Modern Dads, A&E’s new reality show about four fathers performing primary child care, premiering tonight, is proof that something positive can come from even the worst junk. The junk in this case was NBC’s flaccid multicamera sitcom Guys with Kids, about exactly what its title says, which lingered on for much of last season. Modern Dads is the reality TV version of Guys with Kids—just as Laguna Beach was the reality TV version of The O.C., and The Real Housewives of Orange County the reality TV version of Desperate Housewives—and the genre jump is a serious upgrade. Unlike on its scripted predecessor, on Modern Dads, fathers actually like their children and their spouses.
Modern Dads is filmed in Austin and follows four fathers in their late 30s and early 40s. The dads are Nathan, a nervous new father to a just-walking son; Stone, a single dad and the crew’s resident Romeo; Sean, rapscallion stepfather to two girls; and Rick, the portly veteran with two sons and twin infant daughters. The premiere episode does what it can to wring drama out of lives dominated by trips to the playground and well-packed strollers, opening in black and white with Nathan saying, “In my line of work, there’s blood, sweat, and tears” and Rick offering, “Your mind wanders for two seconds, someone gets killed.” But by the time the color kicks in the show’s true stakes are revealed: There’s a lot more planning of princess parties than wrestling with mortality.
The low-key happenings on Modern Dads do not make for reality TV trash nirvana, but they are an antidote to the war-of-the-sexes and I-love-my-kids-but-they-really-cramp-my-style cracks that are so often found on sitcoms, going all the way back to The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy. Here are four men who do the diapers and the housework and are not emasculated by it. They are not bitter and paranoid. Every day is not a referendum on their machismo. Their marriages are partnerships. Their kids are not cock-blocking burdens, but tiny humans they genuinely enjoy. At the end of an episode in which Nate has been neurotically baby-proofing his home for hours and hours, he says, his voice cracking, “I am madly in love with my son.” It’s not an original sentiment, but it is one you rarely see on a TV show.
In one storyline that would, on almost any sitcom, have been a long riff on the obsolescence of men, Sean tries to build a medieval stock for Rick’s daughters’ princess party. He buys some two-by-fours and gets to power-sawing, while both he and his girlfriend, Rachel, do on-camera interviews about how Sean does not know how to build a thing and Rachel invariably “does all the woodworking and crafts in the house.” After a couple of attempts, Rachel and Sean amiably decide he’s going to go have a tea party with the girls, and she’s going to deal with the power tools. The takeaway is not that Rachel wears the pants in the family, but that both Rachel and Sean are comfortable and aware of their different skill sets. To top it off, the punch line is at the opposite of Sean’s expense. Rachel tells the camera, “I love my boyfriend, he is the best dad, but the only tool he is good with is the one he was born with.” Really, that’s the only one that matters.
Modern Dads is still trying to figure out its tone, and there are a couple of clanking, clichéd moments, like when Rick says he wanted to have a Godzilla-themed birthday party for his girls because “the kids have done to my sex life what Godzilla did to Tokyo.” Stone’s entire single man on the prowl shtick, in which babies help him pick up babes, is as icky as it is in the romantic comedies you’ve seen it in before. But these moments are balanced out by ones you’ve rarely seen, like men rhapsodizing about their female partners’ breadwinning powers. “She’s a venture capitalist,” Sean crows about his girlfriend. “She brings home a lot of money. Life’s pretty good.” Nathan, whose wife is a medical director, energetically boasts, “Hell yeah, I married up!”
Being an engaged and decent father is not a recommendation for being on a reality show—it’s probably actually something of a demerit. The guys on Modern Dads don’t have the verbal shimmy or outlandish instincts of reality TV naturals. They really are here to make friends and their show can be correspondingly bland. But blandness in this context is so preferable to the alternative. It’s easy to imagine some horror-show version of Modern Dads, one starring a bunch of dudes more interested in getting famous than in their kids, desperate for attention and happy to use their children as adorable accessories, trying to balance juvenile behavior with child-rearing. Just for not being that, Modern Dads gets a pass. If it’s not a terrific reality show, at least it’s not terrific for a terrific reason: The dads’ priorities are too much in order for them to be great entertainment.