News Column

Parents Who Just Won't Let Go

November 12, 2013


What hellish Hollywood cabal is responsible for television's new breed of over-50 barnacle parents?

Prime-time network TV is awash this fall in wildly inappropriate mothers and fathers who drive their adult children crazy and seem to be bent on keeping 30-something "kids" from living independent lives.

These needy older generation folks -- found in, among others, the new comedies "Dads," "Mom," "The Crazy Ones" and "The Millers" -- just won't let go. They're supposed to make us laugh -- and they're played by actors I admire -- but their antics just make me cringe. As a parent of an actual (not fictional) adult son, I strive to never invade boundaries, give unsolicited advice, text or call too much, or whine about how I'd love to see him more often (even though I really would like to).

Sometimes, negotiating a relationship with an adult child is like walking on eggshells -- which was, in fact, the title of an insightful 2008 book about parenting adult children written by Jane Isay.

But TV's new parents have obviously never read it. They don't walk on eggshells. They trample over everything.

Consider these space-invaders:

On Fox's "Dads," a comedy from Seth MacFarlane ("Family Guy"), Eli (Seth Green) and Warner (Giovanni Ribisi) -- best friends and partners in a successful gaming business -- are both saddled with highly dysfunctional and intrusive fathers, who have moved in with their respective sons. In last week's episode, Eli's dad (Peter Riegert) accidentally brought bedbugs into Eli's house, so father and son had to sleep at the office (where both dads are also fixtures, by the way). Warner's dad (Martin Mull), meanwhile, ended up French-kissing Warner's wife (Vanessa Lachey) onstage in a local play.

CBS' "Mom" is about Christy (Anna Faris), a newly sober mother of two who is struggling to reconnect with her estranged, sharp- tongued mother Bonnie (Allison Janney), also a recovering addict. Christy countered unwanted advice from her mom by saying, "Mom, I've watched you lick cocaine crumbs out of a shag carpet." Bonnie's response: "It's not a sin to be thrifty, dear."

And let's not forget CBS' "The Crazy Ones," a comedy in which Sarah Michelle Gellar plays a focused, organized, mature woman whose partner in a powerful advertising agency is her dad, a manic, unpredictable and inappropriate ad genius (Robin Williams). This daddy is off the wall and needs constant parenting.

The worst offender

Most offensive to me, though, is "The Millers." In the pilot for CBS' freshman comedy, Carol Miller (Margo Martindale) moved in with her son Nathan (Will Arnett) after her husband of 43 years (Beau Bridges) decided that he wanted a divorce. While Carol's daft husband camped out with their daughter, Carol moved in with the recently divorced Nathan, who'd been looking forward to a singles lifestyle. But, in the pilot, pajama-clad Mom crashed her son's party and flirted with his friends. And in a recent episode, she told her daughter, "It is my duty as your mother to point out your shortcomings."

Technically, this list includes yet another barnacle parent -- James Caan's opinionated, beer-guzzling, memorably obnoxious ex- athlete character in "Back in the Game." He meddled in every aspect of his adult daughter's life after she and her young son, out of financial necessity, moved in with her estranged dad. (ABC canceled the comedy earlier this month, but it will play out its 13-episode run.)

And let's not forget CBS' "Mike & Molly," in which the title couple live with Molly's hard-drinking mom (Swoosie Kurtz) and her ridiculous husband, though you'd swear it was the other way around. And Mike's mom? She's a mirthless, mean-spirited religious fanatic.

Problematic TV parents are not a new trend, of course. They have inhabited lots of comedies, including "Seinfeld," "The King of Queens" and "Everybody Loves Raymond." But those elders were different. They caused problems, but not constantly. Helen and Morty Seinfeld lived in Florida. Estelle and Frank Costanza, of Kew Gardens, showed up for key plot points (Festivus, mansieres, hospital sponge baths). Though Doug and Carrie Heffernan had her father Arthur living in their "Queens" basement, he was not the focus of every episode. And on "Raymond," all the Barones were odd - - the elders just more extremely so.

Most importantly, though, the Barones, Arthur, the Seinfelds and the Costanzas were forgivable for one big reason: They were funny.

Not so, this new barnacle crew.

Why is this a trend?

The trend is baffling, for a couple of reasons.

For one, the best comedy on network TV now is ABC's "Modern Family," in which the family patriarch, Jay Pritchett (Ed O'Neill), is far from a loser. He's got a gorgeous trophy wife (Sofia Vergara), a loved and loving stepson and a new baby, and he is trying to be a better dad this time around than he was when his adult kids were young. Sure, Jay's a bit of a character, but so is every single other family member on this multi-generational comedy. Considering the show's ratings, critical acclaim and Emmy wins, you'd think that more shows would be trying to emulate that model.

The trend is also odd because older viewers -- and by that I mean anyone over 49 -- are the most loyal to network television. And this is how they repay us?

In a recent Los Angeles Times story, Scott Collins traces the start of TV's relentless pursuit of the 18- to 49-year-old demographic to 1987, when Nielsen introduced "people meters," which could provide detailed viewership breakdowns by age and gender. (In TV's early days, Nielsen provided estimates of total viewership.) Ad agencies decided young adults were the most valuable.

Always irksome, that approach nonetheless worked out OK for the broadcast networks -- until they started to lose more and more viewers to cable, and then, to digital platforms. Appointment viewing gave way to on-demand watching, especially among younger viewers. With the median age of viewers on ABC, CBS and NBC now well over 50, Collins wrote, "there are signs now that the sun is finally setting on the demo craze, 25 years after it took over network TV. Broadcasters may have to go back to valuing total audiences over how many affluent 20-somethings they managed to reach."

If they do wise up, barnacle parents might get scrubbed by network television.

By then, even over-50 viewers may have jumped ship. There's only so long one can be loyal to those who would turn them into a cheap joke.

A service of YellowBrix, Inc.

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