Alan Thicke’s Dr. Seaver Didn’t Know Best. That Was His Charm.
Chat boards and social media have been full of memories and tributes to Alan Thicke and his “Growing Pains” character, Dr. Jason Seaver, since Mr. Thicke’s death on Tuesday at 69. “Alan Thicke will forever be a better dad than me,” Blair Herter, the TV personality, wrote in a representative tweet. “Thanks for the memories, Dr. Seaver.”
Much of this outpouring has been a bit overinflated, as is usual when a television figure passes away, especially one like Mr. Thicke, who died relatively young and by all accounts was well liked in a cutthroat industry. Memory has a way of making TV shows and their characters, especially ones watched in childhood, seem better than they were. In truth, Dr. Seaver doesn’t rank as the greatest television dad of his era, and “Growing Pains,” which ran from 1985 to 1992 on ABC, was in most respects a fairly ordinary domestic sitcom, one that hasn’t aged particularly well.
Yet Dr. Seaver is worth a tip of the hat as a character who helped liberate TV dads from the prison of always being right and always being serious. He was an important transitional figure in the metamorphosis of television parenting, from the one-size-fits-all version of early TV to the wide variety of today.
The very title of one of television’s first domestic comedies, “Father Knows Best” (1954-1960), tells you everything you need to know about the early television versions of “family.” Fathers were measured voices of wisdom above all else; often, that’s all they were. Mr. Thicke’s character on “Growing Pains” could be a measured voice of wisdom too, but he was also frequently the butt of jokes, and he was fallible.
Take the Season 4 premiere. Dr. Seaver, a psychiatrist, is in Lamaze class with his very pregnant wife, Maggie (Joanna Kerns). Another woman in the class appears to go into labor. In an earlier television era, Dr. Seaver, with his smattering of medical training, would have taken charge, been in control and guided the story to a safe landing. What actually happens, though, is that Dr. Seaver tries to help but is punched out by the woman’s husband; he finishes the episode with a black eye. Take that, traditional TV authority figure.
Another television dad from that era would have been useful in that particular episode: Dr. Cliff Huxtable, Bill Cosby’s character in “The Cosby Show,” who was an obstetrician. “Growing Pains” was always well in the shadow of that juggernaut, which was TV’s top-rated show during the second half of the 1980s, but Dr. Huxtable and Dr. Seaver shared a lot of characteristics that earlier TV dads might not have recognized: They had working spouses, they could laugh, they didn’t always get the respect from their children that they demanded, and they sometimes made mistakes. These were more human dads than a previous generation of young viewers had seen.
Dr. Seaver and Dr. Huxtable showed that a dad can be both funny and an authority figure, an expansion that has continued into the present. The worst of today’s TV fathers — the doofus dads of the new CBS shows “Kevin Can Wait” (starring Kevin James) and “Man With a Plan” (with Matt LeBlanc) for instance — have lost the authoritarian strain and are back in a one-dimensional dad prison, the polar opposite of the “Father Knows Best” one, but a prison nonetheless. (Remove Mr. James’s jokes about eating from “Kevin Can Wait” and its half-hours would be 10-minute webisodes.)
The best, though, have broadened the advances of the 1980s sitcoms to give us TV dads, and television families in general, that are just as varied and complex as actual human beings. Anthony Anderson can be goofily funny on “Black-ish,” but that show can also address serious matters like race relations. “Modern Family,” of course, has shattered all the old molds that TV parents were made with, and has a shelf full of Emmy Awards to show for it.
The TV dad was already changing further even while Dr. Seaver and Dr. Huxtable were still on the air. “Full House,” with its updated take on the single dad (Bob Saget’s Danny Tanner), began in 1987. Homer Simpson shuffled onto the television stage in 1989. “Growing Pains” and “The Cosby Show” had their final episodes five days apart in 1992. Given Mr. Cosby’s fall from grace, amid numerous accusations of sexual assault, it may be left to Mr. Thicke to represent the evolutionary moment in time that soon blossomed into the much richer, if still imperfect, collection of television fathers we have today.