best dads on television fathers day
They're not perfect, but these dads made for great TV.
Courtesy of NBC / HBO / Hulu
By Bonnie Stiernberg / June 19, 2020 12:00 pm

TV fathers often get a bad rap. They’re frequently reduced to bumbling idiots for comic relief on sitcoms or presented as cold disciplinarians who antagonize their children on prestige dramas. And while both of those tropes can be entertaining, the best depictions of fatherhood on television tend to be more nuanced than that. Objectively bad guys like Tony Soprano or Don Draper can have some heartwarming, redeeming moments with their kids. Standoffish dads like Jack Arnold can open up a bit and let us in. And yes, even the goofy dumb guys like Homer Simpson can offer up a bit of fatherly advice.

Of course, not every father on TV is worthy of redemption, and some of the greatest moments are sad or simply superbly acted confrontations between children and their shitty, toxic dads. Fatherhood is complex, and to celebrate Father’s Day this year, we’re revisiting our favorite moments from some of TV’s most memorable patriarchs — the funny ones, the heartfelt ones and everything in between.

The Wonder Years, “My Father’s Office” (Season 1, Episode 3)

Kevin Arnold’s father Jack is established pretty early on in the series as a stern guy to be feared, but The Wonder Years’ “My Father’s Office” adds some new layers to him. After noting that his dad is always in a terrible mood when he comes home from work, Kevin spends a day at the office with him, where he sees just how soul-crushing and stressful his job is. Jack admits to him that growing up he wanted to be a sea captain, and we see a new, more tender side of him. “My dad had something finer in him than S-14’s and distribution reports,” adult Kevin narrates. “I’ll never forget how I felt at that moment. I felt that my father was a great man.” The episode ends with the two of them gazing at the night sky together, as Kevin’s voiceover tells us, “But suddenly I realized I wasn’t afraid of him in quite the same way anymore. The funny thing is, I felt like I lost something.” — Bonnie Stiernberg, Senior Editor

Friday Night Lights, “Leave No One Behind” (Season 2, Episode 14)

Coach Taylor is among the most important TV dads of all time because of his brilliant portrayal of what it means to be not only an actual father but also a father figure. It’s a notion I’m inclined to roll my eyes at, especially when it’s applied to coaches and sports because that always seems to entail more dopey tough-guy shit than I can handle, but it’s done on Friday Night Lights with a level of complexity and depth that is refreshing, to say the least. And I think one of the biggest reasons the show pulled it off so well is that, as head football coach in a football-crazed Texas town, Coach Taylor is a Very Important Person with lots of macho bonafides, but at home, where he lives with his badass wife Tammy, his daughter Julie and, importantly, no other dudes whatsoever, he’s consistently being knocked down a peg, forced to listen and learn and adapt to people who don’t really give much of a shit about football — and he obviously comes out better for it. In this famous scene, Coach Taylor angrily tosses a drunk Matt Saracen into a shower and scolds him for flaking on his responsibilities and generally acting out. Saracen, whose father is out of the picture and who’s recently been dumped by the Coach’s daughter, breaks down and cries about all the people who’ve left him, ultimately asking, “What’s wrong with me?” After a few moments of silence, Coach Taylor says, simply, “There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s nothing wrong with you at all.” On paper, this does not exactly read like a hard-hitting exchange. But in those moments of silence, you see a man, a father, being reminded to see things from another person’s perspective. It’s just empathy. It’s not rocket science. But for a football coach in small-town Texas, it may as well be. And, who am I kidding? For all men everywhere, fathers or not. — Mike Conklin, Executive Editor

The O.C., “The Dearly Beloved” (Season 2, Episode 24)

Sandy Cohen proves himself a commendable father from the outset of The O.C., and some may point to those episodes — when he accepts wrong-side-of-the-tracks Ryan into his bougie family — as holding the quintessential paternal moments. They would be wrong. While the season two finale is remembered almost exclusively for the Imogen Heap-soundtracked shootout, it also holds the turning point when Sandy moves beyond quips about bagels, “the Vegas” and “yogalates” and shows he’s worth all the praise viewers heaped on him over the years. In this one episode, he helps his wife Kirsten begin treatment for alcoholism, treats his son Seth like an adult when discussing the issue, and holds the entire family (including extended relations) together during the funeral for his father-in-law, delivering a moving speech that honors a man he openly despises the first two seasons. — Alex Lauer, Senior Editor

Ramy, “Frank in the Future” (Season 2, Episode 8)

Amr Waked as Farouk Hassan on Ramy (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

Similar in tone and format to FleabagAtlanta or Louie (are we still allowed to talk about Louie?), Ramy Youssef’s loosely autobiographical Hulu show treads a delicate balance between comedy, angst, cynicism and melodrama. And as is the case with those shows, the highest notes tend to arrive when Youssef’s writing is at its most vulnerable and sincere. The most memorable scene of the show’s recently released sophomore season sees Ramy having a heart-to-heart with his father, Farouk, on the eve of the former’s wedding night. Farouk describes his mixed feelings about his son leaving his roost to start a family of his own. To be a father, he laments, is to always live “in the future”: planning, preparing, agonizing and generally shouldering a burden well beyond his own so that his family — and especially his oldest son — can live in the present. It is one of the most poignant and affective descriptions of parental anxiety I’ve seen on screen. — Walker Loetscher, Editor-in-chief

Catastrophe, “Episode 4” (Season 2, Episode 4)

The premise for this comedy, which ran for four seasons on the UK’s Channel 4, and is available on Amazon in the States, is “might as well” parenthood. American Rob Norris (Rob Delaney) gets Irishwoman Sharon Morris (Sharon Horgan) pregnant, after meeting her on a business trip in London, where they have sex every 15 minutes for a full week. When she calls him months later — his phone lights up with “Sharon London Sex” — to deliver the news, the two 30-somethings spontaneously decide to commit to each other and the baby. As the years wear on (and another baby comes along), their relationship fireworks and fizzles, usually as a result of having to take care of their kids. Rob’s crass-casual approach to fatherhood drives the humor of the show: this pillow-talk scene is the morning of his third anniversary with Sharon, but also (of course) happens to be his son’s birthday. He tries to talk down a boner before his kid walks into the bedroom. — Tanner Garrity, Associate Editor

Mad Men, “A Day’s Work” (Season 7, Episode 2)

Don Draper is not a great dad. He’s frequently absent, he drinks too much, and he keeps his kids — like everyone else in his life — at an arm’s length. His relationship with his daughter Sally is nearly destroyed in season six when she catches him having sex with his married neighbor Sylvia, and early on in season 7 we find out she’s still mad about that. When she catches him in yet another lie — this time about the fact that he’s been put on leave by SC&P — her anger boils over. Eventually they wind up at a diner, and Don explains himself and opens up a little. By the time he drops her off at school, it seems to be water under the bridge: as she’s getting out of the car, Sally casually says, “Happy Valentine’s Day. I love you.” The look on Don’s face makes for one of the best moments of the show; he’s stunned and touched, and as The Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year” plays, it’s clear there’s hope for him yet. — Bonnie Stiernberg, Senior Editor

The Simpsons, “New Kid on the Block (Season 4, Episode 8)

The thing with Homer is he tries. And fails. And gets lazy, but then he tries again. He wants to help his kids. And sometimes his advice is neither wrong nor right, just honest in a way that’s rare between fathers and children (see: “You tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”) The best example of this arrives in this season 4 — the best Simpsons season — standout, where Bart develops a crush on his neighbor but she’s into local bully Jimbo. He seeks out Grandpa, who’s worthless; Homer, meanwhile, starts off good-hearted but fumbling (“Son, a woman is a lot like … a refrigerator. They’re about six feet tall, three-hundred pounds … they make ice”) before getting real. And real drunk. And real honest. At the very least, Bart will never forget his dad’s words — and may choose to stay away from alcohol. — Kirk Miller, Managing Editor

BoJack Horseman, “Free Churro” (Season 5, Episode 6)

This episode, while one of the best in the series, is admittedly more about BoJack’s mother than his father. However, the episode does open with a flashback in which BoJack’s verbally abusive failed writer of a father picks up his son late from soccer practice, a task he equates with “being your mother.” He then goes on to deliver an approximately two-minute, uninterrupted monologue in which he refers to BoJack’s mother as “the black hole that birthed you,” angrily reveals she was unable to pick BoJack up from soccer practice herself because she spent the afternoon locked in her bedroom weeping “for the attention,” and blames BoJack for “making that thin, brittle wisp of a woman” his own mother. He also throws in some homophobia for good measure. It’s a dark and unflattering image of fatherhood, but fatherhood isn’t always all dad jokes and bonding. Sometimes having a father is painful and hard. This scene honors that with honesty and humor. — Kayla Kibbe, Associate Editor

Seinfeld, “The Strike” (Season 9, Episode 10)

Most sitcom dads are cuddly doofuses — well-meaning, beer-swilling everymen who love their family, even if they don’t know how to show it. Homer Simpson wants to crack open a cold one with the boys; Phil Dunphy just wants everyone to have fun. Seinfeld’s Frank Costanza, though, has a lot of problems with you people and now you’re going to hear about it. The father of George (who is perhaps television’s ur-Large Adult Son), Frank dominates every episode that he’s in, none more so than “The Strike.” In response to what he thinks is the gross commercialization of the holidays, Frank creates Festivus, an annual offensive against all things Yule. Played by the late Jerry Stiller, Frank unveils the particulars of his hilarious insanity — aluminum poles, feats of strength, airings of grievances — with the brashness of a Mike Francesa caller. Frank might not be the kind of dad you want to play catch with, but through his relationship with George, he provides living proof that you can’t escape your family, that some part of you will always be defined by where and who you come from. Whether it’s a metaphor for the endurance of heritage or an Oedipal curse, until you pin your dad, Festivus will never end. — Jack Tien-Dana, Editorial Assistant

The Sopranos, “From Where to Eternity” (Season 2, Episode 9)

In addition to being the father of his crime family, Tony Soprano is also the father of two children, daughter Meadow and son AJ. Whether it is while serving as a crime boss or a dad, Tony has a tendency to lose his temper and dole out punishment — sometimes physical, sometimes emotional and sometimes both. In this scene, Tony comes to his son’s room with a pizza in hand after flying off the handle at him during dinner. Upset at losing control, Tony tells AJ how much of himself he sees in the teenage boy and apologizes. “I couldn’t ask for a better son, AJ,” Tony says. “I mean that.” He may not be the best dad, but at least he’s sincere and brings pizza. — Evan Bleier, Senior Editor

Twin Peaks, “Episode 8” (Season 2, Episode 1)

Good fathers are in short supply in the strange town of Twin Peaks, WA. Benjamin Horne is a philandering old creep bent on selling out his town to Scandinavians, James Hurley has no father onscreen, and the less said about Leland Palmer, the better. One shining moment of good fatherhood came at a nice sitdown in the Double R diner between Bobby Briggs and his father, Major Briggs. Throughout the show, the relationship between the two is pretty rocky; rebellious Bobby has no real positive interactions with his straight-laced military father. The only parenting he really gives Bobby is psychoanalysis about his rebellious nature, to which Bobby reacts pretty violently. All it took was a trip to the show’s otherworld for Major Briggs to have a talk with Bobby, and give one of the most wonderful and understanding speeches in any television show. Major Briggs tells Bobby of a vision he had the night before of embracing each other, clearly seeing Bobby would have a future of pure harmony and peace after all of his teenage pain. He trusts Bobby will be able to live a good life, and leaves him with a handshake, a gesture suggesting a profound level of respect and sweetness. — John Hill, Social Media Manager

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse” (Season 4, Episode 24)

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is best known for its comedy and goofy things like “The Carlton Dance,” but it took a serious turn with this memorable season four episode that sees Will’s deadbeat dad attempting to reenter his life after 14 years. His aunt and uncle doubt his intentions, but Will gets sucked in by his charm until, predictably, he makes some excuse to bail yet again. It all comes to a head with this emotional scene, where a hurt and angry Will breaks down, and we get a glimpse of why Will Smith would go on to become a two-time Oscar nominee. He’s comforted by Uncle Phil, the closest thing he has to a loving father figure, and we can all find some solace in the fact that while his dad may not care about him, he’s got plenty of other people who do. — Bonnie Stiernberg, Senior Editor

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, “The Gang Gives Frank An Intervention” (Season 5, Episode 4)

In what is arguably one of the best episodes of this series, Paddy’s Pub patriarch Frank Reynolds pushes his depravity to the limit when he brings The Gang to a funeral with the intention to sleep with his recently widowed sister-in-law, Donna. Frank’s devious plot introduces Dennis and Dee’s “garbage pail cousin” Gail the Snail, whose incessant slobbering pushes his children over the edge. To rid themselves of The Snail once-and-for-all, The Gang hires a counselor to hold an armed intervention to keep Frank from sleeping with Donna. The takeaway is that sometimes the things we do to “help” our fathers are actually selfish ploys to make their presence in our lives a little less cumbersome. Or maybe it’s that if you pour boxed wine into a used soda can, your drinking problem will look a lot less conspicuous. — Mike Falco, Art Director

Master of None, “Parents” (Season 1, Episode 2)

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Master of None‘s Parents” episode has a simple concept: Dev and Brian, both first generation, take their immigrant parents out for dinner to try and show their gratitude for all the sacrifices they’ve made. What pushes it from good to great, however, is the fact that Aziz Ansari cast his real-life parents to play his character’s parents on the show. The episode feels like a love letter to them — especially his father — and after it aired, he posted to Instagram about how it had an impact on his real-life relationship with them. “I’ve been overwhelmed by the response to the Parents episode of our show,” he wrote. “What’s strange is doing that episode and working with my parents has increased the quality of my relationship to my parents IN MY REAL LIFE. In reality, I haven’t always had the best, most open relationship with my parents because we are weirdly closed off emotionally sometimes. But we are getting better.” — Bonnie Stiernberg, Senior Editor

Succession, “This Is Not for Tears” (Season 2, Episode 10)

Succession is, on its surface, about which family member will succeed the aging Logan Roy as CEO of the Waystar Royco media empire, but it’s also ultimately about three adult children vying for the affection of their gruff, cruel father. No one tries harder than Kendall, who even goes so far as to rap, “Bro, don’t get it twisted, I’ve been through hell/But since I stan Dad, I’m alive and well.” Of course, he’s thanked with a knife in his back, as Logan selects him as the family’s “blood sacrifice” to take the fall for a major scandal. Logan watches his press conference expectantly, and when Kendall — who has finally had enough — throws him under the bus instead, we expect him to react to the betrayal with one of his massive tantrums. (This is, after all, the guy responsible for “Boar on the Floor.”) Instead, he’s quiet, taking it all in as his son essentially commits patricide. Finally, we see the tiniest smile creep across his face. He’s mad, but he’s impressed. Turns out all Kendall needed to do to earn his respect was become just as ruthless as he is. — Bonnie Stiernberg, Senior Editor

Game of Thrones, “Valar Dohaeris” (Season 3, Episode 1)

The concept of patriarchy plays an outsize role in the worldbuilding of Game of Thrones — in a feudal society where jockeying for power is the name of the game and familial lineage is the clearest avenue to power, one could argue that patriarchy is one of the most important elements of the titular Game. Thus it should come as no surprise that the show’s narrative (as well as the narrative of the books the show was largely based on) is lousy with all manner of dads that loom large over the proceedings. There are crazy dead dads (The Mad King Aerys Targaryen), handsome secret dads (Jaime Lannister), duplicitous weasely stepdads (Peter Baelish, aka “Littlefinger”), even really good dads who turn out later on to not have been dads all along (Ned Stark, in the case of Jon Snow). Long story short, dads everywhere whose relationships to their children are frequently a driving force in the story with far-reaching consequences. None of these dads, however, cast quite the shadow of Lannister patriarch Tywin, a formidable figure both literally and figuratively whose rigid adherence to concepts like honor, heritage and tradition are the bedrock of his character. Thus his relationship with son Tyrion proves arguably the most interesting parent/child dynamic of the entire show, as Tywin’s dogmatic principles have essentially painted him into a corner where he must tolerate a son who he blames for his wife’s death (blaming a child for the death of his own mother during childbirth is a whole ‘nother level of shit parenting, but GOT gonna GOT) and whom he patently wishes had died instead. And while this relationship plays out to to fantastic patricidal conclusion in the tenth episode of the show’s fourth season (er, spoiler alert), it’s a full two seasons earlier that one gets the best view of it via one of the most scathing monologues in the history of the show (ranked #2 in our list of the show’s 101 best insults). Vicious, cruel and unrelenting though it may be, Tywin’s tirade actually serves as a strangely teachable moment for Tyrion, who ultimately comes to realize that though he may carry the Lannister name and be in theory entitled to a proper seat at the table, he will never get that seat via the traditional avenues and thus must go out and secure it for himself. —Danny Agnew, Creative Director