Critics Pick Their Favorite TV Fathers of All Time

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question:Who’s your favorite TV father? Why? (Characters from current and old shows are fair game.)

Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR

I wrote a piece for NPR a few years ago about how most of what I learned about being a dad, I soaked up from TV. My own father is gone now; we reconciled when I was older, but when I was a kid, he wasn’t around as much as I wanted. I never lived with a father in the house, so I knew nothing about what it was like. For a long while, I thought most married couples were like Rob and Laura Petrie in “The Dick Van Dyke Show”; sleeping in two twin beds separated by a nightstand. So when I saw John Amos as James Evans Sr. on the legendary sitcom “Good Times,” I felt like I finally saw a dad who was something like the other fathers on my block, and something like the dad I could have had. Yeah, he was often angry and threatened corporal punishment WAY too often for my tastes, especially back then. But he worked hard, loved and valued his kids, encouraged them to get educated and take advantage of every opportunity and wanted nothing more than for them to do far better than he ever would. It wasn’t just that James Evans was black; it was that he was a black man whose primary goal was taking care of his wife and kids.

All these years later, I’ve seen other TV dads who also taught me lessons. John Goodman’s Dan Conner on “Roseanne” taught me how to make space for a strong wife and mom, but assert yourself when circumstances require it. Bill Bixby’s Tom Corbett on “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” taught me the power of a parent paying attention. I like fathers who show that being a dad takes effort and intention, like Michael Rapaport’s Doug Gardner on Netflix’s “Atypical.” And even though Milo Ventimiglia’s Jack Pearson is modern TV’s best dad on “This Is Us,” I identify a lot more with his adopted son, Sterling K. Brown’s Randall Pearson. In the same way Randall, as a black man raised in a white family, had to learn what being black meant to him, I had to learn what being a father meant to and for me. In the same way he found and reconciled with his biological father shortly before his death, I reconciled mostly with my dad before he passed. And Randall has a goofy earnestness mixed with a capacity to work a little too hard on stuff that takes him outside the family, which I also – sadly — can relate to. My four kids are mostly grown now. But seeing a dad on TV who still struggles, despite having had the best example of fatherhood in his life, means a lot. Even now.

Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni, "Veronica Mars"

Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni, “Veronica Mars”

Warner Bros./CBS

Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling),

I think there are two answers to this question. In one corner, there is the ideal father figure, the man who always knows the right thing to say. He has the right advice locked and loaded for every occasion. He steps in for absent fathers. He takes people under his wing and turns them into better people simply because they are in his orbit. He is Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) of “Friday Night Lights.” But then, in the other corner, there is the more realistic father, the one who will do anything for his kid, but who actually feels like someone who could exist outside of a television script. He’s intelligent. He’s funny. He doesn’t always have all the answers, but he tries and comes through in the end. He might not have a poignant speech ready in his back pocket, but he is still perfect in every way that matters. And that is Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni) of “Veronica Mars.” I think we all wish for some version or combination of the two.

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

Coach Taylor was a sensitive and understanding father to his oldest daughter, wayward enough for unfortunate relationships with the likes of The Swede and a patient and accepting father to a second child who was clearly the product of alien implantation. He was also a father-by-proxy to all of his players, practicing both tough and sensitive love. All hail Coach Taylor.

Margaret Qualley and Justin Theroux, "The Leftovers"

Margaret Qualley and Justin Theroux, “The Leftovers”


Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

Thank you, Hanh, for phrasing this question as “your favorite” TV father instead of “the best” TV father, so that I can choose Kevin Garvey. Sure, Eric Taylor is the best — there’s really no question there — but it’s important to emphasize what makes Kevin such a compelling dad, despite his many, many flaws. Played with an intense fragility by a very sweaty Justin Theroux, Kevin’s entire arc is based on moving from dissatisfaction to fulfillment, specifically in regard to his family. As seen in the Season 1 flashback episode, “The Garveys at Their Best,” Kevin asked his own father, Kevin Sr. (Scott Glenn), if this is all there is — if throwing parties and buying a dog and showing up for dinner was as good as it gets? If being a father and husband is enough to make a good life?

So when Kevin loses his family after an affair, a lost child, and the general calamity of Oct. 14, he’s shown what he was taking for granted and sent on a quest to not only bring his family back together, but earn a family again. In the beginning, he’s desperate, grieving, and discombobulated. He’s sleepwalking, resenting his new life by killing dogs or trying to shake himself out of his sorrow by stringing up his work shirts in the woos. Kevin’s subconscious acts out in ways his conscious self refuses to, until he’s forced to acknowledge who he is and what he really wants. Once he starts moving forward via an honest relationship with Nora, he’s reentering the world that bored him before, and he’s not going to let that happen again. It’s why he sings “Homeward Bound” in the Season 2 finale, why the last image of the finale is him coming home to his entire family, and, in Season 3, why he goes to fucking Australia every year looking for Nora.

He knows the value of a life many may deem average — he wants to be a father more than any other father I’ve ever seen on TV, and watching him fight for it is a magnificent battle to behold.

Maisie Williams and Sean Bean, "Game of Thrones"

Maisie Williams and Sean Bean, “Game of Thrones”


April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

OK, since no one just answers these great questions with the one pick ever, I am bifurcating comedy and drama dads. For the dramatic dad, I choose Ned Stark of “Game of Thrones” (Sean Bean) who set the gravitas of Winterfell’s place in the Westeros saga and the actions of the North and then diaspora of the fated Stark children until the surviving Stark family regrouped. He was a beloved true father figure in every sense until his assassination. It was his life and his gruesome and cruel death that was the grist for the subsequent story to unravel as it did.

Comedy dad? Way back machine time. For me it is Ken Titus (Stacy Keach) in Christopher Titus’ 2000 Fox series “Titus.” He was cast as Christopher Titus’s hard-drinking womanizing , chain-smoking tough dad who verbally abused his sons (with love) and was an abject failure at marriage (five times he wed). Despite this bad fortune in the love department, he was solid, never missed work and provided for his family and was there for them in the end. Keach played this role with gusto and utilized all of his edgy charming bastard mojo to bring Titus’ Roman à clef TV series to life. I think Stacy Keach is one of our most underrated actors ever, as an aside.

Marisa Roffman (@marisaroffman), Give Me My Remote

This topic always fascinates me, because so many memorable (or even beloved) TV fathers are fantastic characters, but arguably pretty awful at actual parenting.

My favorite father-child relationship of the past decade was probably “Fringe’s” Walter (played by the criminally underrated John Noble) and Peter Bishop (Josh Jackson). But, um, Walter (spoiler alert) stole Peter from another universe and basically caused a war/mayhem in the aftermath. Probably not real father of the year material there, even though he loved his son(s) so fiercely he was willing to do everything in his power to save any and all versions of Peter.

If we’re looking for a responsible father/father figure, I’d probably go with “The O.C.’s” Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher). At least he only invited a stranger to live with his family!

Adam Brody, Ben McKenzie, and Peter Gallagher, "The OC"

Adam Brody, Ben McKenzie, and Peter Gallagher, “The OC”

Warner Bros Tv/Kobal/Shutterstock

Clint Worthington (@clintworthing), Consequence of Sound, The Spool

I’ve written quite a bit about this (and I’ll have a piece up at about it in time for Father’s Day), but I’ll never see another TV father as wonderful as Avery Brooks’ Captain Benjamin Sisko from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”. It’s hard to remember how revolutionary Sisko was on so many different levels: not only was he a black lead on a sci-fi series upholding a long legacy in the genre, but he was a black father in a media landscape that often painted men of color as deadbeat dads or otherwise absent from their kids’ lives. “Trek” has always been aspirational, always committed to showing us the best in ourselves, and the Siskos are no exception. Ben is kind, loving, consistently generous with his time and always willing to listen to his son. He takes great care to balance his work and personal life, and ultimately respects Jake’s choices without malice or resentment — whether it’s befriending a young Ferengi boy or deciding not to pursue Starfleet. Some of the show’s best episodes — “Far Beyond the Stars”, “Explorers”, the tear-jerking “The Visitor” — offer up a beautiful template for the kind of man all fathers should hope to be with their children; “it’s life, Jake; you can miss it if you don’t open your eyes.”

So much of this is down to the incredible chemistry Brooks shared with Cirroc Lofton, who played Jake through all seven seasons of the series. Right from the pilot episode “Emissary”, the two behaved as if they’d spent all their lives together up to that point, exuding a warmth and gentleness that I still think is unmatched in television, much less sci-fi TV. Over those seven years, we got to see Jake grow up, and we got to see Ben see that too; just as real-life father-son relationships grow and change throughout our teen years, so too did Ben and Jake adjust to their different wants and needs in an exceedingly healthy way. Through the Siskos, “Deep Space Nine” offered an idealized vision of not just black fatherhood, but fatherhood in general, demonstrating the kind of loving, supportive figure all father should hope to be.

"The Venture Bros."

“The Venture Bros.”

Warner Bros.

Jacob Oller (@JacobOller), Paste Magazine

As the surrogate father taking over from the gross negligence of “The Venture Bros.’s” protagonist, my pick is Brock Samson. Samson’s originally introduced to the series as a murderous sociopath serving as a bodyguard to the central Venture family. Over the course of the series, however, he not only provides Hank and Dean Venture with the masculine common sense their father – the weaselly Dr. Venture – starves them of, but emotionally complex and sensitive advice regarding things like girls, fear, and growing up. That’s a lot for a macho maniac with a mullet as long as his kill list. Brock’s departure catalyzes the boys’ rebellious periods; his return helps them become young men. His parenting expertise evolves along with him as a character, as the boys change him just as much as he influences them. He might still mostly be strong and silent, but if he talks, it’s going to be with them. That give and take makes the parental relationship feel rich and real, even if it sometimes involves Samson killing a T-Rex or supervillain in order to protect his wards.

Emily Van Der Werff (@tvoti), Vox

When I look for a TV father I feel like I could trust, I want one who stops bad guys in their tracks and who makes sure that everybody gets a fair shake. And there’s only one father on TV who fits that description — a daddy in every sense of the term — Tom Bosley’s Father Dowling of “Father Dowling Mysteries.” Father Dowling? Happy Father’s Day to you, friend.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Fleabag” (five votes)

Other contenders: “When They See Us” (two votes), “Designated Survivor,” “Good Omens” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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