The first sin committed by Fox’s new sitcom Dads is that it’s a comedy that isn’t funny. The second sin is that it’s flat-out terrible: The pilot had a weird pace, hopscotching between at least three different sitcom concepts (workplace, wacky-family, cool-guy-in-a-bachelor-pad) and landing in talent-wasting mulch. From there, the story gets more complicated. Dads started a controversy over the summer when the show’s pilot was declared Racist by basically everyone who saw it. The primary offense: The decision to dress Brenda Song up in an Asian-schoolgirl outfit. Song is a former Disney starlet who seems weirdly destined to spend her twenties at the center of bloggish controversy. The actress defended the decision, while lead Seth Green did damage control, explaining, “Just to be fair, these are some pretty disparaging portrayals of white men.” The show is produced by Seth MacFarlane, and Green’s statement is a familiar dodge from the MacFarlane oeuvre: Make a show about white dudes making fun of everyone who’s not a white dude, and then argue that the show is actually a meta-joke about how silly and retrograde the white dudes are.
The premiere of Dads finally aired tonight, and what made the whole Asian-schoolgirl thing shocking is that it was by a wide margin not the most shocking joke tossed out. Everyone who is not a caucasian heterosexual male got their own insult or three. Hot women are dumb. Giovanni Ribisi’s Hispanic wife gets mistaken for a maid. One of the dads says, “Where’s your gay guy? Show him your gay guy!” The other dad says, “Whatcha playin’? Punch the Puerto Rican?” There’s a joke about kids with cancer at Disneyland. The episode ends with every major member of the cast in a roundtable joke session, where everyone makes fun of a Chinese guy’s tiny penis. These aren’t even really jokes about sexual orientation or gender or race; the whole joke is sexual orientation, gender, and race.
Our critic Melissa Maerz already a deep dive into the episode in an attempt to figure out just how racist Dads is. But watching the premiere on Fox, I decided to do an experiment: Take Seth Green’s argument seriously. Watch Dads, and pretend that it is actually a deconstructive portrait of white men. I don’t believe for a moment that the show’s creators intended it that way. The show’s creators have basically admitted that the lead characters are based on them, and there’s a whiff of hagiographic coolness to everything: These guys bang hot chicks, close multi-million-dollar deals, and make videogames with titles like Kill Hitler 2. But you could point out that the creators, by creating a show about white men that is so hermetically locked inside of the white-male mindset, have actually created a brilliantly depressing portrait of that same demographic.
See, Dads might be one of the whitest and dudest white-dude shows ever; it has four lead white men, which is one and a half more than Two and a Half Men ever had. Green and Giovanni Ribisi play white dudes who work in the videogame industry — which, like the typical TV writers’ room, is a domain dominated by white dudes. Ribisi is the married-with-children straight man who is scared of his wife, his father, and indeed every aspect of adult life besides his best pal. Green is the cool-guy bachelor who is explicitly a commitmentphobe. They are successful videogame developers, but reading between the lines, the videogames they make are pretty terrible. (Again, Kill Hitler 2.)
Their fathers represent twin variations of the declining front wave of baby boomers: Martin Mull plays a dunce prone to grampa-racism (like using the word “Orientals”) who thinks he’s a brilliant businessman and definitely is not; Peter Riegert plays a layabout dad with a history of divorce who couldn’t make any payments on his home and has to move in with his bachelor son.
If the show were even a little bit funny, then this could play like farce. But because almost everything these four men say is totally dumb, it plays like tragedy. Here are four white dudes who are incapable of engaging in a new multicultural era — incapable, really, of even growing up. The last census reported that non-white babies accounted for more than half the births in America; more women graduate from college than men; gay people can get married and divorced, just like the rest of us. Dads presents the modern straight white dude as someone who is puffed up with the residual manifest-destiny notion that the world belongs to them, and the way that they assert their power is to make fun of everyone who isn’t them. “You can’t make a joke out of everything,” says Seth Green. “If I don’t, who will?” says Riegert. Of course, everything turns serious when it turns out that Riegert has lost his house. Making fun of smart Asian people? That’s fine. But oh, what a tragedy when a sexist, racist, emotionally distant father can’t afford to live in a house he can’t afford!
In defending Dads, the cocreators have drawn a comparison to a show like Norman Lear’s All in the Family, which also ruffled plenty of feathers in its portrayal of a conservative white order giving way to post-60s America. But the difference is telling. Lear was a writer who was hyper-engaged both with the issues of his day and with the history of his country; yeesh, back in 2000, he bought one of the first published copies of the Declaration of Independence for $7 million and then sent it on tour. Dads is the opposite of engaged. It’s a bunch of successful white dudes high-fiving and backslapping. It’s a portrait of people who think they’re being rebellious, but know they can get away with anything; who pick on everyone and then get upset when someone picks on them; who think they’re just pranksters but look a whole lot like bullies. It’s not the worst thing Seth MacFarlane has ever produced, but — purely by accident — it’s the most honest portrait of the Seth MacFarlane School of Comedy we’ve ever seen.