Daddy Issues and the Hour-Long Drama

Thursday night when it became apparent that my NCAA brackets were going to end up looking like Mitch “Blood” Green’s face after his infamous street fight with Mike Tyson, I whipped out my Kindle and watched this week’s episode of TNT’s Southland. [i] After I finished watching I was reminded of an article Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Yes, that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) wrote for the most recent issue of Esquire entitled “What Primetime TV Tells Us About Being a Man” which deals with the rights and wrongs of how men are depicted on television.

One of running themes of the latest episode of Southland dealt with Officer John Cooper (Michael Culditz) confronting his dying father in jail at the behest of his priest. The connection I made between Abdul-Jabbar’s piece and the Southland was that many of the male leads of one-hour dramas (and other mediums of fiction) are laden with daddy issues that are used to develop the characters. A character that easily parallels Southland’s John Cooper is Justified’s Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) who, is also shaped by his unfortunate relationship with his father, Arlo (Raymond J. Barry). These ill-fated relationships only serve to portray both John and Raylan as somewhat emotionally incomplete humans while driving the plot.

John and Raylan both seek to be the exact opposite of the men who sired them. This drive both makes them noble and flawed simultaneously.

CooperIn season one of Southland Cooper told his trainee Ben Sherman (Benjamin McKenzie) that his father was in jail for raping and murdering a girl. Later in the series, Cooper in full LAPD dress uniform, is shown testifying against his father at a parole hearing to insure that his father never gets out of prison. In this week’s episode the viewer sees Cooper begrudgingly going to see his father who is in prison dying behind bars on a hospital gurney. We finally learn the root of the major beef between John and his father. The woman he raped and killed was John’s high school girlfriend Monica. Not at all seeking repentance Cooper’s father basically says tell him that he raped his girlfriend Monica because he knew John couldn’t give her what she needed and it hurt him to know that his son was a “f****t”.

That’s another compelling issue of John Cooper’s story: his sexuality. His father in all of his evil intent raped and murdered his closeted teenaged son’s girlfriend. Couple this with the facts that his de facto father figure, a former cop played by Gerald McRaney, is retired, alcoholic, and suicidal  to whom Cooper, also a revovering addict,  is trying to save.

raylan and arlo in jail

Like John Cooper, Raylan Givens is also a mess. (In lieu of chemical addictions Raylan is into himself, gun fights, and pretty women.) His profession as deputy United States Marshal is a mess. His personal life is a mess—his baby mama is his ex-wife who just happens to hate the fact that he is a Marshal. Raylan’s father Arlo is a career hillbilly criminal who abused both Raylan and his late mother, Frances. The situation was so bad Frances’ sister Helen actually marries Arlo to protect Raylan from Arlo all the while actually loving Arlo. (I said they were hillbillies, didn’t I?) Through the course of the show we’ve seen no indicators that Raylan and Arlo actually cared for each other in any way. Raylan, in fact has shot his father on several occasions and joked about it to his fellow deputy Marshals, Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel) and Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts).

Unlike John Cooper’s father, Arlo is a recurring character on the show helping to show how far the relationship between father and son has deteriorated. On several episodes Raylan and Arlo have both bumped heads with both men being on opposite sides of the law showing the elder Givens working with Raylan’s frenemy Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins).[ii] The relationship moves beyond repair when Arlo sh0ots a Kentucky state trooper thinking he was Raylan. We see the final chapter in the relationship when Raylan visits his dying father, who was shanked in prison, to ask if he would help with a case. Just like John Cooper’s dad, Arlo is defiant—channelling his last few ounces of hillbilly surliess into his cutting last words to his son “Kiss my ass.”

This was the same “Go to hell, boy!” given to John Cooper by his father. Two bad men telling their somewhat good sons that they were disappointed in them for being who they are. Leaving their progeny broken but better men morally than they are. John Cooper’s reaction was a shrug and Raylan’s was a little more nuanced. He is shown in his office with his coworkers Rachel and Tim. His boss, Art Mullen (Nick Searcy) tells him that his father died. Informing them that he found out earlier that morning he tells his coworkers that he was okay and pointing out the fact that there are no pictures of the man on his desk, he gets up and walks to the elevator, shedding tears for a man who hated him.

Many of John Cooper and Raylan Givens counterparts in hour-long dramas are shown having varying levels of daddy issues. NCIS’s Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), Tim McGee (Sean Murray), and Tony Dinozzo (Michael Weatherly) have all been shown to have damaged relationships with the men who raised them. I’m not sure if it has been fleshed out in the show but I’m willing to bet Mad Men’s Don Draper (John Hamm) and Luther’s John Luther (Idris Elba) weren’t “loved right” by their father either. In addition to these examples I could go on a long rant on the way fathers have been and are portrayed on sitcoms too. Sure, they aren’t the horrible men who fathered Cooper and Givens but they are usually portrayed as bumbling and lazy. (There aren’t many Cliff Huxtables, Dan Connors, and James Evans on the air.)

So what gives with the depiction of daddy issues on television? Although it makes for compelling plots but what does is say about the state of American fatherhood? Am I digging too deep or what? In the real world we often use daddy issues (Often unfairly.) as a catch-all to describe many a woman’s issues but it’s they are hell on a man too. Let me know what you think.

Vaya con Dios.

[i] I wish Regina King got the buzz Keri Washington gets on Scandal for her portrayal of Detective Lydia Adams. She’s killing it. Brenda Jenkins got range folks.

[ii] Boyd Crowder also has several daddy issues but he actually gets rid of those fairly early in the series…with bullets.


4 responses to “Daddy Issues and the Hour-Long Drama

  1. The Only Real Outcast

    Nah, you’re not digging too deep at all. First off, portraying them as jacked up in some kind of way has entertainment value, especially when contrasted against the woman who has it together. Think of it in the same way a reality show will never feature “normal” people…normal people are boring.
    Second–art imitates life. I think it speaks to how critical a decent father/man/etc. is to society in general. Statistically speaking, the relationship/involvement of said father/man/etc, is correlated to educational success, overall quality of life, and a couple other things I can’t think of. Somewhere along the way men/fathers/etc., have earned a reputation, be it real or perceived, of being a total wreck…and lots of fathers have given life to the stereotype. But I think it makes the good, smart, hard-working men/fathers/etc catch a bad rap, because if you believe what you watch on TV, they don’t exist (unless you watch TV Land!).

    • I see where you’re going. There is a divide in how both groups of men are handled. The sitcom guys are generally hapless and the guys in dramas are generally broken. More so in the father/family department.

      Art does imitate life to an extent and the father/son dynamic is a massive one and it shows within the ways fictional characters are fleshed out. I agree through the lens of fiction men have taken it on the chin in various ways. The shows that come on TV Land are problematic in various ways. I’ve notice on older TV show that the notion of American society being more innocent is pushed forward. Those good old days were just alright.

  2. Glad you brought up Luther. We don’t meet his father, and they give the impression his father is no longer living. But it is very clear his father disapproved of his far more intellectual nature. If I’m correct John says he was former military, and would rather John do that or play certain sports.

    Relating to your column though. John is an interesting study. Clearly rage and a borderline addiction to taking the batman approach to policework are his issues. But isn’t that still just what his father represents? Sure he doesn’t get the same f you scene as Raylan and Cooper, but his relationship with Alice. Well more what his relationship with Alice represents for him is a subtle reference to his internal daddy issues and conflict

    What do I mean? Alice aside from the murder part represents what John actually wanted to be. Hyper intellectual academic indulging in flights of fancy. The problem is John followed part of his father’s legacy. And that will always be a part of his internal conflict. Throughout the series we see his trouble on the job is clearly his vigilante with a badge attitude. It is why he ends up going after Alice. It ends up getting Zoe killed. And of course in season 2 it is why he’s helping out the Jones family.

    That scene when Alice asks him to leave with her is perfect. It is his intellectual curiosity asking him to stop straddling the fence between it and his father. And his answer isn’t no or yes, its not yet. And it has to be not yet. Because who he is straddles the line. That is his thing. It makes him as good as he is. And it is why we watch. Just like Raylan, though not like Cooper.

    • That’s a good point. Luther and Raylan definitely straddle a line. I you’re right about his relationship with Alice, who grabbed his attention with her “skills”. On the other side of that Luther does the same for Alice. From the moment she realized his strengths she was taken by him.

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