Today we celebrate dad’s, including some of our favorite fictional ones. And while there have been plenty of dependable good fathers on TV, great stories about fatherhood can be rare. In the heyday of TV we saw plenty of perfect suburban dads on-screen (Leave it To Beaver, My Three Sons, and the ridiculously titled Father Knows Best). With the possible exception of Make Room For Daddy aka The Danny Thomas Show, TV dads were usually presented as the perfect examples of what post-war fatherhood looked like. But by the 70s, cynicism was alive and well, and fatherhood swung toward dysfunction (Sanford & Son, All in the Family)…no one really wanted to be anything like these guys if they were raising a family. And finally, we saw the rise of the dumb dads in sitcoms…decent dads whose biggest problems were a certain obliviousness about their own families. Regardless, there have always been a few excellent examples of realistic, likable fathers on screen. And there have also been a number of classic TV episodes which put a spotlight on the love between father and child; no matter how complicated. Here are ten of the all time best.
Alias: Mirage (Season 4, Episode 18)
Since his memorable introduction in the pilot, the tense relationship between Jack and Sydney (Victor Garber and Jennifer Garner) hadn’t just been the heart of the series…it was the source of much of its narrative tension due to Jack’s decades of lying to and betraying his daughter. Audiences were never sure if his choices were desperate acts to protect his daughter or accomplish his questionable goals. And Sydney’s journey to not only trust her father but actually love for him resonated more than even her slow burn relationship with Vaughn (Michael Vartan) or Jack and Sydney’s cat and mouse games with Sloane (Ron Rifkin). But “Mirage”, the culmination of the fourth season’s introduction of the “nightingale project,” forced Sydney to truly confront what her father means to her. In an earlier episode, ‘Nightingale’, Jack saved Sydney but suffered radiation poisoning. His attempts to treat himself with experimental drugs nearly kills him, and he seems on the verge of his own mortality. To find a cure, Sydney needs to provoke his memories through hypnosis to find the one man who can save him…and in the process sees the father she barely remembers from her childhood. Garber and Garner were always on the ball when playing off each other, but seeing Garber’s Jack playing opposite a young Sydney, and Garner reacting to that side of his personality are some of the best scenes the two ever committed to film.
That 70s Show: Hunting (Season 2, Episode 13)
While the gang of friends might have been the primary focus of That 70s Show, the Foreman family provided some of the funniest and most relatable moments. Episodes focusing on Eric (Topher Grace) trying to relate to his parents proved to provide some classic moments (like taking his mother to see Star Wars or seeing pro-wrestling with his father). But one of the strongest episodes of the show’s entire run turned out to be “Hunting”, when Red (Kurtwood Smith) tried one last time to teach his son to hunt. Assuming Eric is a terrible shot, the two spend the entire episode waiting to kill a deer. But Red’s the one who learns something, discovering his son not only can shoot a rifle but has his own set of principles which don’t include killing animals for sport. Kurtwood and Grace often had episodes which focused on the tension of a traditionally tough man having a sensitive son, but “Hunting” proved to have something extra special because Red’s responses to Eric’s dissenting opinion didn’t lead to his usual jokes or embarrassment, but true pride at the idea of raising a headstrong young man.
Fringe: The Man from the Other Side (Season 2, Episode 19)
Anna Torv’s Olivia might have been the lead character in Fringe, but the father-son relationship of Peter and Walter Bishop (Joshua Jackson and John Noble) raised the series to being one of the most emotional shows on TV. While the first season ended with the discovery that Peter died as a child, the realization that Walter had taken him from the other side (alternate universe) was a revelation. It keyed audiences into Walter’s desperation and mourning over the loss of his beloved son, and into the roots of both his madness and the tense, fractured relationship Walter and Peter had at the start of the show. In “The Man from the Other Side”, a season and a half after starting to rebuild that broken family while Walter continued to try to hide the truth from Peter, everything comes to a head in the most heartbreaking way. Walter’s plan to reveal the truth to Peter are derailed by a case involving universe crossing shapeshifters. As the case becomes more and more complicated, and Walter’s lack of memory proves a greater challenge, Peter finally shows him compassion by calling Walter his dad. But when the shapeshifters bring a man across the universe with a dangerous device, Peter realizes the truth about where he comes from and rejects Walter as his father. The final scene shows some of the best performances Jackson and Bishop shared in five seasons of the show.
Bob’s Burgers: Carpe Museum (Season 3, Episode 22)
There are a lot of great episodes of Bob’s Burgers about Bob’s relationship with his kids. And the show’s superb writing has shown he has a special and unique relationship with each kid. But Bob and youngest daughter Louise’s relationship have provided some of the most heartwarming moments on the show. Since the first season, they’ve established bad-ass Louise is deep down, really a daddy’s girl. So quality time with Bob means something special (even when she resists showing it). Bob agrees to play chaperone on a school field trip but Louise and buddy Regular-Sized Rudy (one of the show’s best side characters) sneak into a closed exhibit. Bob initially wants them to head back to the group, but Louise easily convinces her father to join in the fun and climb a tree house with them. Rudy has an asthma attack and Bob has to save the day, cementing his status as Louise’s hero. It all ends with Louise’s aside that she’ll probably be Bob’s heir apparent at the restaurant, an idea Bob teases her for, but really couldn’t be happier about. Episodes of Bob’s Burger’s with a focus on Hardcore Louise bonding with her family have often succeeded, but focusing on how Bob and Louise share a special, sweet relationship built on lighthearted teasing have been some of the show’s most rewarding family moments in a consistently lovable show.
Fresh Off the Boat: Fall Ball (Season 2, episode 4)
Randall Park’s performance in Fresh Off The Boat has been a solid and consistently funny version of the sitcom suburban dad since it premiered. But over enthusiastic Louis is something special, as we see in “Fall Ball”, when he becomes far too concerned with his son Eddie’s experience at his first school dance. The show often shows the influence American pop culture had on Louis,who brought big ideas about what being an America youth is really all about. But his knowledge of high school, through the veil of John Hughes, provides some of the funniest comedy about the real and fictional version of adolescence. Eddie’s school dance will be far from the class and romantic pressures of Pretty in Pink, he just wants to enjoy a school sponsored night on the dance floor with his friends. While not as father-son focused as some, there is something sweet and poignant about the way Louis projects his own teenage hopes and dreams onto his hopes and dreams for his son…without trying to turn him into someone he’s not. He wants his son to have the best time at the dance, and he’ll work hard to make sure it happens.
The Simpsons: Lisa’s Substitute (Season 2, Episode 19)
Considering Homer’s tendency to be a pretty bad father, The Simpsons really had to earn their fatherhood moments. Early in the run, one of the most memorable episodes of the show spotlighted the growing divide between bookworm Lisa and dunderhead Homer with “Lisa’s Substitute”. With guest star Sam Etic aka Dustin Hoffman, pre-teen Lisa develops her first school-girl crush on a worldly and intellectual man, her new substitute teacher Mr. Bergstrom. Lisa’s desire to connect leads her to ask for a trip to the museum with Homer so she can see Mr. Bergstrom, after school hours. Bergstrom, who sees the brainy potential Lisa has, takes a special interest as a mentor, even mentioning to Homer how special she is. But Homer doesn’t take the advice and Lisa’s admiration for Bergstrom starts altering whatever good image she had of her father. When Bergstrom ultimately leaves, as substitutes do, heartbroken Lisa reacts to her father’s lack of compassion by calling him a baboon. Homer ultimately rises to the occasion as a dad and lets Lisa take her pain out on him and eventually provides the affection she needs at this time in her life. No wonder “Lisa’s Substitute” is often cited as one of the show’s best episodes, including by The Simpsons’ own James L. Brooks, Dan Castellaneta and Nancy Cartwright.
The Twilight Zone: In Praise of Pip (Season 5, Episode 1)
Rod Serling opened the final season of his landmark anthology with one of the best from his own typewriter. Returning guest stars Jack Klugman and Billy Mumy (in their fourth and third episodes) play father and son Max and Pip Phillips. A bookie, Max is devastated to learn that his grown son has been severally injured in Vietnam and may die that night. In an act of desperation, he tries to save the life of a boy Pip’s age who lost money on a bet, but he’s injured during the fight with his boss. Walking along a pier bleeding, a fair opens to him as either a dreamy fantasy or the moment father and sons meet on the brink of death. Pip returns to his father as the little boy he remembers, but only for one hour. Klugman’s tour de force performance toward the end, begging for his son’s life in exchange for his own, is one of the best performances the late actor ever gave on-screen. And Serling wrote one of the best scripts of his entire career, full of genuine fatherly love that didn’t shy away from the darker elements of what it might have been like for to Pip to have been raised by a father with his own demons and addictions.
The Wonder Years: My Father’s Office (Season 1, Episode 3)
The fact that The Wonder Years started off so strong is one of the most memorable aspects of this beloved show. From the première of the pilot episode, there was a clear understanding of who these characters were and how they related to one another. And episode three of the show established a father-son bond which would remain until the show went off the air. Hard working dad Jack Arnold (Dan Lauria) has become a mystery to teenage Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage); he’s not sure what he does or why he comes home tired and angry every night…just that he seems to be eternally grumpy. So a day observing his father at the office provides more insight than Kevin could have imagined. He barely learns what his dad does for a living (shipping manager isn’t the most exciting job for a12-year-old), but he does see firsthand the high pressure and dehumanizing behavior he has to put up with every day to simply provide for his family. In the show’s final moments, when Kevin and his dad share a happy moment looking at the stars after their long day of work, you know Kevin has a new-found respect for his father. This was one of the few times Jack’s life was made a focus point of the show, but it seemed to have a lasting impact on how audiences perceived his role as the show’s father throughout the rest of the series…just one of the reason it was one of the 100 best episodes of TV by TV Guide.
The Middle, Errand Boy (Season 2, Episode 8)
It’s always been baffling to me that Neil Flynn and Eden Sher don’t receive more critical attention for their work on The Middle as father-daughter duo Mike and Sue. Flynn’s portrayal of hardworking Mike has proven to be one of the best father’s on network TV. But when storylines focus on his relationship with Sue, that softer side of his personality emerges as he takes fatherly delight in his weird, misfit daughter. The two have an honest connection onscreen that can be both laugh-out-loud funny and tear-jerkingly sweet. While Mike rarely goes overboard on the show (he usually is the rock for hyper wife Frankie) seeing something unfair happen to Sue can cause him to take action. After learning that Sue’s so-called friend’s planning a sleep-over but not inviting her, Mike confronts the girl’s parents to try to fix things…but there’s nothing he can do without making Sue aware that she’s been left out. Mike’s anger at seeing his daughter left out and mistreated by means girls might be a subtle moment on the show, but his reaction to not wanting to see is daughter in pain or left out is completely authentic. And it results in one of Mike’s best hero dad moments; secretly trying to make up for the party Sue’s missing by hosting his own Father-Daughter movie night with a special screening.
The Carmichael Show: The Funeral (Season 2, Episode 3)
First of all, if you haven’t been watching The Carmichael Show…you should be. But if you are, you know why “The Funeral” makes this list. It isn’t just one of the best episodes about fatherhood…it’s one of the best comedy episodes of this season. Jerrod (Jerrod Carmichael) can’t understand why his father Joe (David Alan Grier) wants to hide the fact that his father (Jerrod’s grandfather) was a terrible father to Joe…but even Jerrod doesn’t realize how bad his father had it growing up. Joe’s insistence on writing a “positive” eulogy for the other mourners shows just how complicated the relationship with his father is, especially with his son needling him that to write one would be insincere. When Joe finally breaks down and tells Jerrod all the things he’s kept to himself about his childhood, the two have one of their most honest moments of the entire series. Jerrod can’t force someone to confront their issues any way but their own. And Joe realized he can’t give a eulogy for someone he has such unresolved and conflicted feelings about without hurting himself. Ultimately, he simply decides there can be no eulogy because his father offered him no closure while he was still alive.