Here’s a good one. Take the moms away from two households for a week and watch the dads freak out while trying to manage the kids and domestic duties. Har, har. Are we still mining weak comedy from tired ideas of gender difference? Apparently so. At least in reality TV land.
Meet Mister Mom opens with a voiceover intoning that even in the midst of “progress… some things never seem to change.” We see a montage of Cleaver-style TV families in black and white (in their living rooms watching families on TV: how meta). The competing reality TV families take their places in this montage and turn into color images, suggesting that we’re going to see a real-life update of the ‘50s TV family ideals. At least the series is self-conscious about the fact that we get many of our gender myths from TV.
NBC’s press release describes the rib-tickling possibilities here: “Each episode showcases the comedy that ensues when two very busy families realize just how irreplaceable mom is in their daily lives. Humorously told from the children’s perspectives, every episode will also include valuable information for families on how to better manage their lives together.” Well, both the comedy and the life lessons are a bit underwhelming. And not just because the plotlines are largely facile and boring; the ideas behind the show are stale.
The premise hones in on gender roles in families, specifically couch potato dads who let moms do all the work. This set-up suggests the show will force passive dads to change for the better, as they find new respect for their better halves and will, after this reality TV experiment served up for our viewing pleasure, pitch in. This lesson is very Dr. Phil. While the fathers might learn to do a little more housework, kid supervision, or group organizing, they’re still just helping mom with her naturalized roles of nurturer, caregiver, cook, maid, other-focused angel in the house. Mostly, what the dads learn is that it would suck to have to do all this work themselves, so they appreciate their women (stay-at-home moms and moms who work outside the home too, as both appear on the series).
The first episode establishes the vanishing mom premise as well as the reality game format. While moms go to a spa for the week, competing dads will be graded on four key areas: nutrition, housekeeping, time management, and parenting. After a series of assigned family projects on top of the daily routine, the two families reunite and trudge to an elementary school classroom (we’re learning stuff here) to find out the winner. Said victor will receive a $25,000 education savings account (courtesy of State Farm, the show’s sponsor) to send their kids to college.
Our competing families in the premiere are the Smiths and the Potters, both of Austin, Texas. Dan Smith is the director of Human Resources for a hospital, wife Leslie a fulltime psychologist who also maintains their home almost single-handedly. As the youngest of their three sons, four-year-old Mitchell, explains helpfully, “He does nothing” at home. If the Smiths are all about roughhousing boys, the Potters have three daughters. At girl central, Tom is a salesman often on the road, while Linda is a “classic stay-at-home soccer mom,” as our voiceover intones, carting the girls around to games.
This boy family versus girl family tension ends up making the point that the kids might be more radical than the parents. During one head to head competition, in which the dads have to build cars to race each other in a soapbox derby, one Potter girl observes, “Just cause they’re boys doesn’t mean they’re any better than us.” The show delights in this “girl power” message, showcasing an interview with the youngest Potter daughter, a scrappy soccer tyke, who says, “I think girls are stronger because they’re tougher and they actually have more muscles than the boys.” This idea that girls can be more assertive in sports goes only in one direction, however; girls can do boy stuff, but boys rarely do girl stuff on Meet Mr. Mom.
The prize for the winner of the soapbox derby brings this point home in the most egregious way possible. A huge crate is hauled in and opened to reveal two… maids. Yes, that’s right, two white women with cleaning equipment and matching uniforms are shipped in to clean the house of the winning dad. Yes, they’re in a crate. If you can’t get your wife to do housecleaning anymore, outsource it to other women. None of the participants seem disconcerted by this development, only happy to have the chores done.
As the flustered and overwhelmed dads muddle through the week, the family projects they’re required to do seem arbitrary (hosting a sleepover party for their kids, house-sitting odd pets like a llama), as does the judging of their performances. Dads get high marks for efficiency, caring and patience, strict monitoring of what the kids eat, and cleanliness (as a clean home equals a healthy family, according to 19th-century domestic science). One dad gets points for bonding with the llama. The other loses points for how many fudge pops little Mitchell devoured during the week (many, many, many).
Unseen judges leave cards with grades (in primary colors and little-kid letters) and statements to be read by the returned moms. Cue the State Farm guy to trot out with a check. As the families leave, happily reunited, they offer their final thoughts. Leslie says she hopes Dan learns that “it’s not just one single person that runs the family, it’s everybody pitching in.” Dan expresses his new-found desire not to take his working wife for granted, in an unintentionally hilarious speech: “The last thing that Dan Smith needs to do is to allow Leslie to do everything so that she is finally convinced: what do I need him for? What does Leslie Smith need me for?” Tom expresses his greater appreciation for homemaker Linda by saying, “My God, what a valuable person she is… the glue that held everything together” in their “team.” Good for him: he’s rationalized the division of labor for the mamas and the papas.
The show debunks the myth that mom’s work is easy (is that still a going concern?). But while the lesson here may be that dad “should” help out more, he’s still only helping mom with her work (no stay-at-home fathers here). Meet Mr. Mom is more of a throwback than it seems to realize. The gender role split still reigns supreme.