Television series’ depictions of single parents isn’t all that different from what viewers imagine, or have experienced, it to be. Struggling adults attempting to juggle a stable career while doubling as the book report editor, dinner maker and support system that their kids need isn’t exactly new. But the twist now is that scripted programming is putting the spotlight on single dads.
Comedies ranging from NBC’s “Mr. Mayor” and “Kenan,” to CBS’ “United States of Al” and “B Positive,” to Netflix’s “Dad Stop Embarrassing Me!” have lead characters who are single dads — albeit ones who maybe get by thanks to their entourages of quirky friends, relatives or coworkers.
“I personally like shows, even in comedies, that still feel like they’re about something,” says “Kenan” co-creator Jackie Clarke, who, like the daughters of lead Kenan Thompson’s similarly-named character on her show, spent part of her childhood being raised by her widowed father.
Clarke remembers her dad taking her to buy her first bra and other awkward moments that are “simultaneously tragic and hilarious when you really butt up against them.” Her comedy’s first season features plots that include Kenan making sure his daughters (played by real-life siblings Dani and Dannah Lane) are adjusting to life without their mom, as well as whether you ever really know your spouse. (Kenan learns that there was a restraining order against his late wife.)
These stories can also reflect the real-world definition of what it means to be a family. The nonprofit think tank Pew Research Center reported in 2019 that, although middle-aged women are still slightly more likely than their male counterparts to live as single parents, the U.S. has the world’s highest rate of children living in single-parent households. The trick is to find a balance in storytelling that appeals to all members of the family.
“Dad Stop Embarrassing Me” is based on star and co-creator Jamie Foxx’s own life as a single parent to two daughters — including Corinne Foxx, who serves as an executive producer on the show. Showrunner Bentley Kyle Evans says he wanted to cover topics including school, dating and “some things that are mischievous when it comes to teenagers, and the dad has to either come to the rescue or jump in and save the day.” But the show also talks about more complicated issues, such as daughter Sasha’s (Kyla-Drew) wavering belief in God.
“The whole belief in God is something that’s talked about right now,” he says. “Having to have that conversation with your child is really tricky, so I thought it’d be great subject matter for an episode.”
Television is also continuing to look at what defines a parent and how that affects household dynamics.
Star and creator Josh Thomas’ Freeform comedy “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay” follows his 20-something Nicholas, who ends up the guardian of his teenage half-sisters, Matilda (Kayla Cromer) and Genevieve (Maeve Press), after their father dies.
“They didn’t choose him; he’s not their dad and he has no right to tell them what to do,” Thomas says. “They need someone in their life to give them guidance. But also, I think he’s pretty aware that he doesn’t know better than them.”
Nicholas’ sisters don’t hide things like drinking or sex from him and they will also come to him if they’re feeling insecure or overwhelmed.
“One of the things that’s interesting about parenting that I have to think about a lot [when writing] this show is, when you’re a teenager, what do you want from your parents?” Thomas says. “I think it’s actually impossible to know how much a parent is supposed to be dictating what their kid does or who they date or how they date or how much freedom a teenager should be given.”
There may not be enough television in the world to answer those questions. But these shows are all trying to find them.