By Alyssa Rosenberg on August 22, 2013 at 4:03 pm
After the Media Action Network for Asian Americans asked Fox to reshoot Dads, a new comedy from Seth MacFarlane about two father-son duos that relies heavily on racial and sexual humor that would have looked dated at the Friar’s Club roast sixty years ago, the network declined. And Fox president Kevin Reilly and Chief Operating Officer Joe Earley are asking, as Reilly asked the Television Critics Association press tour, for patience for the show to develop.
“Do I think all the jokes right now are in calibration in the pilot? I don’t,” Reilly said at TCA. “If this show still low hanging-fruit jokes that seem in bad taste and haven’t been earned with intelligence, and the characters have not become full blown over the course of the next summer months — number 1, the show’s not going to work. And number 2, you should take it to task, and we’ll talk about that in January. But I really ask you on that show, in particular, let’s have the discussion in January, after we’ve produced a number of them, and not now, before we’ve even started.”
I’m not exceptionally sympathetic to the idea that people of color and women owe a network their patience. But let’s take Reilly at his word for a moment. If he really wants to get Dads right, here are five concrete ways to improve the show, working with the ingredients Fox already has.
1. Add a non-white character who’s male: One of the problems with the pilot for Dads is that all of the non-white characters who have lines are also women. I’m all for the representation of women of color, but in this show, having only women of color and no men sets up an unfortunate dynamic, conflating the show’s issues with race and gender. All the women on the show are hypercompetent and tired of the antics of the men-boys around them, meant to push back against an onslaught of racist and sexist jokes and behavior simply by rolling their eyes and sighing in exhaustion (or occasionally by broing up along with Eli and Warner). Dividing the show into a white boy’s club and a non-white girls team runs the risk that it’ll dig in harder on the dynamic of the pilot, siding with the bros and their antics against everyone else. There appear to be some candidates for a non-white guy who could be part of the boys’ team: a male African-American employee appears in the background of a shot at Eli and Warner’s office, and it looks like the gay employee in the office might be Latino. Either way, having a character who can blow up that binary and call out Eli and Warner without being tossed out of the boys’ club would make for a healthier conversation about race, if that’s really what the creators and stars want to have.
2. Provide a diversity of approaches to race: At the Television Critics Association press tour, Seth Green insisted that “And all of the best and successful shows that really prompted any kind of change in cultural thinking were provocative and offensive, shows that I grew up loving, like All In the Family or The Jeffersons, that explored issues of race relations or opposition to war or things that weren’t considered all that politically correct, this is the opportunity for characters to have that discussion in a way that most normal people can’t.” The problem with that comparison is that on All In The Family, Archie Bunker had a genuine foil in his son-in-law Michael Stivic. In the pilot, that sense of disagreement between the men of different generations doesn’t actually exist. In one scene, Warner gets upset with his father for saying horribly racist things about Chinese people and business. But he’s not upset because the sentiments are racist, but because they might scuttle a major deal. You can’t have a conversation with only one voice speaking.
3. Show actual consequences for racism: In the pilot, Dads is free of consequences for people who exhibit racist behavior. Warner and Eli make racist assumptions about their prospective Chinese business partners, including asking Veronica to dress up in an anime costume and trying to present Eli as some sort of motorcycle-riding badass, and instead of being insulted, the men appear to fall for it. Warner’s father appears to blow up the deal with his racist sentiments, but instead of hurting his relationship with his son, Warner ends up seeing him as a golden retriever and patting him with affection. When Veronica receives a nude photo from the translator for the Chinese business delegation, she and her employers make ugly comments about the man’s penis size, then use it to blackmail him. Eli and Warner joke about getting sued for sexually harassing Veronica, but they don’t seem to see it as a real possibility. If there’s to be some sort of growth narrative here, it would be nice to see characters who are racist incur some actual costs for the expression of their attitudes.
4. Aim jokes at the racists, not at the objects of racism: One of the basic rules of using humor to affect cultural change is to target people who have power, rather than people who don’t. Right now, Dads certainly sets up the older gentlemen on its show as somewhat hurtful bunglers. But it’s all too happy to laugh along with their lines about a “Punch The Puerto Rican” game, or to have them speculate along with their sons about the size of a Chinese man’s penis. This is a dull tour of ancient stereotypes that doesn’t constitute actual joke-writing. And it’s aimed in the wrong direction. Doing some of the things I’ve recommended above would help refocus the show into the kind of discussion the people involved with it claim that they actually want to have.
5. Focus more on gaming, on friends, and on family: The Bigoted Old Dad and Bigoted Young Bro schtick are a pair of routines with a limited number of jokes and dramatically declining concerns. You know what is rich territory? Video game development. Men and women working together on tech and creative enterprises! Interracial families! Friends in business together! Fathers who can’t let go of the dream of working with their sons! There is material for a good show in Dads, and even one that’s about issues. Provocative humor certainly exists. But provocation doesn’t actually seem like the show’s potential strong suit. So maybe make a family and workplace comedy instead, and take a slow road to make a good point instead of a fast and failed claim to social significance.