Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

PERSPECTIVES; Father Knows Squat: TV Parents Used to Be Wise and Stable; Now, They're Stupid or Dead

Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

PERSPECTIVES; Father Knows Squat: TV Parents Used to Be Wise and Stable; Now, They're Stupid or Dead

Article excerpt

IN THE OPENING EPISODE OF THE NEW TELEVISION SHOW "My So-Called Life," the lead character, a depressed 15-year-old girl, says to herself, "Lately I can't seem to even look at my mother without wanting to stab her repeatedly." You could call this reality, or you could call it gratuitous parent-bashing. You could also call it typical. Parents are one of the few remaining groups that are regularly ridiculed, caricatured and marginalized on television. Ask a typical viewer to describe how parents are portrayed on most shows and the answer usually is-, stupid. TV parents are the irrational authoritarians, the blustering bores, the twerpy, dopey, hopelessly uncool, the miserly boobs and the overprotective fools. Sometimes they are patently negligent, like Murphy Brown, who made a big deal about having a baby without a husband and now seems to carry on her long hours as a television journalist with barely a thought about child care. There's "Home Improvement" and "Dave's World," whose dads are doofuses, although funny, and "Boy Meets World," where Mom and Dad are just kind of pale. Like wallpaper.

Then there are the two new shows "Party of Five" and "On Our Own" that did away with parents entirely, killing them off in car crashes before either series began.

Vicky Hideout, director of the Children and the Media project for the advocacy group Children First, has noticed another peculiar trend. After years of being criticized for showing only traditional two-parent families despite the fact that 50 percent of American children live with only one, the networks' fall lineup included nine shows with families headed by single parents. But here's the catch: Seven of them are single dads, which represents only two percent of reality. The two moms? "Murphy Brown" and "Grace Under Fire" (who is pretty cool).

What's happened to all the moms? They're either dead or bad. On the long-running "Blossom," Mom has been AWOL in Paris for years; on the new show "Me and the Boys," she's dead; and on the recently canceled "Daddy's Girls," she ran off and had an affair with her husband's business partner.

"Maybe it's because people are so freaked out by their mothers," suggests Winnie Holzman, the writer and creator of "My So-Called Life." "It's a common fantasy to not have a mother."

"Television is a reflection of things going on in the country and in people's psyches," Holzman says. "There may be a feeling of 'let's ignore moms.' " Moms are obliterated or shunted aside. You find that is what happens in society when you become a mother."

Holzman, 40, has a 9-year-old daughter. And her own mother? They're getting along now, she says, but there have been times . . .

LOOKING BACK AT THE HISTORY OF MOM AND DAD ON television, it is tempting to conclude that the video parents of today really can't get no respect. "Father Knows Best" may have been simplistic and demographically limited, but at least Robert Young and Jane Wyatt had some dignity and authority. Even the unnaturally cheerful "Ozzie and Harriet" were clearly in charge. Likewise the parents in "The Waltons" and the more recent Huxtables on "The Cosby Show." When the children smart-alecked their parents, they found out who was boss and it wasn't them. But when one of Roseanne's kids gives her some lip, she just tries to top them, operating on their level in a battle of wills.

"Maybe it's that authority figures are not popular these days," says Peggy Charren, the longtime watchdog guardian of kid fare on the airwaves. "The kids [on TV] always know more than the parents. It's very irritating and sad." Take this recent scene in "Empty Nest," on which Richard Mulligan plays the father of a ditsy grown daughter who has moved home with her infant son. Granddad, who is a doctor, gives baby a piece of "Grandpa's special French toast." The child tosses it on the floor, where the dog gets it. The dog sniffs it and puts it in the trash.

Fathers cooking that's always good for a laugh. …

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