When American television is at its best, a handful of characters start to feel like family. Viewers everywhere gained a goofy cousin in Will Smith, an adorable little sister in Michelle Tanner, and a cool basement-dwelling babysitter in Charles. This deep connection is the result of bringing together relatable characters, memorable moments and — if we’re being totally honest — a little luck. But there’s one thing that can be found in most of the classic TV series that have been repeatedly adored by the public — a central father figure.
Whether you want to go as far back as Mike Brady, even further back to Andy Griffith or as recently as Homer Simpson, there have been countless characters who have stepped up and served as America’s designated TV dad.
Now, it would be an awkward disservice to act as if Bill Cosby’s character of Cliff Huxtable — one of the most celebrated TV dads of all-time — didn’t exist. But, given Cosby’s recent sexual assault allegations, many have abandoned The Cosby Show‘s damaged legacy altogether, which leaves a noticeable void that needs to be filled. And, honestly, rehashing old lessons from reruns was only going to last for so long.
To step up as America’s next TV dad, I’d like to offer a new name for consideration: Andre “Dre” Johnson from ABC’s Black-ish, as played by Anthony Anderson, who doubles as one of the show’s executive producers.
On the surface, Dre lives to provide for his family as best he can — much like any good father is expected to. He has the ability to offer them more than he ever imagined, including iPhones, hover boards and new pairs of sneakers on a very regular basis. As a result, he constantly struggles to make sure that he’s not depriving his children of the growth that comes from struggle. So, he’ll often compensate by giving them heavy-handed doses of reality through regular trips to the family barbershop or threatening to make them live off of baking soda and ketchup sandwiches.
At first, there may be some hesitation about placing Dre Johnson on this fatherly pedestal because he’s the black father of a black family on a show that doesn’t hold back when it comes to addressing black issues. While The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and others also had primarily black casts, they embraced their black identities in more nuanced ways and not as often as to not steer away a mainstream audience.
There’s still a long-standing misconception in Hollywood that shows and films with minority leads can’t appeal to a mainstream (read: white) audience. The irony is that same assumption has forced minority audiences to lean on paper-thin connections with mostly white characters for decades now due to a lack of diversity. Can mainstream audiences do the same? Yes, they just may not know they can.
Building a show with a cast primarily comprised of minorities makes room for stories to be told that previously haven’t been told nearly enough. A clear example of this would be the latest episode of Black-ish, entitled “Hope,” where Dre and his family watched the latest developments in a (fictional, but very real) case of police brutality that went unpunished, causing Dre and his family to work through the situation and the angry public response while also deciding to not shield his youngest children from the harsh realities of these times.
The episode referenced the deaths of Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and Laquan McDonald and even gave heavy nods to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a 2015 National Book Award winner that speaks on being black in contemporary America. This all happened on primetime television and the overwhelmingly positive response from the public is a sign that there’s an obvious appetite for this kind of content that needs to be satisfied.
Black-ish has proven to be a great outlet to touch on these sensitive subjects. But, at the end of the day, it’s still a family sitcom with universal appeal that touches on the same plot points you’re likely to find elsewhere, such as damaged relationships, work issues and identity crises.
Dre is living proof that the journey to learning is never done — even for fathers. Despite his tendency to assume he’s always got things under control, he’s got a lot left to figure out about how to manage the hurdles of parenthood, and we get to watch it all week-by-week.
Watching a couple of episodes is all it takes to learn that Dre is a man who’s confident in everything he does. But part of what makes him such a great dad is watching him occasionally fall off of his parenting high horse, learning what went wrong, then getting right back on again with an improved perspective. But what makes this even better is that he often gets help from someone close to him, so he’s able to comfortably fit in that sweet spot between being the perfect, omniscient dad who’s always right or the imbecile who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing most of the time.
Uncle Phil was there to hug a crying Will when his biological father walked out yet again, Ricky Ricardo would tell Little Ricky bedtime stories in Spanish, and Danny Tanner would throw his kids surprise concerts at the drop of a hat. These original moments helped rise these fathers in our minds to an elite status.
Black-ish may only be in its second season, but it’s already given Dre some potent dad moments of his own that are lining him up to be the next big one. The entire concept of Dre’s “Daddy’s Day,” for example, was a shining moment that should work in his favor. Daddy’s Day was an idea that Dre and his coworkers came up with to counteract the popularity of Mother’s Day and the perpetual lukewarmness of Father’s Day. They even came up with a rule against receiving bad gifts like ties and coffee mugs and started a couple new traditions. In that same episode, Dre learned the importance of being there for his kids, even when they don’t want him to be, after he spent too much time filling a fatherly role for Zoey’s friend (Zendaya Coleman) while ignoring his own daughter.
Another example of Andre’s unlearning and relearning on the fly would be the most recent Christmas episode, entitled “Stuff.” Dre’s seen both sides of Christmas in his life. In his youth, the holiday left much to be desired as he’d often get something underwhelming like a jar of pickles. As an adult, he makes sure all of his kids get multiple gifts on Christmas morning, including some they didn’t even ask for or really appreciate. Dre and Pops (Laurence Fishburne) then have one of their classic battles of old school vs. new school fathering while trying to decide which way to celebrate works best before agreeing on a compromise of the two.
Even before last night’s already-classic episode, Dre was working on a solid portfolio of dad of the year performances. Hopefully putting some of his best moments in perspective will help the public realize his potential and push him from being a great dad to the great dad.