Who’s Your Daddy: Television’s Best Dads

Good fathers are a common trope on television, possibly because there are so few of them in the real world. Which makes it a challenge to narrow them down to just a few of our favorites. What follows is our top twelve, and we salute them, as well as the also-rans like Eric Taylor, Tony Micelli, Michael Bluth, Howard Cunningham, Mike Brady, Stephen Keaton, Henry Spencer, and James Evans. Happy Father’s Day, and thanks for making our real dads seem so inferior!

1. Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby), The Cosby Show
Let’s be honest: Bill Cosby was everyone’s dream dad in the ’80s. When he wasn’t making us laugh with his wholesome comedy routines, telling stories of Fat Albert and the gang, or extolling the virtues of pudding pops, he was delighting us all as Heathcliff Huxtable: obstetrician, jazz aficionado, husband, and father of five. Cliff was silly, kind-hearted, competitive, embarrassing, available to help whenever one of his kids had a problem, and usually clad in a fluffy sweater that just begged to be hugged. He was even chosen as America’s top TV dad in a Harris Interactive poll, the favorite among respondents of all races, ages, and political affiliations. Take that, Ward Cleaver.

2. Dan Conner (John Goodman), Roseanne
If Cliff Huxtable was the dream dad of the ’80s, Dan Conner was the reality. This beer-drinking, blue-collar everyman worried about money, fought with his wife, yelled at his kids and suffered through the recession along with the rest of us. But through it all he was the emotional center of a ground-breaking show that wasn’t afraid to give us an imperfect, realistic take on the American family. You never for a second doubted that Dan would do anything for his kids, and his triumphs were all the more meaningful because he had to work so hard for them. It’s possible he even helped us understand and appreciate our own over-worked, imperfect dads a little better.

3. Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion), Castle
Best-selling novelist Richard Castle is something of a playboy, a bit irresponsible, and frankly kind of self-centered. Except when it comes to his teenage daughter Alexis, whom he’s raised without any help from Alexis’ even-more irresponsible mother. He’s pretty much the ideal dad, to be honest. He has fun hanging out with Alexis (they have laser tag tournaments in their tony Manhattan apartment!), but he’s not afraid to set limits when he needs to. He trusts her, because he’s raised her to be trustworthy. He values her opinions and takes her advice as often as he offers his own fatherly guidance. In fact, the wonderfully heartfelt interactions between this father and daughter are one of the things that sets Castle apart from the other crime procedurals crowding the TV landscape.

4. Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen), The West Wing
As we learned in the fifth season episode, “Abu el Banat,” to be a father of daughters is to be a man deserving of sympathy, and Jed Bartlet is the father of three very headstrong women. He may not always know how to relate to them, and he may not always approve of the choices they make or the men they marry, but he makes damn sure they know he’s always in their corner, like when he tells his middle daughter, Ellie: “The only thing you ever had to do to make me happy was come home at the end of the day.” *wibble* And on top of that he somehow manages to run the country AND co-parent his loyal inner circle of staffers (with a little help from Leo, of course).

5. Mitchell Pritchett & Cameron Tucker (Jesse Tyler Ferguson & Eric Stonestreet), Modern Family
Like any first time parents, Mitch and Cam have suffered their share of mishaps, like the time they accidentally locked baby Lily in the car (pshaw! Let me tell you about the time my two-year-old locked her babysitter out of the house). But on a show that’s all about the push and pull of family, these two dads are the perfect yin and yang. Between the two of them they’ve got all the bases covered—they’re smart, affectionate, serious, fun-loving, responsible, spontaneous, athletic, and artistic—ensuring that Lily (and any other children they might adopt in the future) will never want for anything.

6. Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), Veronica Mars
While we sometimes wished that Keith had kept a shorter leash on Veronica, you can’t deny that his example is the reason she grew up to be the clever, strong, fiercely independent champion of the underdog that we know and love. And the fact that the touching bond between this father and daughter was able to transcend the skeletons they each kept tucked in their respective closets is nothing short of miraculous. Even when it seems like the rest of the world is against them, Keith and Veronica always have each others’ backs. And dessert for dinner to ease some of the pain.

7. Howard “Bunny” Colvin (Robert Wisdom), The Wire
On a show with nary a good parent to be found (even the so-called good guys weren’t exactly model parents), Maj. Colvin stands out, not only as a father-figure to the officers who served under him and the neighborhood he wanted to protect with his Hamsterdam experiment, but to the corner kids he tried to help after he was pushed off the force. Even when his middle-school program was terminated, he did the one thing he could do—he pulled Namond out the thug life his mother was pushing him towards by convincing the incarcerated Wee-Bey to let the Colvins take in Namond and raise him away from the streets of West Baltimore. Namond’s out there somewhere right now, getting ready to go off to college thanks to his foster-father, Bunny Colvin.

8. Charles “Pa” Ingalls (Michael Landon), Little House on the Prairie
Charles Ingalls did all the things you’d expect of a frontier-based SuperDad–protecting his offspring from wolves and rogues, carrying them across frozen rivers, keeping the fires stoked during bouts of fever and ague. He even welcomed prairie orphans into the family and put his own dreams of farm life on hold to work in the city during drought so no one would starve to death. But what makes Charles most memorable is his ability to put the 1800s behind him and rock the 1970s sensitive man fathering. Whether gently chastising his Half-Pint to set aside her selfishness or mourning the loss of his son, Charles Ingalls’ mix of stoicism, emotion, and gentleness makes him a pioneer in masculinity as well as the wide prairie.

9. Julius (Terry Crews), Everybody Hates Chris
Julius might be best remembered for his penny-pinching–heaven help you if you try to use an eletrical appliance–but he comes by it honestly. He works himself to the bone at multiple jobs to try to provide for his family in the big city. Julius is a lovable combination of big softy and unwilling disciplinarian (with a belt for every crime) who is a good example of making the best out of the little he has. He labors to make Thanksgiving and Christmas memorable for his kids, but his idea of the perfect Father’s Day is spending the day alone (or having the kids paying the bills). And as one of the hardest working dads on our list, he’s earned it.

10. Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), Buffy the Vampire Slayer
No, technically Giles wasn’t a father. But Joss Whedon’s shows are all about constructed families and there’s no denying that Giles was a father to not only Buffy (filling the gap left by her deadbeat dad), but also to the rest of the Scoobies, most of whom didn’t fare very well in the parental lottery. Teaching Buffy to kill vampires was the easy part–it was teaching her to survive the rest of the world that turned out to be hard. Without the benefit of biology or the even the advantage of similar temperaments, Giles forged a bond with his Slayer that was far stronger than most “real” dads ever manage to achieve, and was the glue that held the rest of Buffy’s “family” together to boot.

11. Burt Hummel (Mike O’Malley), Glee
As soon as you see that Burt’s only reaction to his son’s football-by-way-of-Beyonce exploits is to worry that Kurt is too little for the game, you know the truth: this baseball cap-wearing, Deadliest Catch-watching dad adores his kid, regardless of his sexuality or skin care routines. It’s pretty clear that Burt often doesn’t have the foggiest idea of what’s going on in Kurt’s head, but that doesn’t stop him from being by turns insistent on better behavior, a safe place to land during scary times, and fiercely protective (bullies beware: we hear he’s got a flamethrower). Contrary to his reputation, Burt’s not perfect–he’s a man of his generation and is still more likely to wish his kid would tone it down than demand that the world deal with Kurt dialed to 11–but this widower works hard at parenting and has good results to show for it, both with Kurt and with his new stepson Finn. Even with some gender fail, Burt’s version of The Sex Talk will likely be a great model for real-life parents for years to come.

12. Walter Bishop (John Noble), Fringe
While it seems unlikely that Walter’s own son, Peter, would nominate him for this list, our affection for this shattered genius is such that we can’t help including him. Okay, yeah, he’s got all of the ego and bad temper you’d expect from a mad savant, his childlike (and childish) mentality is often a trial for poor Peter, and, okay, he did sort of conduct unethical experiments on children and steal Peter from his real dad. But STILL. His love for his son was strong enough to literally tear a hole in the universe. And his intentions in doing so were unselfish and pure, even if he might have inadvertently destroyed two worlds in the process. And can you really blame Walter for loving his wife too much to watch her lose Peter twice? I know I can’t, and neither could Peter, even if he’s the one who has to go on all the two a.m. strawberry milkshake runs.

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