From sitcoms to family dramas, TV has always explored fatherhood. But many recent depictions, across genres, are challenging traditional ideas of the nuclear family and redefining what it means to be a dad. From Pray Tell (Billy Porter) on “Pose” to Brad Wolgast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) on “The Passage,” biology is not the most important factor — instead that is the character’s choice to look after the vulnerable.
Set in the 1980s New York City ballroom scene, FX’s “Pose” features “houses” whose members are primarily LGBTQ black and brown youth. MJ Rodriguez stars as Blanca, a trans woman and mother of the House of Evangelista, alongside Porter’s patriarch, a gay man and a legendary ball emcee. Together, they mentor their kids, some of whom were living on the street or kicked out by their biological families.
“When we come out as gay, when we come out as trans, when we come out as different in this way, very often we’re put out of houses,” Porter says. “We’re put out of the love that the traditional family gives, and so we’re forced to create our own. And ultimately, I have learned that it’s the best kind of family that you have, because you get to choose it.”
Similarly, Gosselaar was tasked with being a father figure in Fox’s apocalyptic thriller “The Passage.” Much of the action of the show centered on vampire-like creatures called virals preparing to end humanity as we know it, giving Gosselaar a chance to play an action hero, but also the “emotional heart” of the show, as his character protected the girl who was humanity’s last hope.
“Being a surrogate father to someone is very different than being a biological father,” Gosselaar says. “We had an episode where she flat out said to Brad, ‘You’re not my father, you’re not my dad.’ To play those emotions on the screen, as actors, we’re always looking for a challenge.”
Although Taran Killam’s Will Cooper on ABC’s freshman comedy “Single Parents” is a biological parent, he still had the opportunity to break out of the stereotypical sitcom dad mold. Will loves being a stay-at-home dad; he’s extremely in touch with his feelings; he breaks out into song at any opportunity; and he not only participates but actually revels in school bake sales.
“I was very excited to play someone who’s sensitive, someone who’s creative, someone who really is a grand romantic, and goes above and beyond,” Killam says. “Redefining the cliches of what is masculine and what is feminine is a very exciting conversation that’s happening in the world right now. And so Will Cooper felt like a step forward for playing the emotional man.”
These unconventional roles give actors a lot to play with in their performances. Killam says he gets to mine his comedy chops as goofball Will, while more sincere moments require some guidance from director Jason Winer so he can “shift down” any over-the-top tendencies.
As the world becomes more progressive and inclusive in its notions of fatherhood and masculinity, shows including “Single Parents” “reflect the times,” Killam says.
Meanwhile, “Pose” shines on light on real stories that have existed for decades, but were not often given a platform.
“It’s very rare up until this point in our culture, that we’ve been able to see three-dimensional gay characters of color,” says Porter, an industry veteran of 30 years. “This show puts people of color in the driver’s seat, in the leading roles. When I started in this business, there was nothing that looked like this for me. Nothing that looked like Pray Tell. It’s an extraordinary thing that I am so grateful to have lived long enough to see.”
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