Blending Mom and Dad
The modern family is wonderfully fluid, apparently able to absorb any permutation of race, religion, gender, or class; its recombinations of conventional marriage or divorce, living together or remarriage, seem almost limitless. This fluidity has benefited many successful family sitcoms, as their regular half-hour setup-problem-resolution format neatly merges familiar and emergent cultural patterns. For example, at a time when it was still common for adult married children to live with parents, All in the Family used that domestic arrangement to explore the political conflicts between the 1970s and the 50s (represented by Gloria and Meathead versus Archie and Edith). Or, in the 1980s, Cosby showed the life of a black family comfortably settled in an upper-middle-class lifestyle.
NBC’s Daddio is the latest sitcom to look at the changing modern family, while still holding fast to a familiar format. In Daddio, one parent maintains a career while the other parent stays home with the kids, with the twist being that Chris Woods (resurrected Commish star Michael Chiklis) chooses to quit his job when his wife, Linda (Anita Barone) gets a well-paying job as a lawyer. Thus begins a running gender-role inversion joke premised on a stay-at-home father’s attempt to settle into the role of “Mom” for children aged 12, 10, 4, and 1 and a half years, in the middle class suburb of Pasadena, California.
Although we’ve seen a number of films that show fathers as the primary parents ranging from Kramer vs. Kramer and Mr. Mom to Three Men and a Baby and last year’s popular Adam Sandler vehicle, Big Daddy what makes Daddio atypical is that Chris Woods is not a wayward man learning to be a better one by becoming a good father. He’s an already good man who gladly takes on the challenge of becoming a good mother. From this point of departure, Daddio has the potential to address some vital issues facing the modern family. What deep effects does going from earner to nurturer have on a man’s experience of his own masculinity? How does it affect a woman to be away from her children, knowing they are at home? Do children develop differently with a father as principal caregiver?
The first four episodes of Daddio get a mixed review regarding their use of this situation, which is, frankly, an unusual one for network television. In the pilot episode, Chris clearly states he wants to raise his kids, and to prove that he’s ready to take on a new role, he dons a tiara so he can play princess with his four-year-old son. The show also explores how a more rigidly masculine character interprets Chris’s decision to play father-as-mommy, when neighbor and ex-Marine Bobick (Steve Ryan) immediately begins harping on Chris about doing a “female” job. The second episode continues to work the masculine/maternal seam, with Chris starting to understand how undervalued women are for what they do as mothers, and Linda starting to feel the pressure of being away from the children while also being the sole breadwinner. It was at this point that the series began to drift away from its initial idea to explore the various effects of male parenting and into a more traditional sitcom structure and themes. Episode three focused on a simple personality conflict between Chris and his neighbor Barb Krolack (Amy Wilson), and came up well short of examining any larger issues of either masculinity or motherhood. By episode four, the series seemed to become a completely generic family sitcom, with Chris arguing with Bobick over their property line.
In both of these latter episodes, Daddio comes dangerously close to losing what makes it interesting in the first place. In order to succeed, Daddio must show us new things that happen when the man becomes the daily caregiver. It must push at that cultural nerve that will help us to question and come to understand families as social, political, and economic constructions, and do so with vital story ideas that are entertaining. If it doesn’t offer a fresh perspective on families, Daddio becomes as it demonstrated in its fourth episode a very standard family sitcom, and its chances of success are much dicier.
Although the show is well-written, quickly paced, and peppered with funny and commercial-ready bits, without distinctive storylines, it isn’t different than what we’ve seen before. Which means the characters will have to sustain our interest week after week. This could be a problem. The kids are likable and Barone is a believable mom, affecting a relaxed, kind of knock-around sexiness reminiscent of Cosby‘s Phelicia Rashad. Chiklis is a little more troubling. His comic acting seems more inclined to a stage than television, in that he oversells every punchline to get his laughs. He has plenty of energy, but he doesn’t have that easy and unique humor that allows a Bill Cosby or Tim Allen to carry a show. He’s good at the dramatic moments that are essential for allowing a sitcom to hit real emotional nerves, but there’s a question as to whether he’s funny enough for all of this to rest on his shoulders.
He might get away with it if his supporting characters were strong (e.g., Will can be so vanilla because Jack is so flamboyant on Will & Grace). Unfortunately, the supporting characters on Daddio are a weakness rather than a strength. Supporting characters on a sitcom generally have two main purposes: as conflict with the main characters and teachers for the main characters. Daddio offers Barb and Rod Krolack (Kevin Crowley) as the “stupid” characters, a convention that isn’t that interesting anymore, and gives them very little opportunity to teach Chris or Anita much of anything. It also offers Holly Martin (Suzy Nakamura) as a sarcastic Japanese acquaintance, also a pretty familiar character in comic line-ups. The fact that she is pregnant might offer Chris some opportunity to learn something from her, but so far there’s been none of that. Finally, there is the uni-dimensional Bobick. Although Ryan is a good deadpan actor, instead of a hyper-masculine Marine, the show could have used the type of multi-faceted Wilson on Home Improvement, the kind of side character who can help explore the issues instead of blandly offering the same on-going one-note conflict.
Even with these weaknesses, however, I think Daddio will find its voice and develop. It has located a cultural flashpoint that forces us to look at what happens when we blend the masculine and the maternal, and there is real power in that situation. Like all shows that find topical, involving spaces wherein to play out the lives of their characters, Daddio has the potential to set off cultural alarms and debates, while also entertaining us on a weekly basis. If it digs more deeply at the psychological and cultural issues present in the minefield it has discovered, Daddio might manage to be a very successful sitcom indeed.