Parents at the Emmys.

by Meredith O'Brien


When the Emmy nominations were announced last week, I was taking a good look at which actors and actresses were nominated for what roles when something jumped out at me: The list included a whole lot of characters who play parents on TV. There were good parents, bad parents, parents who try but don’t necessarily succeed and parents who do things they really shouldn’t in the name of “helping” their family.


Then I wondered: If I tallied them up would there be more bad parents on the list – because behaving badly seems so theatrical and much more comedic and/or dramatic than acting like a goody-two-shoes – or would the role model parents rule the day? Here’s what I found:


The Parentally Challenged


The drama Mad Men, which netted 17 Emmy nominations overall, featured several parents who won’t be winning any Parent of the Year contests. Take the main couple, Don and Betty Draper, played by Jon Hamm and January Jones, both nominated for best lead actor/actress in a drama. Ad man Don may have tried really hard to be a dedicated and attentive father but his string of extramarital affairs (including one with his daughter’s teacher) and the fact that he stole another man’s identity -- both developments which contributed to the death of his marriage to suburban housewife Betty -- basically trumped the good he did as a dad. As for Betty, when she wasn’t telling her eldest son to bang his head against a wall when he’s bored, she was shouting to her daughter to get out of her hair and “Go watch TV.” The eldest parent on the show, Roger Sterling (played by John Slattery, nominated for best supporting actor in a drama) left his wife for his secretary who’s barely older than Roger’s only daughter, who now hates her father’s new wife and feels angry and betrayed that her father disposed of her mother with apparent ease.


The lead characters on two Showtime dramas are intensely messed up parents, mostly due to their dabbling in criminal activity and struggles with drug addiction. Dexter Morgan from Dexter, played by Michael C. Hall (nominated for best lead actor, drama) is a married father living in the ‘burbs, who helps the Miami homicide division catch criminals while he moonlights as a killer of the guilty. Jackie Peyton on Nurse Jackie, played by Edie Falco (nominated for best lead actress, comedy) is addicted to pain meds about which she lies and steals in order to get her fix, and has been cheating on her doting husband, the father of her two kids.


Meanwhile, Walter White on Breaking Bad, played by Bryan Cranston (nominated for best lead actor, drama) is similar to Don Draper in that he doesn’t set out to be a bad father. In fact, he’s doing what he does – cooking crystal meth and getting involved in the drug trade – FOR his family, to earn money for them.


However there’s little ambiguity when it comes to whether two characters – Ben Linus from Lost and Evelyn Harper from Two and a Half Men – could be considered traditionally “good” parents. Linus, played by Michael Emerson (nominated for best supporting actor, drama) stole a baby from a woman, raised the child as his own then allowed the teenage girl to be executed in order to protect the magical Lost island which he hoped to run. Meanwhile Harper, played by Holland Taylor (nominated as best supporting actress in a comedy) is referred to by her adult children as “the devil” and has been described as a “toxic” mother and grandmother.


Modern Family has its funny moments, but something kept nagging at me as "off". Then it struck me: how "modern" are these families if none of the mother figures work outside of the home?


Also nominated from Dexter (in the guest actor category) John Lithgow as Arthur Mitchell / Trinity. His was a truly horrifying portrayal of a "family man." Shudder...