Projection of Homer Simpson
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TV Dads Taught Me Valuable Lessons About Fatherhood

Today's TV dads are creating their legacy away from the shadow of a predator

In my mid-teens, I'm not embarrassed to say, I had a hardcover copy of Bill Cosby's book, Fatherhood. I'm not sure why I was 14 or 15 and already thinking about the challenges of raising kids (I sure wasn't getting anyone pregnant), but I'm pretty sure that the reason I read it—and also read his follow-up, Love and Marriage—was because Cosby was a comedy institution.

To a comedy nerd like me, he was already a god, but his long-running NBC series The Cosby Show also helped elevate him to America's Dad. His character Cliff Huxtable was funny and warm, very financially successful as an OB/GYN and married to a foxy lawyer. And he was a good dad to his many kids (the ones we knew about, at least).

Sidebar: If you go look at the Amazon reviews for Fatherhood today (which is still in print!), you'll find critiques such as, "WHAT ABOUT RAPEHOOD, COZ?"

I hadn't realized until I had kids of my own, decades later, that despite Cosby's ultimate true nature, his TV dad portrayal stuck with me. Not only did it make me want to be a father and raise my own set of adorable Cosby kids, but it influenced a generation of other TV dads who were less strict and more loving. That in turn would trigger a backlash of TV dads who were less perfect and more flawed. But Cosby, for a large chunk of the '80s and '90s, was it: He was practically a synonym for Dad.

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The notion of a TV dad has evolved, though. It went through a phase, maybe starting with Roseanne, where dads could be slobby and aloof, even if they clearly cared about the kids. They could be angry and violent like Homer Simpson (maybe he loves his kids, but he sure choked Bart a hell of a lot of times over the years). Eventually, even a dad with initial good intentions could turn into a full-blown sociopath (Walter White, Breaking Bad). Or maybe they were always out for blood (hello, Tony Soprano).

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Those aren't great dads, not ones anyone should emulate or aspire to. But the great TV dads are out there and when they're giving good Dad Wisdom or doing the right thing by their kid or adopted kids, I sometimes get a little teary. It's Uncle Phil taking on the surrogate dad role for Will on Fresh Prince. It's Keith Mars talking to his daughter Veronica on her level and treating her like a partner in the detective business even though his heart breaks for all the trauma she's been through. It's Bob Belcher loving his weird kids and playing along with whatever shenanigans they get into, even if it's completely embarrassing for him on Bob's Burgers. It's Jack and Randall from This Is Us, two generations of dads completely dedicated to their families.

The dads I love on TV show up. They support and build up their children; they don't insult or belittle or dispirit them. (That's most of Al Bundy's parenting on Married… With Children.) They can be silly, but they don't let their kids walk all over them; Julis Rock, Terry Crews' character from Everybody Hates Chris, was gentle and sweet, but he could be scary, too, when it was needed. And, like Hank Hill on King of the Hill, they come to eventually accept that their kids will never be just like them; they will be their own person and that's absolutely critical.

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The way TV unfolds, at least before binge-streaming, was that these dads were in your home every week, consistent and reliable. They taught, and continue to teach, lessons about tolerance and loyalty and what it means to be responsible for raising a child to adulthood.

We're never going to hold up Bill Cosby as a paragon of parenting again: His good parenting on television was hiding a monster within. But we have lots of other great fathers across television to inspire us and make us dads feel seen. Despite how influential Cosby once was, he can't ruin that for us today.