I’ll be the first to admit it. My parental triumphs are all too often eclipsed by incidents of shitty-daddery. For every transcendent moment I spend introducing my kids to new ideas, I seem to have at least one corresponding spell of unjustifiable annoyed frustration. For every three minutes of pure joy I spend with them, I spend another mopey ten wishing I could just go to a baseball game by my damn self.
This of course, should come as no surprise to anyone who has kids. Nothing inspires more pride and shame than parenthood. One minute, you’re the greatest parent in the world. The next, you’re a horrible failure. So to celebrate, we offer our list of ten dads in popular culture who exhibit both the best and worst of us all.
Hit the jump to see the full list.
10. Darth Vader
Obvious choice. Once Ani (gag) learned that he had a son, he immediately saved his life by convincing his evil master that Luke was of greater use alive. But, like the asshole that we all now know that he has always been, he goes about trying to convince his son to go down the same path that led to his own cyborgization. Then, when he spot-on guessed the existence of a daughter, he simultaneously began scheming how to corrupt her and used her as a means of manipulating her brother. That sort of behavior makes slaughtering whole villages seem almost goodhearted.
In the end, of course, robo-Ani redeems himself by choosing his son over a cackling, melty-faced shrew with lightening bolts coming out of his fingers. If it’s good enough for the great Jedi Council in the sky, it’s good enough for me.
9. Dale Gribble (King of the Hill)
If Dale has a defining characteristic beyond his conspiracy-theory-laden-anti-statism, it’s his tender and undying love for his family. Although he fears Joseph, he obviously loves the kid to death. While Dale’s various disfunctions rarely allow him to display the qualities you would normally like to see in a spouse or parent, his family seems to be the one thing that can force him straighten up and fly right–at least for a little while.
But Dale is a little too crazy and weak-willed to maintain his good dad momentum for long. Once, when he thought that Joseph had a chance to reach a level of coolness that he himself could never obtain, he encouraged him to break into the local zoo and shoot a panda. Not exactly role model material.
The situation, however, did provide a fantastic piece of dialogue that I’m sure all parents can identify with. When Hank confronts Dale about his destructive behavior, the two have this exchange:
Hank: “No one likes being the bad guy, but sometimes that’s part of being a dad.”
Dale: “I don’t want to be a Dad! It’s too hard!”
8. Bill Adama (Battlestar Galactica)
By the end of the Sci-Fi Channel’s (I defy thee, SyFy!) reboot of Battlestar Galactica, I couldn’t watch a scene between Admiral Adama and his children (son Lee and daughter-in-law Kara) without screaming “JUST TELL THEM THAT YOU LOVE THEM!!!!!” Christ, I’ve never been so frustrated with a character’s inability to express its feelings.
Adama was the classic I-don’t-have-to-say-it-because-I-show-it dad, though. Even when he was throwing one or more of his kids in the brig, he did it out of love. And while he wasn’t above nepotism, he generally didn’t promote his kids unless they really deserved it.
7. Big Daddy (Kick-Ass)
In the film adaptation of Kick-Ass, Damon McCready is an ex-cop vigilante who has trained himself and his daughter to be ultimate killing machines in order to avenge the death of his wife. On the plus side, he is intensely devoted to his daughter Mindy, aka Hit-Girl. And, he has to earn some points for how well he’s prepared her for the real world. I’m sure little Mindy could support herself quite well on a mercenary’s salary with the skills she learned from dear old dad. However, it’s not like he taught her tv/vcr repair or computer programming. He encouraged her to enter battle with dudes carrying rocket launchers, for chrissake.
The comic version of the character is even worse. There, it turns out that McCready’s entire back story is fabricated and he’s nothing more than a comic book nerd who wanted to make his daughter awesome. We all want that, BDaddy. Most of us just make them wear retro tshirts and hipster sunglasses while we let them listen to The Clash. You know, instead of showing them the way around an AK-47.
6. Bernie Mac (The Bernie Mac Show)
America, how much do you miss Bernie Mac? Probably not enough. The Bernie Mac Show was five years of consistently honest and realistic family sit-com gold. As the surrogate dad to his two nieces and nephew, Bernie Mac did his best to be the strict, caring, and supportive father that we all know we should be. Most of the shows laughs, though, came from how much the kids’ odd behaviors, society’s expectations for kids and their parents, and his failure to live up to his own ideals drove him crazy.
He was just trying to do the right thing. And sometimes the right thing might not be the right thing. But, if those kids talk back to him one more time, he’s going to snap their necks, America.
5. Dan Conner (Roseanne)
Dan displayed most of the good qualities you could ask for in a dad. He loved his kids unconditionally, shared their interests with them, did his best to help support the family, tried to enforce discipline, and was generally fun to have around. But he was also prone to angry outbursts and disappearing acts.
Take the episode “Dan’s Birthday Bash” from the first season as an example. The show starts with Dan in perfect fun-dad mode, acting like the sloppy pile of pancakes with a candle plopped on top the kids present him for his birthday is the gift he’s always wanted. By the show’s climax, however, he’s smashing the hell out of a piece of drywall while a terrified Darlene stands by watching. Then, just for some icing on the cake, he storms out of the house and is a no-show for the meet and greet before Becky’s first date. Smooth move, big guy.
I identify with James Kochalka more than I probably should. I imagine it has a lot to do with the fact that my sons are the same ages as his sons. And our mutual regular existential crises. Also comic books. We both like comic books.
Regardless, when I read American Elf each day, I often see my own life reflected back at me. What I see is a dad who does his best to be as good as he can for his kids and wife and who can succeed and fail at both in the span of a four-panel strip.
3. Jor-El (Superman)
On the plus side, he saved his son from certain death when his home planet made like a bumgenius after hummus night. You couldn’t ask much more from a dad than to sacrifice himself and save a child, but strapping junior to a rocket ship and blasting him 25 million galaxies away stretches your credibility a bit. Really, Jor-El, wasn’t there a suitable planet 21 or 14 million galaxies away? Considering the distance he was dealing with, even a tiny miscalculation would send poor little Kal-El hurtling into a star, or worse, Kansas.
Hey, I have an idea. How about I stick my baby in a shopping cart and just give it a big push down this hill? Hope he finds a better home somewhere at the bottom.
2. Don Draper (Mad Men)
If there was a checklist of how to be a terrible parent, ole Mr. Whitman here would tear through it like it was a grocery list at the local farmer’s market. Leave your kids with a random date? Check. Disappear for weeks at a time? Check. Don’t do any of the hard disciplinary work? Check. Randomly scream at them? Check. Organic spinach? Check.
Maybe Donnie D really is just a terrible dad and he only seems like a decent one sometimes because his ex-wife is such a consistently awful mother. Maybe we’re loosening our criteria a bit here to fill the list out to a round number. But Don goes a little bit (just a little bit) farther than the “don’t be an asshole all of the time” rule of fathering. There are moments, brief as they may be, when he offers his kids some real love and protects them from the harshness of the world. That deep pain that only comes from having a dead prostitute mother and a father who hates you can make a person go one way or another–either you drink yourself to blackout mode every night or you become a tender and caring father to make up for the crap that you had to go through. Sometimes, it makes a person go both ways almost at the same time.
1. Louis CK (Louie)
When Louis CK isn’t busy creating motion-picture masterpieces or doing race better than any white comedian ever, he’s being the greatest parent-comedian of all time. Like his stand-up, his FX series, “Louie”, doesn’t always deal with his kids, but when it does it generally depicts the horror and triumph of parenthood in full.
For instance, in a recent episode, Louis manages to continue brushing his youngest daughter’s teeth unfazed as she tells him how much more she loves his ex-wife than she does him. Then, as she walks away to go to bed, he flips the little shit the bird. Perfection.