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.
There were some parental nominees who really didn’t fit neatly into either category, two of which are mom characters where the actresses were nominated as the best lead actress in a comedy. On The United States of Tara , Toni Collette’s Tara Gregson can’t really help that she has a multiple personality disorder and that her alternate personalities completely mess up her children’s lives and make having a “normal” family life next to impossible. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Christine Campbell, from the now-cancelled The New Adventures of Old Christine , means well. Really she does. But her dozens of empty bottles of red wine and severe lack of a work ethic frequently get in the way of her feeble attempts to effectively parent her kid.
As for Alan Harper from Two and a Half Men  (Jon Cryer, lead actor, comedy), he’s a mixed bag as well, similarly described as well intentioned but his hapless, twice-divorced character does, after all, allow his son to live in the same house as Charlie Sheen.
Parenting Role Models
I was surprised to find a large number of “good parent” characters among the nominees, led by Julianna Margulies who was nominated as the best lead actress in a drama for her character Alicia Florrick in the freshman series The Good Wife . Alicia maintained grace, dignity and strength while enveloping her two children in a ferociously protective embrace as they rose from the ashes of her husband’s publicly painful political sex scandal that landed him in jail and, in last part of the season, under house arrest.
TV’s dream married couple, Friday Night Lights ’ Eric and Tami Taylor (Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, both nominated in the dramatic lead acting categories), are parents whom many teen characters on the show turn to for advice. Certainly flawed, definitely embarrassing to their teen daughter and, at many times awkward, Eric and Tami are nonetheless big-hearted, understanding and yet firm with not only their own teen but with all the high schoolers who seek them out. Plus the scenes with Eric the football coach playing on the floor with his toddler daughter are precious.
But the one show that takes the cake when it comes to great, messy, insecure, loving and involved parenting is Modern Family , where five actors from the show received Emmy nominations for best supporting actor/actress in a comedy. From Ty Burrell’s Phil Dunphy – a modern classic of a goofball dad who’s willing to do what he thinks is best for his kids even if it means canceling Christmas to make sure they understand the consequences of lying – to Eric Stonestreet’s Cameron Tucker – who calls himself the “stay-at-home dad/trophy wife” -- I wish all of the characters, including Julie Bowen (Claire Dunphy), Gloria Delgado Pritchett (Sofia Vergara) and Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) were members of my family too.
Other “model parents” included: Bart Hummel from Glee  (played by Mike O’Malley, nominated for best guest actor, comedy) who gave a powerful performance as a widowed tough guy father who took a stand against homophobic slurs on behalf of his gay son; Owen Thoreau Jr. from Men of a Certain Age  (Andrew Braugher, supporting actor, drama) who weathered his father humiliating him at work, health problems related to his ample girth and yet still managed to be a good dad and husband; and Madeline Westen from Burn Notice  (Sharon Gless, supporting actress, drama) who, according to a friend of mine who’s an aficionado of the show, is a pain in the butt “recovering bad parent” who pesters her sons constantly, but is “now a super parent who clearly adores her sons and puts up with having her house and life regularly ripped to shreds by [her son’s] misadventures.”
According to my calculations eight nominations went to portrayals of the Parentally Challenged, three went to Parental In-Betweens and 11 went to Parenting Role Models. Well meaning, imperfect but still overall conscientious parents outnumbered the screwed up ones. Maybe this is the start of a new trend.