The first thing I did after The Bloody Divorce was to buy a big-screen TV to replace the thirteen-inch model that, along with the dishwasher, had become the focus of my husband’s crazy interpretation of what was wrong with our family. After he’d gotten a new therapist and Iron John showed up on his nightstand, he started saying things like “I’m the man of the family, and if I say we’re moving to Montana, then we’re moving to Montana!” He took the thirteen-inch TV out of the house when we weren’t home, and when the dishwasher broke, the new one I bought had to sit in the box in the living room with a potted plant on it for six months.
Over the years since the divorce, the TV screen size has grown along with the kids and now, at fifty-eight inches, is limited only by the width of the wall it hangs on. It’s like a huge frame around a display of favorite family members’ pictures: ours include Angus MacGyver, Jim Rockford, and Thomas Magnum, men who had no children in their fictional lives but paradoxically—I realized recently—have been fathers to us, thanks to Netflix.
Note to the data-mining gnomes: not everyone is actually watching TV even when they’re ripping through seven-seasons series back-to-back, nonstop, and then doing it all over again. Over the last few years while my younger son and I have been in college (with him as a student and me as a teacher), we must have logged in at least twelve hours a day of big-screen background sometimes, as we cranked our way through our respective piles of assignments. I know this must sound bad—maybe it is bad—but we are at least discriminating about the characters we live with, which is more than you can say for a lot of families. We don’t generally allow drama, for instance, because it requires too much attention, but we feel right at home with characters who manage to get themselves in trouble regularly and can laugh about it, or who can get out of trouble like MacGyver, using only a gum wrapper or a paper clip. They go about their business while we go about ours, looking up once in a while to laugh when Higgins starts droning on about the Yorkshire Regiment, or Angel goes out the window after promising Rockford he’ll stay put.
There are multiple advantages to having a television family: for one thing, dad is the kind of guy you like to have around, and he’s always home, there in the background, trying to make a living—or at least stay out of hock—while you’re advancing the family’s prospects by tackling machine language or rhetorical modes. He doesn’t care about conventional success, so he’s not all up in your face about performance; he only gets mad under extreme provocation, like when a friend he’s trying to help leaves him holding the bag, and even then he’s good-natured about it. He will give everyone a second, and third, and so on, chance, even the bad guys. He doesn’t carry a gun even though he knows how to use one, and when he takes someone else’s away, he usually just throws it in the drink.
He’s smart but he’s not an asshole about it. People betray or misjudge him in every episode, but he never reciprocates and he’s got a smile that can make you feel okay about the world, no matter how bad the case. He had a good dad himself, and has a soft spot for boys who don’t.
And, of course, things always work out in the end. So every forty-seven minutes or so—or about fifteen times a day around here—no matter how knotty the problem you’re working on in real life may be, you hear a theme song from a few decades ago that manages to capture the innocent thrill of a happy ending, and you laugh at yourself as you hum along.
There are other, more complicated, fathers we also have loved—most notably Andy Sipowicz and Lenny Briscoe—who did have fictional children and who spent most of their time trying to make amends once they got sober, but as with real-life alcoholics like my real-life father, these stories are not good background material and not the kind of thing you can laugh along with. Nevertheless, I count them as family too because they meet my newly-developed definition of a good dad, which is pretty simple: a good father is someone who puts his child’s welfare ahead of his own—always, and no doubt about it. Nothing else really matters all that much.
When I was a child along with television itself, my grandmother used to watch The Guiding Light every day, and she sent greeting cards to Papa Bauer on special occasions as if he were a real person; I’m not sure whether she believed he was real, or, like me, just incorporated fantasy into her reality as a creative prop—but I admire her, either way. So I’m sending this Father’s Day thank-you card to Angus MacGyver, Jim and Joseph Rockford, and Thomas Magnum, as well as to the real men who played and created them, especially Stephen Cannell, with whom I share the good fortune of having had Ralph Salisbury for a writing teacher. (Cannell credited his long, successful career to Ralph, who told him “spelling doesn’t matter” and thus set him free from dyslexia to write The Rockford Files and many other television shows and best-selling novels.)
Last, but certainly not least, Happy Father’s Day to Jean-Luc Picard and Gene Roddenberry for the most enduring TV family of all, role model for the next generation of our entire species, not just the lost children. It’s playing in the background as I write this—can you hear the theme song?