Ever since "Three Men and a Baby" hit the big screen in 1987, scripted shows have been exploring the hilarious aspects of bumbling men as primary caregivers. What seemed fresh, perhaps, when "Full House" debuted, now has very mixed results — though ABC Family's lame to middling "Baby Daddy" was recently given a third season, NBC's higher profile "Guys With Kids" was swiftly canceled and I don't even want to talk about what happened to "Up All Night."
Actually I do, because what happened to "Up All Night" offers a primer into the whole "perils of parenting" genre of television into which A&E's new reality show "Modern Dads" enters Wednesday.
Parenting small children is a semi-universal experience fascinating to those experiencing it At The Time. To everyone else, potty training and tutu addiction are about as interesting as those Thursday morning human resources meetings.
This is why, in most television shows, having a kid is temporary — the kid arrives, occupies a few smushy highly accessorized episodes and promptly disappears to some mysterious 24/7 day-care facility on Mars.
Those shows built around the care of small children tend to go extremis. As in what if there were six kids? Or 16? What if they were twins or preternaturally gifted? What if the people raising them were three brothers living together or two divorced women or, in the case of "Up All Night," two previously hard-partying, high-profile career types?
Well, on "Up All Night," it got boring, then it got crazy, then it got canceled.
In a way, the rise of the stay-at-home father seems a natural narrative solution. Everyone has some sort of beloved "doofus Dad" story — my own father never knew how old my brother and I were (he was once off by six years). But in 2013, the dimwit daddy notion invites outrage — from the many men competently raising children and from women who find it an infuriating exercise in passive-aggressive control. ("See, we just don't do it right, so you do it.")
Into this roiling tar pit comes "Modern Dads," the next in a series of rigorously produced (which is to say carefully scripted) reality series from A&E that proves the point and provides something of a solution.
Clearly buoyed by its boffo hit "Duck Dynasty," the network is moving away from the rougher, unprofessional look of early reality TV toward something more sit-com-polished. Where once ignorance of, or discomfort with, the camera provided the signature look, a new breed of reality is going for people who know how to work a scene.
The producers of "Modern Dads" ("Real Housewives of New Jersey's" Sirens Media) cast four Austin, Texas, fathers who are quick-witted and attractive, albeit in a middle-aged, all-white boy band-diverse way. On the other hand, these men seem to have engaged in stay-at-home parenting previous to being cast in "Modern Dads." And that's oddly, hilariously, yet undeniably important.
Watching Rick, an overweight veteran, literally juggle his 1-year old twins as he plans their birthday party was worth the half-hour buy-in, easy. As any woman who has engaged in the "pizza is not dinner" debate knows, men may do things differently from their female counterparts, but that doesn't mean they do it wrong.
These are not clueless parent guys, they just do it without a lot of angst or too much discussion. They're heavy on crude, light on self-recrimination. At one point, dad Sean, who with his laid-back barista looks may be the most interesting of the four, ineffectually attempts some woodworking in the backyard. Within minutes, his partner, Rachel, has taken over, wielding the jigsaw like a pro while Sean oversees the girls' tea party with little or no gender-expectation fanfare.
Scripted? No doubt. Do the men seem to go out of their way to discuss sex, bowel movements and other "provocative" topics? They do indeed.
But they also treat their children with love and respect, and if the show asks them to play up the man-boy/cool dad aspect, these guys clearly take their care giving more seriously than their appearance on this TV show.
Which puts them miles ahead of all those wonderful moms on "Real Housewives."
When: 10:30 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)