Dear ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, PBS and Every Exec of Real Import (Sorry SyFy),
Speaking as someone who has mostly unsubstantiated opinions and relies heavily on the Chinese for work (I just happen to live there, in this case), I believe I fit the bill for all target demographics. Gay, straight, old, fat, young, male, female… I’m it. No one elected me because right now elected office is considered one of the most un-American things in existence, just behind of self-control and now far ahead of soccer after that 0-0… stunner in Mexico. (OK, not that far.)
What might someone of such tremendous influence ask of Ye Networks, you are wondering? Rest easily, for I do not bring forth the requests you have heard ad nauseum, like “Bring back Firefly!” or “Bring back Bent!” — but if the latter is not a weekly topic of rabid fan mail, let me just say that the show could turn into a process of rebuilding Pete the Contractor after he finishes rebuilding her house; it would be a fresh perspective that empowers women and does not seek for Alex to fit his mold; and, of course, he would rebel against being something more than a half-hearted contractor, giving you seasons of material and keeping the romance alive past kitchen touch-ups.
But that’s neither here nor there. The reason I’m writing this letter is to stop another trope entirely, specifically that of the “Long Lost Sitcom Father and His Socially Off-Kilter Son”. Community is doing it, How I Met Your Mother did it/is doing it, and now The Big Bang Theory seeks to put it right at the forefront of the show. You are all very busy writing and shooting heartfelt simulacrums of our lives, or, in SyFy’s case, something else, so here’s my issue:
It all begins with the characters. I thought HIMYM did a great job with the material because Barney Stintson and Neil Patrick Harris are a once-in-a-decade match of perverse behavior and lovability. Shawn Hunter on Boy Meets World was another example of this trope succeeding, but, again, that’s because he’s someone who would realistically skip town for a few weeks or blow up a mailbox out of pure teen angst. There’s a lot to be done with those misanthropes and estrangement; but let’s be honest, you probably aren’t ready to dedicate your shows to that persona, and I would submit that neither were those showrunners prepared for that reality.
(Disclaimer: No one will ever surpass Will Smith’s final scene in Fresh Prince of Bel Air where he cries in the arms of Uncle Phil about not needing his father and being a better man than his father. I don’t care if you’re Daniel Day-Lewis. YouTube does not exist for me without that scene.)
Barney Stintson’s well-crafted bildungsroman took over HIMYM to the extent that when Carter and Bays spent time with Ted’s story or even Marshall’s story, I thought their problems sounded relatively whiny. We committed a lot of time to just trying to like this douchebag, so when they pulled the rabbit out of the hat, many scenes without him were just the magician dangling it by its ears, awkwardly.
Compare that to Jeff and Howard and you hopefully see the problem with interjecting it into the story. Jeff is almost edgy enough to escape the confines of the trope – maybe not without Harmon. Howard is by no stretch of the imagination magnetic or volatile enough to break barriers. Although Simon Helberg, who plays Wolowitz, has frequently surprised me with the gravitas acting chops displayed on command, they’re not just far past what I expected, they’re sadly far past what the show requires. The conceit of the show is that he’s a very smart geek, albeit not as bright as Sheldon. The conceit of Community is that Jeff is an upwardly mobile, former underachiever-type typical of community colleges. To pull in the audience, it’s gold for the networks because they’re a stone’s throw from Joe Briefcase himself.
Now here’s the problem: what are you going to do with that character? He’s already been sufficiently emasculated and/or jaded to society. For a successful dynamic, the characters have to feed off of each other. Shawn tried to reconcile with his father and, when it didn’t work, it re-affirmed the tenacious character that the show had established. The creators knew when to stoke the fire by having the dad re-occur at strategic points of the show. Conversely, Barney’s meeting with his father destroyed him and threw him into an existential funk. Here was the villian he’d made up in his head, only he was the patriarch of a loving family that, as he brutally and honestly put it, “should have been [his]”. And there was Barney, in all of his misogynistic misguided glory, very much the product of a lie. I don’t believe Barney would be the honest man he is in the end without that experience, so mission accomplished.
When Howard meets his dad, he can revert back into a sheepish little physicist who’s mostly ignored by others anyway, or he can try to summon a literally unbelievable transformation into the Will Smith/Shawn Hunter “Alpha Male/Bad Boy”, or he can be good buds with his dad after requisite apartment storm-outs and aborted dinners. Zzzzzzzzz. Jeff can meet his dad and tell him about how his absence ruined his life, except not really because he’s in community college and doing OK for himself – low stakes, basically. Or Jeff can try to shrug it off and go through life with his middle finger proverbially in the air. Also zzz. The show wasn’t built as a three act play centered around Jeff and his father. It was a unique comedy about aspiring toward your goals while not having the full road map, so to speak. Usually without a scene-stealing persona, this trope comes off as a poor gambit for ratings, even when it’s not.
(I haven’t watched any post-exodus Community, not for solidarity, but just out of a lack of interest. Tell me if I’m way off in the comments.)
Readers of TV synopses must hate the quote “don’t say the fat lady sung, bring her on stage and let her sing” by now, but we kind of have to bring it up here. The recurring mistake made with this trope is that the dad is brought on stage to melt under the hot light of abandonment, but his absence doesn’t translate well to the television format. The projected pain of his abandonment is incumbent upon the backstory and the actor’s/actress’s abilities to portray dejection, since leaving meant he wasn’t there to fill the narrative of every episode. Which brings me to my next question: remember that mega-successful sitcom that portrayed abandonment as it actually is, in all of its continual, seething agony devoid of answers? You don’t? It’s probably because no one fucking watches sitcoms for that reason. You think the average viewer is going to tune in on Tuesdays at 8 EST to see a Male Jenny throw rocks at her father’s house, every week? Fuck no. That’s an emotional anvil and it’s precisely what movies and cable are for. But here we are, trying to water down a complex and lasting emotional issue for the masses. If you think you’ve got the horses to forge on with the Barney Stintsons, the Will Smiths, and the Shawn Hunters, good luck and God bless. But the last place you want to see this thing done casually is in the living room for a network audience. (P.S. please try to air Michael Clayton. It’s superb.)
EDIT: I referred to Jeff as Pierce no fewer than six times, and I accept my crucifixion.