If last year was the he-cession television season, with a series of unsuccessful shows about the struggles of men to stay financially solvent in the downturn, this is the year of the stay-at home father figure. On Fox, Ben & Kate, and on NBC, Guys With Kids and The New Normal are all, with varying degrees of success, exploring what fatherhood means.
The best of the pilots for these shows I’ve seen is that for Ben & Kate, created by Dana Fox, who was an adviser on New Girl, and this year is out on her own. In that show, Ben Fox, who is based closely on Fox’s real-life brother, is a shiftless man who ends up moving home to live with his sister Kate and her daughter. Kate is a single mother, and Ben ends up deciding to take over her daughter’s care, an idea that both frees Kate up to get her life back on track, and spurs Ben on a road to maturity he’s thoroughly avoided. When I asked Fox at her panel how she would avoid falling into the cliche of treating men with small children as if they were inherently hilarious, she said she hoped to create a specific dynamic that would avoid that trap.
“Growing up he got into so much trouble,” Fox said of her brother. “He’s a really, really smart guy who intentionally does incredibly dumb things all the time and would get us into so much trouble…And the thing that I noticed was that he was “the” world’s greatest father, and I sort of thought, like, in a million years, if you had met my brother when he was younger, you would never think that he could have kept two children alive, much less actually kept them happy and well adjusted…I realized that, you know, this character who was so sort of inherently goofy himself and so young at heart himself could talk on the same level to this kid. And when they talk, it’s like two grown ups talking. He doesn’t talk down to her. He really thinks that…they’re kind of best friends.”
That’s a terrific dynamic for a showrunner to articulate, specific and fully realized, and the Ben & Kate pilot really captures the relationship Fox described. If only Guys With Kids and The New Normal, which play out the dudes-with-babies-are-riotous dynamic inflected alternately by heterosexuality and homosexuality, had the same level of insight.
Guys With Kids is neatly encapsulated by what Jimmy Fallon, who created the show, described as his inspiration for it in his session yesterday. “[He and his producing partner] were just talking about all the guys that we were seeing around New York City and Time Square, like with the Baby Bjorns and the babies on the backs of their bikes, and I was saying, like, these are like young good looking guys,” he told the audience. “They’re just embracing the role of dad, and we both said at the same time ‘DILFs.'” That phrase became the working title for the pitch, and while it may be a new (and deeply unnecessary) turn of phrase, the show that’s resulted from it, about a group of young fathers who live in the same New York apartment building, feels like a refugee from 1995. All the humor is predicated on the idea that men wearing baby bjorns, or in fact, spending time with their children during the work day, is such a strange and comical juxtaposition that it will inherently produce laughs. The premise might have worked if the show presented itself as a broader version of NBC’s Up All Night that ditched the extremely wealthy parents of the title and simply taken the fact that men take care of children as a matter of course, exploring the specific relationships they have with their children instead. But the story is a long way from that happier medium.
The New Normal, by contrast, perhaps could only be made in 2012, but that hardly makes it free from cliches, some of which undermine the show’s entire message. In this sitcom, from Glee and American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy, a gay couple, played by Girls’ Andrew Rannells’ and Justin Bartha, decide they want to have a child together and choose as their surrogate a single mother who hopes to use the money from surrogacy to go back to law school. It’s not a bad premise, but it gets off on an extremely sour note: the couple begins thinking surrogacy because Rannells’ character falls in love with a baby in a department store who is wearing an adorable sweater. It’s a sequence that confirms all the worst stereotypes about gay men as materialistic, selfish, shallow, even seeking instant gratification, and it’s done extremely effectively.
“My partner and I have been having conversations about surrogacy and meeting with people and talking about it,” Murphy said. “We’re really writing hopefully a great depth to this couple, and it’s not hard to be it’s not easy to be a gay couple having a child. We deal with those issues. For me, obviously as somebody who very much does have that dream, I don’t feel that way. I would never feel that way.” That may be his hope, but the gaps between Murphy’s emotions and his execution is clear throughout The New Normal.
I think Ben & Kate stands a chance of being excellent, Guys With Kids could develop into a sold if unmemorable show, and The New Normal may be simply too bounded by Murphy’s private obsessions, including Real Housewife Nene Leakes, to reconcile its ambitions and what it actually offers to the world. But the show demonstrates the challenge of trying to do shows about men taking up their share of childcare. We live in a world where for some people, that’s a new normal, and for others, it’s unfathomable to the point of hilarity.