I have heard a lot about the development of A&E's new reality show "Modern Dads". I was even contacted by a casting agent early in the process. I never responded, mainly because I once attempted to forbid my wife (girlfriend at the time) from turning in an audition tape for The Real World. She didn't even want to audition, but I had a nightmare that she had been cast on the show, cheated on me with her ridiculously named bisexual roommate, and then broke up with me over the phone on national television. The next morning I started a fight that really didn't need to be started, but eventually ended when we both agreed to never be on reality television. I digress. Back to Modern Dads. Here's the 30 second spot in case you haven't seen it.
I laughed while watching the first episode of Modern Dads, I'll give it that. But my hope, and the hope of many dad writers I know, was that Modern Dads was going to be more than a laugh. There are already plenty of dads to laugh at on television. And while I'm not burning my boxers about the Al Bundy, Homer Simpson, bumbling dad archetype that is a staple of sitcoms over the last 20 years, there are plenty of valid arguments about why, and how, those negative dad stereotypes hurt the perception and engagement of dads in our culture. My hope was that a reality show about dads was going to provide a more rounded view of fathers than a normal sitcom tends to. If Modern Dads is going to do that, it has a long way to go.
I really can't figure out what Modern Dad's is trying to say – or if it is trying to say anything. Is the point to show adept fathers learning, adapting, struggling, and thriving in "non-traditional" roles that a "non-modern" society would typically assign to women? Or is the point to show silly, fish-out-of-water men trying to handle a job that society didn't design for them? I'd watch a show trying to accomplish the first goal, but Michael Keaton already made an outdated, not modern movie that accomplished the second.
Modern Dads focuses on four, funny, Stay-At-Home-Dads and their relationships with each other, their wives, and their kids. By the way, as portrayed by the first episode, I put those in order of implied importance (importance being implied by screen time). The focus of the first episode seemed to be the juxtaposition of typical, quippy man banter in "atypical" man locations like the park, or the super market. (I put quotes around atypical to imply that I don't agree that those locations are atypical.) Aside from the introduction of the characters, the interaction of the kids with the dads in the first episode is so minimal that the kids could literally have been Ewoks and it wouldn't have changed the narrative of the episode one bit.
The casting is fun, but it really feels like they cast four comedians. You have the wisecracking Sean, step-dad to the two daughters of his "super hot" girlfriend who works in venture capitalism and knows how to use power tools better than he does.
This single, good looking dad is Stone. His "proudest achievement in his life is his little girl." He splits his time the first episode between contemplating a vasectomy and hitting on a totally not from central casting hot girl that he totally meets on accident at the bakery counter in the super market by asking if she knows anything about cake.
I will say, Stone's vasectomy contemplation leads to the best line of the episode. When he ultimately decides against getting a serious surgical procedure just because his dad buddies made fun of him, he explains his reasoning camera, "Taking a casual attitude towards my genitals is kind of how I ended up here in the first place."
Speaking of casual genitals, I should mention that earlier in the episode, while at the park with their kids, Stone shows his other dad buddies presumably naked selfies of some other not-the-bakery-counter lady on his cell phone. We then cut to a confessional of another dad telling the camera that Stone gets to do things the other dads only dream of, and suddenly the whole premise of the show isn't feeling very "modern" anymore.
Then we have Rick, the veteran dad. He's got four kids, a big guy sense of humor, and wants to throw a Godzilla themed party for his twin daughters' first birthday… because the kids "have done to his sex life what Godzilla did to Tokyo." Strange reasoning aside, I really wish they would have gone with the Godzilla theme instead of the Princess theme they ended up with. Some low angle shots of cute toddlers stomping on papier-mâché buildings would have been awesome.
Oh yeah! There's another dad too. Nate. According to Step-Dad Sean, Nate is a "totally stereotypical new dad who won't even stop the car because he is afraid of waking the baby up." Aside from his introduction, which is nice, that's about all we see of Nate in the first episode, but I will say that he has a fantastic beard.
Throughout the first episode, the dads stumble through the party prep. Sean volunteers to build some medieval stocks out of wood for the Princess themed birthday party, but he can't figure out how to use a jig-saw. His girlfriend jokingly criticizes Sean for not knowing what a 2X4 is, even though it is actually either a 2X6 or a 2X8, but definitely not a 2X4. She then takes over the project while Sean has a tea party with the girls. Next we're treated to a wood-working-montage that would make any ninth grade shop teacher have an anxiety attack. By the way, using a flip-flopped foot to clamp down a piece of wood while using a power tool is not safe. Don't do it!
I get what this scene is trying to accomplish. Ha ha, look at the role reversal. Sean can't use power tools and his girlfriend can. That's so modern! Sure, but it is also silly, manufactured, and as fake as the final product that is brought to the party at the end of the show.
And here lies both the problem and possibly the solution to Modern Dads. By trying to manufacture a narrative, the relationships come across contrived. There is no emotional connection to the characters, and in a show about parenting, there should be. Why not show an actual struggle, or some actual emotion? Come on A&E. I know you can do this. Approach the topic with the respect you give the subject matter on Intervention. Make me cry a little.
How about some candid conversation between the dads and their kids? How about something besides crass ball jokes between the dads? Sure, my dad buddies and I make plenty of dick jokes when it's just us listening. But we also have serious conversations. We talk about our frustrations, and our joys. We share stories about our kids, and the awesome or horrible things they do. We talk about what it means to be a dad these days. We have conversations with our wives about parenting decisions and how we think they will affect our kids. And instead of just finding the real world, stay-at-home equivalents of the cast of Grown-Ups, why not tell individual stories of modern dads everywhere. Of course feature stay-at-home dads, but also find gay dads. Find working dads. Find traveling dads. Find service dads. Are they not modern too?
Dads are worth talking about. They are definitely worthy of a well done documentary or reality TV show. For me, Modern Dads isn't it. I'm just looking for more heart and less laughs.
Love, Dad (John)
Modern Dads Premiers August 21 on A&E
Fellow Dad Blogger Adrian Kulp has an exclusive interview with the cast of Modern Dad over on his website Dad or Alive. After reading it, I have hope. I am confident that there is some heart to be shown on Modern Dads. From dealing with illness to infertility to adoption to insecurity, all within the context of being a dad, these guys have some good stories to tell. I really hope they get around to telling them on the show. Check out the interview here.