Sitcom dads are a soft species. They usually come across as bumbling man-boys — the super un-hip Phil Dunphy on “Modern Family,” the redneck drifter Bobby Cobb on “Cougar Town,” the loudmouth lump Murray Goldberg on “The Goldbergs.”
Nice guys, but each could use a crash course on parenthood from Cliff Huxtable.
Justin Halpern is well aware of this trend; he helped contribute to it by co-creating “$#*! My Dad Says,” the 2010 series in which William Shatner bellowed ignorant, politically incorrect rants.
“It was really bad,” Halpern now admits. “I think it very much had the wrong tone.”
He is trying to make amends with his latest project, “Surviving Jack,” which premieres Thursday on Fox. Like the Shatner vehicle, “Jack” revolves around a my-way-or-the-highway figure, based loosely on Halpern’s own dad. There’s one significant difference: Jack Dunlevy has a brain.
Dunlevy, a successful doctor who beefs up his parenting duties in the early ’90s when his wife goes to law school, may be tough, but he’s also a gentle giant when the situation calls for it. On one hand, he makes his teenage son run around the block in the middle of the night after catching him watching a T&A movie, but he can be comforting, such as when the son returns from an awkward make-out session with the school hottie.
“My relationship with my dad was a guy who said ‘I love you’ nonstop,” Halpern said. “It wasn’t this relationship where he was always trying to take me down a notch. Knowing you have somebody who’s got your back no matter what, that’s a good base to operate from. I think you’re allowed to get away with a little bit more when you know the characters really care about each other.”
You’re also given more latitude when you give the title role to Christopher Meloni, an actor best known for his intimidating manner in “Law & Order: SVU” and “Oz.” It’s a fierceness he’s not afraid to turn on in real life.
“The highest compliment I have yet received in my parenting job was when I gave a hard look to my [own] son and his response was, ‘I don’t know if you’re kidding or not,’ ” Meloni said. “And I went, ‘That’s where I want you.’ ”
A slightly milder version of Superdad is being portrayed by another “Oz” inmate, actor J.K. Simmons, in NBC’s “Growing Up Fisher.” The sitcom, set in the 1980s, tells of the relationship between a boy and his father, who brims with confidence despite the fact that he’s blind. Mel Fisher doesn’t let his condition get in the way of his duties, even if that means cutting down a tree in the front yard, or toughening up his adoring son.
Like Halpern, “Fisher” creator DJ Nash based the characters on his real-life childhood.
“I couldn’t complain about anything,” Nash said. “I could say, ‘Dad, I’m having trouble with my book report’ and he’d say, ‘I went to law school blind.’ ‘OK, sorry to have troubled you.’ ”
So far, audiences seem to be responding to these tougher, wiser dads. “Fisher,” which airs on Tuesday nights, is beating the sitcom competition on ABC and Fox. “Jack” should benefit nicely from its lead-in, “American Idol,” which is down in ratings, but remains popular.
Now if only Mel Fisher and Jack Dunlevy can find time to take a break from parenthood and go slap Phil Dunphy up the side of the head.