Fictional Father Figures: The TV Characters Raising America

The Parables of Ted Lasso, Coach Taylor, and Bandit Heeler

Sam Bush / 6.17.22

For as long as I’ve been alive, America has bemoaned its dearth of father figures. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in four children live without a biological, step, or adoptive father in the home. It’s a startling statistic considering how a father’s absence often points to a myriad of negative outcomes further downstream. As people, we grow up by mimicking the behavior of those around us. We learn the ins and outs of life more often through imitation than instruction.

In a world where good men are hard to find, we often conceive them in the image we ourselves would like to be. As Nietzsche once said, “When one has not had a good father, one must create one.” It’s an idea that points to a long lineage of fictional fathers — the Atticus Finches, Mr. Rogers, and Danny Tanners of modern American history — many of whom have had a profound influence on the way we understand fatherhood.

For instance, I once spied Kyle Chandler, the actor who plays Coach Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights, seated across the room at a restaurant. I had to restrain myself from tearfully embracing the man, it was that hard to separate the actual person from his alter-ego. For many of us, Coach Taylor helped demonstrate what it looked like to be a loving husband and supportive dad. If Friday Night Lights is too dated, consider Ted Lasso a worthy successor. The man is less like a coach and more like a surrogate father. From baking homemade biscuits to sending an encouraging note to a rival player, Lasso personifies grace and shows us how to effectively love people. 

Bandit, father of Bluey, is the latest installment of fictional father figures. The animated Australian blue heeler is a super-dad by all accounts. He is ever-willing to play along with his daughters’ imaginative schemes and cheerfully volunteering himself to be the butt of the joke. He consistently shows me a worthy alternative to my present life. While I sparingly tend to my kids in between texting and Wordle, Bandit playfully shows me a scenario where, by the grace of God, I’m able to put my phone away and play “keepy-uppy” with a balloon.

In a world devoid of (admirable) father figures, it feels like a miracle that they exist at all, fictional or not. But these characters aren’t meant to be ideals to follow, a list of rules for being a good dad. They aim instead squarely at the heart — sort of like romantic comedies, but for parenting. And just as rom-coms evoke the feelings of love and appreciation for one’s spouse, these fictional fathers stir up love for one’s own children.

Rather than a law that commands, “Thou Shalt Apologize to Thy Children,” watching Friday Night Lights inspires me to be more willing to admit my mistakes to my family. Ted Lasso’s generosity and grace so often feel like a revelation of kindness hitherto unknown. And it’s not that Bluey’s Bandit is a good parent, but that he makes routine parenting look fun and worthwhile — perhaps even sublime.

The purpose of these characters is not to preach or teach fatherly wisdom, but to demonstrate it in all its compelling beauty. If our brains watch these shows and see role models, our hearts are telling a different story. They are not acting as a new law as much as they are giving me new eyes and ears to see the world around me. They are parables rather than commands. 

The quintessential parable of fatherhood comes not from the silver screen, but from Jesus’s tale of a father and his two wayward sons. In order to fully communicate the Father’s fierce devotion for the world, God’s love’s could not be reduced to an abstraction or idea. To Jesus, it had to be narrated: an ungrateful, profligate boy prefers his own misguided autonomy over living under his father’s roof. Only after blowing through his share of his father’s inheritance, the boy comes home, empty-handed and ashamed. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Such an act of paternal affection is enough to melt the hearts of fathers and children alike.

Jesus’ father figure, however, is not a model by which to live, but a parent on which to depend. The prodigal son’s father may well inspire today’s dads to be more gracious, but there is far more to the story. Whether we are the indignant older brother or the reckless younger brother, we all play the part of a beloved child.

For most people, Father’s Day represents a Hallmark holiday reminder to send your dad a card and a new tie. But for many fathers — myself included — it is an occasion of incongruence. It is to be celebrated as a dad, while feeling like an exhausted and irritable failure. Fatherhood carries with it a myriad of rewards, but it is also a lesson in humility. Nietzche may have hit on something concerning the lack of father figures — we will, in fact, create the fathers we need — but he fell short of a more eternal truth. When one has not had (or fails to be) a good father, one must rely on the heavenly kind. 

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4 responses to “Fictional Father Figures: The TV Characters Raising America”

  1. […] probably more gospel in Bluey than Lamott is willing or able to admit (as Sam Bush’s article today notes), but his point is still well taken. It’s hard to compete with […]

  2. Dave says:

    Thanks so much for this. I’ve been struggling a bit this week with all things religious/Christian/theology and wondering I’m just wasting my time.
    Mockingbird is the best.

  3. […] Today’s article on Johnny Cash and masculinity is too good to bury. Because, beyond fictional male role models, real life examples of non-toxic masculinity rarely make the front page news — particularly […]

  4. […] — we had two articles on the kids TV show. IYKYK, and if you don’t know you should stop what you’re doing and go […]

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