Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Better Off Ted Tackles Single Fatherhood Surprisingly Well

Usually on Tuesdays I tackle media that is made for children, but today I thought we'd switch gears and talk about media about children and specifically a show that deals explicitly with parenthood. Because why not.

There are basically two narratives we get about single fathers in the media. Either they are horrible abusive, inconsiderate louts who cannot without the presence of another adult in the home keep control of their children, or they are sensitive, kind, overworked men who desperately need a woman to come in and care for them and the children.

Basically, it's weirdly hard to find examples in our media of single fathers who are neither awful nor needy. It's like we've all internalized the idea that a single father absolutely must have a love interest or else he's pretty much the worst. A man can't take care of kids on his own, no way, no how.

And this bothers me for I think obvious reasons. In reality there are a lot of single fathers who manage to be neither horrifically abusive nor insecure and daffy. Lots of men who really aren't looking for a partner to help them co-parent, because they've got this. There are plenty of men who are good dads, and pretty decent people too.

Which is why, upon rewatching a few episodes of Better Off Ted this weekend with my sister, I realized that Ted Crisp is an anomaly in the world of fiction. He's a single father whose primary defining feature is his competence and good nature. He's raising his eight year old daughter, Rose, by himself, but that doesn't make him a bad dad. 

And while there are a couple of love interests who pop into his life in the criminally short two seasons that this show was on, none of them are particularly serious and none of them are evaluated in terms of who would be the best mother for Rose. Rose is cool. She doesn't need another mom.

For the record, Better Off Ted isn't really about Ted as a father. It's actually a workplace comedy - a spectacularly weird and funny one that was cancelled far too soon - about a group of people working in research and development at the world's most alarming corporation. Veridian Dynamics, the company, is a sort of passive-aggressive multi-national conglomerate that has its hands in everything. Literally, because it probably has a lot of hands. It's into weird science like that.

The company is sort of a combination of Aperture Science from Portal and StrexCorp from Welcome to Night Vale, and the plots of the episode usually revolve around the company asking one of its employees to do something illegal/unethical or imposing a new insane policy or just trying to cryogenically freeze one of its employees to see if it's possible.

Ted (Jay Harrington) is our hero, a moderately good man who really loves his job as head of R&D. Far from being disaffected or a complainer about work, Ted is chipper, kind, and reasonably ethical. Reasonably. He supervises the work of Veridian's best scientists, Lem (Malcolm Barrett) and Phil (Jonathan Slavin), and coordinates with the head of product testing, Linda (Andrea Anders). Then he brings it all to his boss, the delightfully cutthroat and insane Veronica (Portia de Rossi). At night he closes up shop and goes home to make dinner with his adorable daughter, Rose (Isabella Acres). That's it, that's the show. 

Ted's parenting isn't the focus by any means, but his conversations with Rose frequently serve as a ballast to the insanity he gets at work, and Ted likes to use his daughter as a sounding board for ideas. Plus, Rose serves as a the moral center of the show, without falling into too many "sainted child" tropes. So that's all good.

As a whole, I have to say that Better Off Ted's management of single parenthood might just be my favorite next to Gilmore Girls. Because it doesn't say that everything is easy and Ted is the perfect dad, but neither does it make it out to be a hellish nightmare. Most of the time, Rose is an easy child to love. She's smart, interested in school, an upright citizen of the world, and pretty emotionally stable. Ted is open and aware of Rose's emotional state, and even admits that the loss of her mother has been hard for Rose - the mom isn't dead, she's just not in the picture - while never trying to "fix it". Ted's a good dad.

And, yes, there are episodes where Rose and by that fact Ted's fatherhood, figure more heavily than others. There's an episode where Rose's nanny is sick, so Rose has to come into Veridian Dynamics and chill at the daycare after school. This makes Ted nervous, because the daycare is notoriously dear to the company, and he shudders to see Rose used as child labor or an experiment subject or product tester. His solution ends up being to have Veronica watch Rose, which gives us a hilarious half hour of comedy, as well as some good insights into both Rose and Veronica as people.

Or there's the episode where Veronica and Ted realize that Rose, because she knows the other children, can be useful in digging up dirt on the other employees at Veridian. Or they decide to use her ability to play with other kids to get in good with the executives. In other words, Rose isn't a non-entity in the show, but for the most part, she exists as a foil to the wacky machinations at Veridian Dynamics and as a reminder of what the real world is. And that's fine.

The point that I want to get to with all of this is that I really like how Better Off Ted handles Ted and Rose's relationship. It's clear that they're close and that they have a very healthy relationship. It's obvious that Rose is going to grow up and be a very good, functional, probably kind adult. And it's nice to see that Ted isn't punished by the narrative for raising his daughter and working full time. It is both possible and perfectly fine for him to do so.


But I'd also like to point out that the show doesn't give Ted "extra cookies" for this. He's not shown to be better or more capable or more honorable and saintly just because he has a daughter that he is doing a good job raising. He doesn't get extra props for wanting to care for Rose when she's sick. Why would he? She's his daughter and he wants to take care of her. That's natural and normal, and while it's nice that he wants to care for her, he shouldn't be lionized for doing exactly what parents normally do.

There's very frequently a double standard in cases like this. Single mothers are just expected to do all of this, to manage their children and their careers, to effortlessly juggle full time work and full time parenting without any support. But single fathers, no matter their failings, are given much more leeway. "At least he's trying." "Bless you for doing this!" And so on. We as a culture are so unaccustomed to the idea that men can be functional parents that we shower them with praise for doing the most mundane, normal parenting things.

I'm not saying that men deserve no praise for being good parents, merely that if men deserve praise for how they care for their children, then so do women. And that above all we need to remember that parenting is parenting, and the important thing is to do a good job overall.

Better Off Ted presents Ted as an average, decent but not spectacular father. He's very open and honest with Rose, but that means that sometimes she schools him on ethics violations. He's emotionally aware and receptive to her needs, but that doesn't mean he's above sometimes using her to spy on other executives. And while Rose is a big part of Ted's life, he's not shown to be a better man just because he's raising her on his own. It's no big deal, just another part of who Ted is as a person.

And there's something very satisfying about the fact that the show never tells us Ted needs to get married so that Rose can have a mommy. As much as Ted has a variety of love interests in the course of the show, their stories are always about their relationships with Ted, and not their ability to raise his daughter. Even his longer term love interests, like Linda and Veronica, are evaluated in terms of how compatible they are with Ted, and not on how good they'd be at raising Rose.

That having been said, I do have to admit that I prefer Ted's relationship with Veronica to his flirtation with Linda. Not because I think Veronica is a better mother figure - she's patently not - or because I think the two of them share true love or anything. Rather, I like that Veronica and Ted bring out different things in each other. Veronica makes Ted more competitive and excited about his job, and Ted makes Veronica feel her feelings. 

Plus, Veronica's relationship with Rose is one of my favorite parts of the show. While Veronica is basically a shark in a lady-suit, she cares a great deal for Rose in her own way. She thinks Rose would make an excellent apprentice and tries to impart to her the wisdom that Veronica herself has gathered: the importance of The Art of War, why she should destroy her enemies before they can get her, and how a good hairstyle can signify power to all who see it. Veronica doesn't treat Rose as a little kid, she treats her like she treats everyone else: as a person who is, albeit, inferior to Veronica but in need of her gracious guidance.

And I like that. Sue me. I think it's absolutely hilarious.

But I've gotten off track. The point here is that I really really like how the show deals with parenthood and children and the issues of being a single father in today's workplace. It's not always easy and it's not necessarily fun, but there's never any question that Ted loves Rose and we always know that he is proud of his role in her life. He doesn't need a woman to fix him or save him, and Rose is going to turn out just fine. Even with Veronica's meddling.

I certainly hope there aren't kids watching this show, since it's wildly inappropriate for children, but I do think that there's value here for the audience too. Ted's quiet competence in raising his daughter and the way the narrative treats him for it send a message that being a single father is just as normal as any other kind of family. 

And that's a message worth sending. It's one more step towards our culture understanding that a family is a family is a family, and hopefully it gives some comfort to the other single parents out there. Not because Ted is perfect, but because he isn't and it all works out anyway.

Still my favorite relationship.


  1. "But single fathers, no matter their failings, are given much more leeway. "At least he's trying." "Bless you for doing this!" And so on. We as a culture are so unaccustomed to the idea that men can be functional parents that we shower them with praise for doing the most mundane, normal parenting things."

    Thank you so much for acknowledging this. Seriously, as a single mother working full time, it's so frustrating to see this kind of portrayal of single fathers--I think it's harmful on both sides. I hate living in a culture where my son's father feels the need to point out, "Hey, I may not see him more than once every few months, but at least I'm still around." No one should deserve props simply for not being a bigger ass than they already are.

    Fantastic post :)

    1. "Hey, I may not see him more than once every few months, but at least I'm still around."

      And that's a pretty generous-to-himself definition of "around."

    2. Word. I'm sorry you have to deal with the grossness of this double standard in everyday life. That stinks.

      But it sounds like you have a really solid handle on it. Internet high five for being too cool for his lameness!

  2. This is one of my favorite shows, I'm glad to see you wrote about it! Always like your writing! Veronica will always be my favorite.

    1. Veronica is my life-spiration. I aspire to be that confident about myself.

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