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Dead Tree Alert: Daddy Issues; Plus, What Shows Do Right By Dads?

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In the latest print edition of TIME, I have an early Father’s Day present for all the dads out there: a look at how the image of the hands-on, Baby Bjorn–wearing dad has become a go-to sight gag in TV and movies. From my column (subscription required):

The baby carrier is a symbol of a generation of dads–the Baby Bjorners–who, because of spouses’ careers, the desire to be involved in their kids’ lives, divorce or simple fairness, are doing more of the physical work of parenting. But it’s also become a ubiquitous TV and movie sight gag. Comical dudes wearing babies have been on posters for the movies The Hangover and What to Expect When You’re Expecting; they’re on NBC’s fall pilot Guys with Kids, whose three dads hang at a bar with baby luggage around their midsections; and they’re on ABC Family’s new sitcom Baby Daddy, about a 20-something bachelor struggling to raise a baby left on his doorstep by his ex-girlfriend. Happy Father’s Day, dads of America! Pop culture thinks you look really stupid trying to care for the babies you made!

TV dads, obviously, are as about as old a fixture as TV itself. The newer phenomenon that TV is wrestling with—as men, statistically, take on more primary-caregiver duties—is the dad as nurturer, actually doing the physical, tiring, smelly dirty work of lunchmaking and diaper-changing. Here, there’s a lingering sense that being a dad who wears a baby carrier—without the excuse of, say, being a widower, as on TV shows past—is embarrassing and unmanning. Even in commercials, alongside the rare positive depiction of a stay-at-home dad doing laundry, there are still ads that fall back on the clichés (insulting to both sexes) that dads can’t cook anything more complicated than a jar of pasta sauce. (Didn’t Graham Chase disprove that on My So-Called Life?)

But as I mention in the column, at the same time there are other TV shows that have been doing a better job dealing with dads as caregivers, dealing with the comedy of parenting—because when is stress, guilt and exhaustion ever not funny?—while not treating the idea of a father taking care of his kids as inherently funny because it’s a dude. I didn’t have space to go into detail, but here are some of my favorite current treatments of fatherhood on TV now:

Louie. Going into its third season June 28, this may be my favorite show about parents on TV, period. It’s about much, much more, of course, but one of its most refreshing features is its commitment to the nuts-and-bolts grunt work of parenting—cutting mangoes, all the crap you have to carry—as seen through the life of a divorced dad.

Up All Night. This sitcom (getting a second season on NBC) was hit-and-miss comedically in its first season. But one of the things I liked best about it was that it dealt with a stay-at-home dad (by choice), in a way that acknowledged the different ways that fathers parent, without making the fact that he was a stay-at-home dad the joke itself.

Modern Family. With Cameron, the stay-at-home half of the gay couple in this sitcom, the show sometimes walks a line in characterizing him as a shrill drama queen. But it also portrays him as a competent parent—if anything, sometimes too competent, and judgmental of Mitchell’s attempts. And the couple shows that men, just like moms, can wrestle with life balance and parenting-control issues (as well as the question of whether it’s ever a good idea to put a kid on a leash).

Raising Hope. This is sort of a borderline show for me, because in its initial version it dealt with some of the same tropes I write about in my column—a young guy being inept at figuring out which side of a baby is up. But over time it’s become a sweet, and very funny, sitcom about a whole family getting another shot at raising a kid right.

But I put it to you, dads of Tuned Inland (and moms, and the blessedly childless): which shows today handle modern parenting best?

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