TV dads and daughters have really been stepping up their game lately. It’s been fun, and touching, to watch — and indicative of the positive shift in real-life father/girl-child communication over the past generation.
As many a “Mad Men” fanatic would agree, the most compelling conversations on that recently wrapped show were between Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and precocious, rebellious Sally (Kiernan Shipka). On “The Americans,” the 1980s-set FX series about Russian spies masquerading as a suburban couple, some of the most poignant family scenes occur between Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and teenage Paige (Holly Taylor), who, at first unaware of her parents’ true profession, has embraced Christianity. On both shows, the younger brothers seem written almost as afterthoughts.
Many of the best scenes from the FX comedy “Louie” feature Louis C.K. trying to explain things to his two persistent daughters — life isn’t fair, so you may as well get used to it; how you must follow the subway rules if you get separated from an adult; why you have to say you’re sorry. And on “Transparent,” the Emmy-winning Amazon Prime series starring Jeffrey Tambor as a senior professor who comes out as transgender, it is his two adult daughters who have the frankest discussions with Dad.
Even the ultraviolent “Game of Thrones” squeezed in tender father-daughter moments between warlord Stannis and his afflicted child Shireen (before he burned her at the stake).
No more Kittens
It’s not as if there’s some sort of unofficial campaign to make the boys less important. It’s just a far cry from the 1950s, when “Father Knows Best” featured girls nicknamed Princess and Kitten, and the 1970s of “The Brady Bunch,” on which the sisters’ problems rarely went deeper than botched hairdos and “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” middle-child syndrome.
Today’s bonds between TV dads and daughters are less patronizing, less distant, more respectful, more realistic. These dads feel just as protective toward their little firebrands in tutus as fathers always have. It’s just more of a “be strong and follow your dreams” vibe than that icky head-patting, purity-ring sensibility.
Don Draper is a lying, cynical cad, but he clearly loves his daughter, as do the dueling papas on the ABC prime-time soap “Nashville” — former mayor Teddy Conrad (Eric Close), who raised Maddie (Lennon Stella), and guitar slinger Deacon Claybourne (Chip Esten), her messed-up bio-dad. Both are seriously flawed but unwavering in their affection for her.
On the ABC sitcom “Black-ish,” Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) is dad to two of each gender, but has a particularly intriguing rapport with his eldest child, boundary-pushing cool cucumber Zoey (Twin Cities-bred Yara Shahidi).
Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, head writers for “The Americans,” both happen to have daughters — not necessarily a motivation for giving Paige such a prominent role on the spy drama, Weisberg said, “but a lot of what we write is unconscious.”
“You don’t want to overthink and mess things up. Paige is the older kid, and so much of what happens on the show is adult-oriented, so she’s going to get the lion’s share of the dramatic stuff.
“What strikes me is that shows used to be very focused on father-son relationships, because a son is growing up into a man. But the dad-daughter thing is more of a parenting story, not just about growing up.”
Said Fields, “It’s no longer the era of: Mom is expected to have this list of responsibilities and Dad has that list. We’re sharing roles more now. Fathers are able to have different kinds of relationships with their daughters.”
Daughters in White House
Pop culture may merely be imitating life, but it also might be taking a cue from the extra-bright spotlight that has shone for the past 20 years on a very exclusive but very public club of real-life dads with daughters. The past three presidents have had only girls — Chelsea Clinton, the Bush twins, and now Malia and Sasha Obama.
We can’t eavesdrop on that private daddy-daughter patter. But we can, and do, when Sally shoots knowing glares at Don Draper and Philip Jennings buys Paige her first grown-up party frock or sits at the edge of her bed, patiently explaining the rules of the house.
Real-life dads might even consider taking a few notes. Here’s Louis C.K.’s admonishment to his back-seat companions complaining of boredom on a road trip to the country:
“ ‘I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great big vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. And even the inside of your own mind is endless. It goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing. So you don’t get to be bored.”