Surviving Jack:  Is There a New Fatherhood Meme Starting?

My wife and I were sitting in the family room watching the evening tube when Fox ran a commercial promoting a new show, Surviving Jack, with Christopher Meloni.  After watching Meloni’s character, Jack, in the promo, she looked over at me laughing and simply said you’re going to want to see that.  She was correct and when it finally aired about a week later, I did.

Meloni’s character, Jack, is happily married – insofar as that kind of guy experiences happiness – to the mother of his two teenage children in the halcyon days of the early 1990s.  He is a physician who steps up to take a larger role in raising the kids when his wife returns to law school, much to the fear and trepidation of his high school freshman son.  It is this character who is the present-day narrator of the story and is loosely based upon the upbringing of author and creator Justin Halpern; those who recall the name understand that Jack is also based loosely upon Halpern’s father, who Halpern made famous in his hilarious S*!t My Dad Says.  I’ve watched two episodes of the show and will continue because it’s funny and also because it’s frankly fascinating as to the points that can be made about fatherhood if one chooses to consider them.

The first point is that Jack doesn’t view being an active and engaged parent who’s now responsible for the daily care of teenagers with trepidation.  The popular media view of most fathers over the past twenty years has been that they are, at worst, idiots and at best, well-meaning but ineffective in their ability to parent the kids.  Granted, Jack’s kids are now teenagers and he’s through the stage where he’s changing diapers and managing the When You Give a Mouse a Cookie chaos of small children.  But teens present a wholly different challenge that is, as one mother described to me, far more mental and emotional than the physical of small kids.  Jack’s wife is hopeful that he’ll manage but concerned how her hard-nosed husband will handle the challenges; she has to let go of her own desire to micro-manage – and yes, mothers, many of you do tend to micromanage Dad – and trust him.  In an early instance of teen nonsense, he simply says don’t worry, I’ll handle this and proceeds to do so in a way that is foreign to most women but common to many men.  And to her relief and surprise, it works.

This leads to the second point, which is that women and men have a fundamentally different view of not only the role of parenting, but also the goal.  Jack’s wife talks to classically self-absorbed teen daughter and tells her that she wants her to avoid the same mistakes that she herself made and be happy.  Jack’s vision of what he has to do is prepare the kids to make their way in a world that is competitive and more than a little unfriendly.  Happiness is something that comes after a person has shown himself capable of managing what life throws at him and in Jack’s view, the objects thrown include everything up to and including the kitchen sink.  When his son is on the mound trying out for a place on the varsity baseball team, he has to pitch to his best friend, who desperately needs to get hits in order to make the team as well.  After lobbing a pineapple that goes for a hit, Jack actually interrupts the game and goes to the mound to tell his boy to stop half-assing and pitch the ball.  Son gets the message and proceeds to school his friend in the art of baseball.  While the circumstances have been different, the term half-assing is one that I’ve actually used with all of my own kids.  Son/Daughter/Whoever you are, I will support you in whatever you wish to participate.  But if you’re going to try it, then do your best and go all in.  Because if I even think that you’re half-assing in there and wasting my time, then that support goes away and you’ll be done.  Period.  And to the pleasure of my wife and I, each has gone all in and given their best effort.  It might not be the best out there, but soccer forwards are chased down, hits run through to first base and music practiced for the garage band to the point that it legitimately sounds good; and when a song sucks, it gets canned from the upcoming show’s playlist.

The third point is that Jack is actually respectful of the structure that his wife has created with the family and stays within it, showing that he’ll uphold his wife and maintain a solid front.  When his son, and buddies, come to him for help with their baseball skills, he takes up the challenge in comically over-the-top fashion.  He scares them and when his off-screen wife overhears him state that he’ll be picking them up at 5 AM and that they should expect to skip school in order to practice, she steps in and commands that school shall not be missed.  Jack’s response isn’t an argument with her, but a simple change of plans so that he respects her stance that school attendance is inviolable.  He might offer a different opinion of a situation to his daughter than one rendered by his wife, but again, he maintains a united front. 

Will this replacement show last?  I have no idea and frankly, my track record on calling the survival of television shows is spotty at best.  But despite the broad caricatures drawn by the creator and writers for comedic effect, the upshot of the show is that for all of the quirks, Jack is a blunt, old-school father who is actually an effective parent.  He refuses to accept the position of Bucky, the Sidekick Parent that’s taken by the large majority of on-screen fathers.  His perspective on fatherhood is to-the-point and survival oriented, as much as that of a father raising kids on the American frontier.  Men do have a different perspective on their role than women and it’s honestly time that it’s acknowledged to be as valid as that of the more tender-hearted mother.



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