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Rich Dad, Bad Dad: Why Crime Dads Mean Big Awards
Forget about the kids these days: What’s with the dads? A trend in crime TV storytelling defines this post-millennial era like almost no other—shows of families led by criminal fathers.
These bad dads never have it easy. Double lives, troubled kids and ever-deadlier stakes are their daily grind. Their shows, however, couldn’t be doing better. Since the dawn of the ‘00s, crime drama centered around criminal fathers has dominated the critical scene.
Don’t just take my word for it—check out the stats. The critical community’s darlings in the crime scene have been The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and The Shield. The Wire is a clear exception, but its ensemble “real talk” approach to crime narrative isn’t the rule. You can even cram Mad Men onto the list. Say what you will about it thriving as a sop to nostalgia over the passing of the 20th century, Mad Men’s dramatic premise centers around its main character committing fraud—both for his job and for his legal survival.
So whip out your Psych 101 textbooks, folks, and let’s get Freudian. It’s time to explore why the turn of the millennium brought about the reign of bad dad crime. We’ll survey the three crime shows that have laid claim on the award shows and point out why this all happened because of a turn of the calendar.
It’s hard not to like Tony Soprano. From his idolization of World War II generals to his ice-cream habit and constant mid-life frustration, the guy had a lot of cute going for him. That’s the new element that The Sopranos brought to crime drama trends, above all else. You didn’t just get to understand the life of this mobster, you were made to feel for him like a pal.
After all, close looks at the mob’s inner workings were old hat, in feature film if not in television. From the undisputed epic champ of the mafia scene, The Godfather, to Scorcese’s humanizing portraits like Mean Streets and GoodFellas, America came to know La Cosa Nostra as folks rather like us. But they weren’t just like us. Michael Corleone was a wicked patriarch like a lot of the guys on this list, but his story was about a young man turning to stone, not about being flesh and blood and mundane frustrations.
Tony Soprano was a regular dude. He overate, wore himself out, and used the crapper just like the rest of us. As often as he worried about looming mob wars, he worried five times as frequently about giving his family a decent future. Meadow, A.J., and Carm were the core of his world. The show was more about his criminal activity threatening to rip that apart than it was about Tony struggling to rise to power.
It comes as no shock that The Sopranos hit the screen in 1999. Tony’s major lament about his family was that they didn’t conform to the simpler times that had passed. He constantly fretted about a legacy being lost, a family unit in jeopardy, and an order to things that was vanishing.
For anybody clued in during that time, it all sounds familiar. America was going wild over eulogizing its “Greatest Generation,” as the men who had elevated our nation to an empire were on the way out. The Presidency, after the long ascent of the Clinton years, was such an afterthought that Bush could slip right past an opponent, Al Gore, that many assumed was a shoe-in. Culture had gone through the passion of modernism—Hard Rock, New Wave, Heavy Metal, ‘80s film—into a wistful, over-produced post-modernism.
America was watching its grandfathers die. And when the grandfather dies, the father is forced to be a son again—a son with the burden of children, and a legacy, to carry along with his grief.
For seven (or so) strong seasons, Tony Soprano was that grieving son, mourning the loss of his father’s ways and trying to wrestle the future into a shape he recognized.
Tony failed. Fade to black.
Around the time Tony, in The Sopranos’s final episode, was told “Don’t Stop Believing” by hard rockers of his youth, Journey, another furious spasm of nostalgia was about to explode onto the airwaves. 2007 closed out The Sopranos and slammed the critics upside the head with Mad Men.
Once again, to the chorus that Mad Men isn’t a crime show, I call bullshit. Don Draper drives that show. Don’s desertion from Korea, impersonation of another man, and subsequent attachment issues drive its core drama. If the main character wasn’t constantly lying his way through affairs, careerism and borderline booze addiction, it wouldn’t be the same show.
And it wouldn’t have raked in the gold statues if Don wasn’t a father. He is, though. He is The Father—the big-deal pater familias of Pax Americana: A dad at the time when America most idealized dads, and when America was, itself, at its most idealized. America was on top of the world in the ‘60s, and the father figure was on top of America.
Except, gee, Don kind of sucks as a dad. He sucks as a person in many regards. He’s brilliant, charismatic and as virile as a thoroughbred stud, but he’s a liar and a self-destructive bastard.
He is the ‘60s dad, seen through the eyes of some very disappointed children in the ‘00s.
See, the millennium proved a bummer. We didn’t get atomized in Y2K. We didn’t conquer terrorism after 9-11. We twice elected a true-blue, All-American, beer-drinking flag waver, and all we got were relentless scandals, deceptions and drain on the economy.
Collectively, boomers and Gen-X alike cried, “What the hell, Dad?” America had promised us conquest and significance and a rocking economy. Instead, we only got poorer, weaker and more divided.
Kind of like Don, you see. He tries to look like a great businessman and a solid father, but he knows he’s a whore’s son in some other guy’s suit. He’s so flashy and fierce—much like America—and gets by selling his family and his clients a bill of goods. But we all know it’ll come crashing down by the end of each season.
Don Draper is testament to how America’s father is America’s great fraud. Just like the Bush years, he promises a mighty future, then slips out the back door to fuck around on us.
If that ain’t crime—and the pulse of the mid ‘00s—I don’t know what is.
Everything changed in 2008. We had a shot at a new presidency, a culture of unity, a collective cheer for capital-letter ideals like Hope to once again dominate. It was Obama time—time for change.
Or, wait, no, nothing changed. We elected Obama, our first president of color—as profound a political statement for a new way as exists in our history—and waited for things to get wildly better. They only kept sliding down.
Enter Walter White, Breaking Bad’s criminal dad and the most vicious entry on our list. Walt is a chemistry teacher with crushing debt, a disabled kid and a death sentence, terminal cancer, on his head. Walt needs some Change, quick, just like America did. So he applies his genius intellect to a criminal career in methamphetamine manufacture, hoping ruthless decisions will save his family’s future.
Change doesn’t work out for Walt White or the White clan. For every mercy he shows in his tragic climb up the ladder of narco-terrorism, things get worse. So Walt starts making ruthless decisions. And guess what? Things get even worse.
Notice a trend here? Change doesn’t work.
Mercy certainly doesn’t work. For every adversary that Walt or his spastic accomplice, Jesse Pinkman, allow to live, they compound their troubles. But even the lesson that a ruler must be cruel—beautifully illustrated in a Breaking Bad season three scene where Walt is told by a former beat cop about a serial abuser who is given a reprieve from death and goes on to murder his spouse—doesn’t have an absolute truth.
Walt, as he says once, isn’t the one who answers his front door and gets shot; he’s the one who knocks. But his ruthlessness is the direct cause of far, far worse bloodshed. Everything he does to save his family only speeds their plummet into the abyss.
Seen the Unemployment chart lately? How about civil rights advances? Or, hey, any advances, by either side of the aisle? Whether you pine for gay marriage or DOMA, the ERA instituted or Roe v. Wade overturned, the end to the Global War on Terror or conquest of Islamic terrorism, you’re SOL because it’s SSDD.
The oughts are over and dad still hasn’t fixed this mess. Walt, in his White household, and Barry in his White House, they took the world on their shoulders with the conviction that they were going to move it back into alignment. Instead, we’re still bleeding out money, lives, and dignity.
Worse of all, we’ve lost faith. We’ve gone from the teens of the Clinton years to the fathers of the Obama years. We’ve gotten harder, more cynical, more extreme, and still we’re just going through the motions like Walt. Debt still knocks at the door, doom is at the border, and trust is going down the tubes.
The critics get it, even if they don’t know why: Fathering today’s doomed and desperate future is a crime.