Television romanticizes absent fathers, ignores effects

Last weekend I decided to revisit the first season of “Modern Family.” Like a lonely homemaker, I longed for the days when the children were still young. The days before Luke’s voice changed, before Alex began dating.

My focus switched from the Dunphy family to the Pritchetts when Manny’s absent father showed up for a visit in episode 11, “Up All Night.”

Played by half-Peruvian sex god Benjamin Bratt, Manny’s dad is the best. He skips the typical “dad clothes” – penny loafers, pleated khakis, polo buttoned up to the collar – for black boots, leather jackets and tight-fitting jeans. He encourages Manny to skip school. He even wins over Manny’s stepfather Jay with a motorcycle and the chance to play in an empty major-league baseball field at night.

He’s everything you could want in a father – or boyfriend – with one major exception: He’s almost never around.

While watching the story play out – and, let’s face it, staring at Bratt’s jaw line – I had a sense of déjà vu. I’d seen this all before, somewhere else.

I finally realized why Manny’s father seemed so familiar: he was the same type of dad as Rory’s in “Gilmore Girls,” Julie’s in “Desperate Housewives,” Amber and Drew’s in “Parenthood,” Jonathan’s in “Who’s the Boss,” and probably more I’ve never heard of because I don’t have Netflix.

These dads are usually charismatic and always good-looking. They work remarkable yet unsteady jobs that leave them with more money than they know what to do with. Why else would a guy who isn’t under 25 or over 50 buy a motorcycle?

I started to wonder: Does television romanticize absent fathers? Off the top of my head, I could think of a handful of TV dads like Manny’s. I couldn’t, however, come up with a single scenario in which a father is absent because he’s in a halfway house.

Such is life for the cast of “16 & Pregnant.” For every loving, hardworking young father on that show, there seem to be two broke, cokehead baby daddies. It’s the drug-addicted high school dropouts you wish would leave the picture but don’t.

According to 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data, more than 24 million children (33 percent) live apart from their biological fathers. That’s one out of every three children in America. To put it in perspective: In 1960, only 11 percent of children lived in father-absent homes.

Children who don’t live with their biological fathers are, on average, at least two to three times more likely to use drugs than their peers who live with their married, biological or adoptive parents. They’re also more likely to experience educational, health, emotional and behavioral problems, to be victims of child abuse and to engage in criminal behavior.

It’s a sticky subject for network television to tackle. A dad like Manny’s can be easily written in and out. His limited presence causes just enough drama without leaving his son in therapy, keeping the show’s tone light.

Writers also don’t have to consider legalities. How much time would this guy serve if he were caught carrying prescription painkillers? Would he be allowed to see Manny while on probation? What if we need him to create tension at family barbeque in the season finale?

These are the questions TV execs never have to consider. But maybe they should.