bad! You can’t plug in a long-lost son at the end of a series and expect to qualify for this TV Single Dads Hall of Fame.
4. The Skipper’s Li’l Buddy Exclusion
“The TV Single Dad must be a true parent or guardian, not just a mentor.”
The Skipper on Gilligan’s Island does not qualify as a TV Single Dad. He’s the captain, and Gilligan is his first mate. He is not Gilligan’s “father” in any way, shape, nor form.
This rule does get bent a little, though, when it comes to someone like Jesse Duke on Dukes of Hazzard. After all, he is the guardian of the three cousins, Bo, Luke, and Daisy Duke. They may be all grown up now, but they still live on Uncle Jesse’s farm, where he continues to provide room and board.
It’s an important distinction to understand, because one does not *have to* be a dad to be a TV Single Dad. Examples would be the endless Uncle Bills and Brother Charlies of Family Affair and Party of Five.
With these four rules in place, you’d probably guess that picking out TV Single Dads would be a piece of cake. But it’s not, even with the rules, and that’s what makes things interesting.Does Jack Albertson’s character count as a TV Single Dad on Chico and the Man? Is Mike Farrell’s character on Providence a TV Single Dad, even though his dead wife’s ghost still provides advice to their daughter? And what about David Seville and those chipmunks?
Author’s note: As a general rule daytime dramas, or soap opera, are exempt from inclusion in lists such as this. Sooner or later, *all* soaps wind up having a TV Single Dad in one form or another. Therefore, I’m going to be cruel and waive all soap plots from having claim to this list. Sorry!
Elements of a TV Single Dad’s Family
As any Film School degenerate can tell you (I’m a Film School degenerate, so I’m telling you), all genres have identifiable motifs and clichés, signaling their identities though mise-en-scene devices (Hmm – – must have been French Film School).
Even for the Great Unwashed, it’s obvious that there are certain elements typical to TV Single Dad shows. Some of this narrative furniture may be missing from particular shows, but most exhibit some or all of these trademark features:
Mom’s Dead – The classic Single Dad story never has to worry about Mom showing up. Usually Mom’s been dead for awhile, and her death really took the spunk out of Dad’s sails. Dad can’t talk about ” what happened to your Mom” because it just “hurts too much. “A fortunate device for the writers, who don’t have to explain just what happened to Mom. Some shows, like Star Trek: Deep Space 9 keep dragging Mom back up in flashbacks and alternate universes, but face it, the “alternate universe” concept doesn’t transfer well on a show like, say, Flipper.
The Housekeeper/”Mom” – A staple of the sixties Single Dads, the Housekeeper is typically a foreign-born domestic worker, responsible for dropping moral “fortune cookies” into the heads of the Single Dad’s kids. Typically passive-aggressive. Think of Mr. French on Family Affair. Think of Alfred the butler on Batman. Think of Nanny on Nanny & the Professor. Now you’ve got the idea.
Precocious Kids – All the children of Single Dads are bubbling vats of adult vocabularies. Even the Olsen Twins on Full House have the elocutive range of third-year law students. Single Dad’s Kids (SDK’s)can size up their Dads’ new girlfriends (who usually only last for one episode) and find the newcomers’ mortal weaknesses. For a certain sighting of the element of precociousness (precocity?), watch any episode of Nanny and the Professor. Jonny Quest illustrates the concept pretty good, too.
The Heart-to-Heart Talk – No Single Dad can escape the mandatory “heart-to-heart” talk that must be given to at least one child per show. Fred MacMurray excelled at this in My Three Sons, which makes for mind-numbing predictability in the show. Oh well — that’s the best time to raid the kitchen for more chips and salsa.
The Special Case: TV Single Dad Formula #1
Over the years, creating these lists of shows highlighted a repeating story formula: Dad, mourning the loss of recently departed Mom, tosses the kid(s) in a pickup truck /airplane / boat and moves to a completely different locale, usually with an exotic climate. The family is composed of an Angry Son or Daughter, and an Obedient, Quiet Daughter.
The dialog of the first episode of Formula #1 shows always includes this Angry Exchange sequence:
Angry Son/Daughter: “I hate this stupid place! You took me away from all my friends!”
Dad: “Get used to it. We’re staying.”
Angry Son/Daughter: “We wouldn’t even BE here if Mom were alive!”
[Silence. Long, slow turn of Dad’s head towards Angry Son/Daughter. Dad opens mouth. AngrySon/Daughter storms out of house into the snow / blowing sand / rain.]
Watch for these shows. They’re frequently cancelled after a season or two, but it’s always interesting to spot them on the first episode.
Here’s a typical Angry Exchange, from The WB’s Everwood: