Dead parents are surprisingly common in the world of sitcoms. Often this is to facilitate introducing a plucky, young orphan with impeccable comedic timing. Most commonly it’s to provide a wise, single father with a child he can dole out life lessons to, while also providing writers with a way to introduce new love interests as needed. In the case of My Two Dads, it’s a little from column A and a little from column B.
Premiering in 1987, the premise for My Two Dads garnered a bit of controversy before the first episode even aired. Originally titled Who’s Dad?, the show follows two former buddies who had a falling out over a girl. The men are begrudgingly brought back together when they learn that their former mutual love interest has passed away, leaving behind a young daughter, Nicole, to whom one of them is the father.
When paternity tests come back inconclusive, the two men choose to raise the daughter together. Wacky antics ensue. So what was the initial reaction?
According to reports, the show was rewritten while in development to focus less on the question of paternity, and the title was changed to calm affiliates. With that out of the way, what was the response once the show finally aired?
My initial assumption would be that a comedy about same-sex parents would draw serious blowback in ’87, but critics focused all their vitriol on one character: the dead mom.
Philadelphia Inquirer critic Ken Tucker called the premise “simultaneously racy and morbid.”
Miami Herald critic Steve Sonsky went all in, writing, “Welcome to Bastard Daughter—another giant leap forward for situation comedy. My, we have gotten more sophisticated in our attitudes. Now that television, once overpopulated with single-parent comedies, has become saturated with nuclear families, sitcoms are taking the inevitable next step: families with illegitimate children.”
Sonsky, who seems like an asshole, adds “See, Nicole’s recently deceased mom had slept with both of them (quite a role model, Dead Mom) on a Key West vacation.”
Nancy Morris of the Shreveport Journal wrote that the show “doesn’t say much for morality–or for sensitivity to children who have lost their custodial parent or parents.” Morris’s main objection was that the show was inappropriate for a young audience, adding, “youngsters will slide right into a show about a child whose late mother didn’t even know who her father was.”
To address the issue of impressionable young viewers, I found a letter that a sixth-grader wrote to the Salt Lake Tribune in October, 1987, that shows you exactly how children viewed the premise of My Two Dads.
“It is about two men who liked the same lady in high school. The lady had a daughter. The lady died and left her daughter to the two men. The men were completely different and had to find a way to raise the girl,” wrote young Karen Sander. “I thought it was a very funny show and would strongly suggest it.”
See, kids do not care. But why exactly are these critics slut shaming a dead woman who doesn’t actually exist?
What we’re seeing here is the fear of female sexuality, especially as it relates to mothers. These critics are so upset with the idea of a mother who had multiple partners that they are concerned that My Two Dads of all things is going to corrupt the youths.
In the history of television, the sexually free and active maternal character is a relatively new creature. And rarely are you going to find this in a traditional sitcom.
Of course, on the other side of the spectrum, you have the classic horror trope of killing off the most sexually adventurous characters first. The clear overlap here raises the question of who’s axed more mature female characters: Jason or the NBC fall lineup?
Interestingly, the National Commission on Working Women conducted a survey of new shows in the fall of 1987. They found a dramatic decrease in women on screen and an increase in “male buddy shows.”
The survey revealed that 20 percent of new network programming had no women at all in their regular cast. Focusing on leading roles, only seven new shows starred women, compared to 36 shows led by male roles.
The commission’s report also deemed My Two Dads as having the worst portrayal of female characters of all new shows that season, but that’s not too shocking considering the show was where Chuck Lorre cut his teeth as a series writer. Lorre would dust off the “Two Dads” scenario 16 years later to give the world Two and a Half Men, which managed to cut out even the daughter as a character.
Interestingly, My Two Dads features an episode that does a pretty good job of depicting the sort of fear of female sexuality that I’m talking about. Season two’s “Who’s on First” shows our titular dads in a panic as they await their daughter’s return from a date. It seems Nicole is reaching that age where a young woman’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson would say.
Uncertain how to react to news of their daughter’s first kiss, the two men confine her to her room and enroll in a course on “female sexual awakening.” Mistaking the class as an explainer on puberty, the dads find themselves surrounded by shouting women in their 30s and 40s.
The dads manage to gain the sympathy of the professor and their fellow classmates when they explain that they just want to help their daughter. After leading Paul Reiser through a rapid-fire round of Socratic interrogation, the professor finally gets to the root of his anxiety.
“All men are pigs,” he shouts in a panic. His revelation is met with cheers from the class.
After thorough self-examination the dads return home and agree to speak openly with their daughter about sex. You know, parenting. Not raising someone to hate themselves and their body. Good stuff.
But seriously, how great would it have been if they did call the show “Bastard Daughter”?
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