More TV, movie dads today are strong figures and no longer the hapless foil

WASHINGTON (CNS) — We’ll always have Homer Simpson with us. The animated bumbler was designed to be the antithesis to the got-it-all-under-control father types like Cliff Huxtable of “The Cosby Show.”

And with “The Simpsons” having been renewed for a 33rd and a 34th season, there will be enough episodes that someone could watch them for two weeks around the clock and not have seen them all.

Fortunately, not every father on television — or film, for that matter, is like Homer Simpson. And one doesn’t have to look too hard anymore to find dads who crumple the stereotype of hapless foil.

Case in point: Jack and Randall Pearson of “This Is Us,” which will enter its final season on NBC come fall. Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) “comes back and forth from the next life,” said Sister Rose Pacatte, a Daughter of St. Paul and a longtime film and TV critic. “Randall (Sterling K. Brown) is so torn because he was adopted as a Black child to complete these triplets; Jack and his wife had these triplet and one of them died,” she explained.

“These are dads who are finding their own way just as they are fathering children and trying to bring them up,” Sister Pacatte said. “No matter how old a father is, they can still choose to be in their life.”

Another strong recommendation from Sister Pacatte: “Ted Lasso” from Apple TV+, with Jason Sudeikis in the title role. “I love that show. Talk about heart!” she said. “His son doesn’t stay with him, because he (Ted) goes to England (to coach a soccer team — a sport he’s never coached before) and they still split up, but he stays connected to his son.”

An out-of-left-field choice to some is “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu. Sister Pacatte focuses on Luke (O-T Fagbenie). “His wife was taken to be a handmaid. Their daughter was taken to be raised by people who could not have children. Now he’s taking care of a daughter who is not his wife’s daughter,” she said.

“It’s a complex story. It’s very dark and very edgy,” she cautioned, but Luke is “all for reuniting his family, especially getting his daughter back from Gilead,” which Sister Pacatte described as a “break-off state” in a dystopian American future.

She also is a big fan of the recently wrapped comedy “Schitt’s Creek,” which ran on Pop TV and won more Emmys in 2020 than any other comedy in one season.

“This show got me through the pandemic,” Sister Pacatte said, acknowledging if there are stereotypes of “dumb dads,” it may be because “comedy plays off of stereotypes.” But Johnny Rose (played by comic actor and series co-creator Eugene Levy) is “a stalwart father and husband. I think Johnny Rose is one of my favorite TV dads.”

She cited Jesuit Father Jim McDermott, who has been celebrating the online Masses she’s attended during the pandemic. She said he’d had screenwriting classes at UCLA, and during one class, a screenwriter came in to talk with students. The scribe’s take: “These characters are in hell, and it’s how they work their way out of hell is where the comedy comes in.”

John Mulderig, associate director of media reviews for Catholic News Service, had a few TV picks of his own, starting with the new Man of Steel take on the CW, “Superman and Lois.”

In this series, Superman (Tyler Hoechlin) “has to deal with the ordinary problems. He and Lois (Lane, played by Elizabeth Tulloch) are married and they have children. He has to balance his work time — flying around saving people — with his family time. He also tries to emulate his adoptive father in raising his teen sons, who are exhibiting superpowers of their own.

Another superhero tale on Mulderig’s list is Netflix’s “Jupiter’s Legacy.” The father in that (Josh Duhamel) is both strongly moral and religious. He has the family say grace,” he said. “And he successful at parenting his son, but he struggles with his relationship with his daughter — but he never gives up on her — in contrast to his own father.”

Another reboot is Hulu’s “Hardy Boys,” in which “the titular boys idolize their father, who’s a detective. Their sleuthing is meant to follow in Dad’s footsteps,” Mulderig said.

In the cinematic milieu, Mulderig holds in high regard two recent films whose fathers, although dead, each pass on invaluable skills to his children.

In “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” “one of the two main characters in that is a little kid (Finn Little) who’s being pursued by the gang who killed his father (Jake Weber). His father is widowed, so they’re closer on the basis of that. He’s also protective of his son, and that kicks in the skills that make him survive throughout the movie.”

Also, John Krasinski’s character is not seen in “A Quiet Place Part II,” the follow-up to the 2018 hit, but his legacy looms over the sequel,” Mulderig said. “His family is going to use his skills in his absence to save them from the alien invaders.”

Two movies that made the lists of both Mulderig and Sister Pacatte are “The Father” and “Minari,” both of which won Oscars this year.

Anthony Hopkins won the Best Actor Oscar for his title turn in “The Father” with Hopkins as a dementia patient. “We can sort of see that as a role reversal. Instead of the father caring for the children, the burden is on the children to take care of the father,” Mulderig said. “But it’s still that connection to his children is always there,” Sister Pacatte noted, “and it wouldn’t be there if hadn’t been built up over the years.”

Steven Yuen, the dad in “Minari,” is “a great father to his kids, especially the son. There’s some magical moment in the move with his son, digging the fields. Certainly their efforts to build a family in America is so noble, and the sacrifices that he makes –that all these fathers make — they stand out,” Sister Pacatte said. Mulderig observed how the father “expresses his ambition to have his son see him succeed. He doesn’t just want to succeed; he wants his son see him succeed, so he can be successful” as an adult himself.

Sister Pacatte advised that men don’t actually have to be dads to be father figures. Take another 2020 online hit in “Sound of Metal.”

“The father figure in that — that’s an exquisite film, by the way — it was nominated for Paul Raci, who plays Joe. He runs a rehab place. He’s deaf, and the drummer (Riz Ahmed) has lost his hearing. He leads him through almost all a spiritual awakening of his own self-knowledge. It’s quite a remarkable role he plays as a father and a spiritual father — a father in a spiritual setting,” although she adds the proviso, “It’s not a Christian movie.”

Or, if vintage film is more your thing, Sister Pacatte recommends classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), “A Man for All Seasons” (1966) and “Life Is Beautiful” (1997) to find more examples of upstanding fathers.

“To tell you the truth,” Sister Pacatte said, “I’m so tired of stereotypes in badly done television and film. That’s why I always look for something good.”

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