Modern Dads is a new reality television show on A&E that follows the lives of four stay-at-home fathers in Austin, Texas. There have only been three episodes so far, but it probably won't last long because—spoiler alert—it's very boring.
The official description of the show promises "a group of guys who are unapologetically loud and riotously funny." They're "like a fraternity" except that they are "on 24/7 dad-duty." Which, when you think about it, isn't like a fraternity at all.
Like a lot of reality shows, Modern Dads' dialogue is over-scripted (particularly for the kids) and the half-hour show creeps along at a painfully slow pace. But the main problem with the show is that its whole premise is off. The hook is that a "tribe of child-rearing dudes" is so unconventional and strange that watching men try to chase toddlers and change diapers will be ready-made outlandish entertainment.
Apparently, A&E missed the fact that we're decades past the point where a man doing regular parenting is so bizarre that it's a joke. The channel is trying to play on the tired trope that men are "doofuses" at the daily tasks of parenting, but the show falls flat because, surprise surprise, dads are actually totally capable of doing childcare.
Raising children is meaningful work, and if it's your child, the mundane tasks of parenting can even be fascinating. But if you're a great parent, day-to-day childrearing doesn't make for great television. If you've ever actually been an at-home parent, you know that days spent looking after children and doing endless loads of laundry tend to lack a narrative arc. "I love raising my son, but I'm like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day," says Modern Dads' Nate, reflecting on his week. When his wife asks what he and his son did all day, he struggles for a minute. "We went to the park and tonight I have poker night!"
Ah, poker night.
For decades, TV dads have been portrayed as hapless, overgrown children who can barely take care of themselves, let alone the kids. American pop culture has been heavily invested in portraying childrearing and housekeeping as a uniquely feminine pursuit. From Bill Cosby to Homer Simpson, TV dads have been portrayed as inept, childlike, and bumbling.
Despite the producers' best efforts to create drama, the show never really gets off the ground, mostly because the men are actually doing a good job. They are competent. They can organize birthday parties and playdates, push kids on swings, proffer snacks and sippy cups, and make sure homework gets done. "I'm a house-hubby," says Sean. "I clean."
Modern Dads: Doesn't this look zany and extreme?! No? Well. Okay.
To compensate for the lack of drama conjured up by days filled with dad scrubbing floors and wiping runny noses, the producers fall back on boiler-plate masculinity as the punch line. The men talk about their balls. "I don't know what hurts more, the balls of my feet or my actual balls," says Rick after the group goes for a run. Sean, whose girlfriend works at a tech start-up while he takes care of the two girls, attempts to soundproof his bedroom so that he and his girlfriend can continue to have "loud, athletic sex." Stone, the one father in the group who is divorced, says he "sexercises" every chance he gets, and his efforts to pick up women are made out to be a central highlight of the show.
This past week's episode revolved around an attempt to organize a guys poker night. Rick, a father of four, sits down to ask his wife for her permission to attend and she can barely suppress a giggle as she tells him that he can go if he cleans up the house. "I don't know if you've noticed, but the house is a mess," she says. "The stroller is filthy, and you need to do laundry."
This attempt to portray Rick as under his wife's thumb is played for comic effect, but the conflict quickly fizzles since the idea that she is micromanaging him is so thoroughly unbelievable. Furthermore, except for Stone, all of the dads are extremely appreciative of the hard work their wage-earning wives do. They are unanimously respectful and gracious.
In the end, Modern Dads is a great indicator that there has been at least some progress in perceptions of who should do what. Sure, in the real world, women with kids still spend way more time on childcare than men with kids and are more likely to opt-out of careers to take care of their children. But it's not just a handful of radical fringe fathers who participate in childcare. About 55 percent of dads who work full time also do daily childcare and there are about 189,000 stay-at-home dads in the US. As Modern Dads shows, men are perfectly capable of taking on the role of primary caregiver, and can take care of kids, cook meals, and clean the house with the best of them.
So the show is a yawn—and that's a good sign.
For more writing about portrayals of dads in pop culture, check out Bitch's 2012 guest blog series "Daddy Issues."