Raven and her dad Trigon from Teen Titans Go! 
Illustration: Nick Wanserski

From Fresh Prince to Cheers to Dawson’s Creek, the deadbeat dad is a trope TV has gone back to time and time again. Since this Sunday is Father’s Day, we decided to put a positive spin on this depressing TV tradition: the deadbeat dad who made good. Sometimes they have perfectly good reasons for abandoning their families (secret identities, witness-protection programs). Sometimes they have an actual lasting change of heart. Most times, their TV offspring find a way to forgive these flaky patriarchs, even after years of inattention. So for this upcoming Hallmark holiday, we celebrate the TV dads who finally redeemed themselves after years of broken promises.

1. Trigon, Teen Titans Go!

Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans Go! is an aggressively wacky take on the DC Universe, but its usual lightheartedness is often undercut by Raven, a character who embodies the eye-rolling, sarcastic nature of your typical angsty teen. Raven has an excuse for acting like that, though: Her father is Trigon, an evil demon who wants to enslave the Earth. Raven consistently rejects her father’s villainous ways, which drives him to occasionally pop up on Teen Titans Go! so he can try and win back her love and/or convince her to be evil. Like any deadbeat dad, he does this by feigning interest in the things she likes and showering her and her friends with lavish gifts (like turning one character’s hand into a dog), but it never really works. Eventually, Trigon becomes so frustrated with Raven’s insistence that she’s “nice” that he curses her to be nice to everyone, which later backfires when she tricks him into cursing himself instead. Finally, Trigon becomes the father that Raven always wanted… by agreeing to leave and never bother her again. Sometimes that’s the best thing a dad can do. [Sam Barsanti]

2. Jack Bristow, Alias

The first time we see Jack Bristow (Victor Garber), he’s dressing down his daughter Sydney’s (Jennifer Garner) boyfriend for daring to ask for her hand in marriage: “If you feel the need to ask me about this scenario, I have a sense you don’t know Sydney at all… Sydney doesn’t give a damn what my opinion is.” Jack’s been largely absent from Sydney’s life since her mother died in a car accident and was revealed to be a KGB spy. So Jack poured his grief into his spying. He has very little time for his daughter, until she grows up to become a spy herself. Once Jack realizes Sydney is his newest co-worker, and Sydney realizes the black-ops organization they work for is, in fact, evil, the two of them team up to bring it down from the inside. As we all know, there’s no better father-daughter bonding than an increasingly improbable series of dangerous spy missions. [Mike Vago]

3. Christopher Hayden, Gilmore Girls

Rory Gilmore’s dad was never portrayed as a particularly bad guy, just an entitled one. While Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) sacrificed for Rory (Alexis Bledel), Christopher (David Sutcliffe) was given opportunity. He got to go to college and start his career without the hindrance of a child at 16. He received a clear road to success, while Lorelei had to earn hers. Christopher wasn’t around much, and even though Lorelai always left the door open for his parenting, he rarely took advantage. But as the series went on, he made more of an effort, and he and Lorelai circled around each other, depending on where she was in her relationship with Luke. Despite an ill-fated marriage in Gilmore Girls’ last season, Christopher and Lorelai finally ended their romantic relationship on good terms, ensuring that he would be a good dad for years (and revivals) to come. [Molly Eichel]

4. Rick Sanchez, Rick And Morty

For all the multiverse-spanning madness and whimsy that governs the world of Rick And Morty, there’s one big question that hangs over the story: Why is alcoholic mad scientist Rick (Justin Roiland) allowed to take his grandkids on all these bizarre adventures? The answer lies with his daughter, Beth (Sarah Chalke). It’s established early on that Rick is reentering her life after having been gone for years, and she’s so happy to have him back that she’ll forgive him anything—much to the consternation of her husband, Jerry (Chris Parnell). Her affection for her father blinds her to so many of his faults, but that affection also makes up the support beam of the show. As showrunner Dan Harmon explained, “She bothers to love her father, and that keeps everything feasible because otherwise it would all fall apart.” Rick might be an agent of total chaos, but he came home and is there for her in his twisted way, and to a person as damaged and defensive as she is, that’s enough. [Les Chappell]

5. Chet Hunter, Boy Meets World

Comedian and Happy Madison fixture Blake Clark has played a lot of good ol’ boys on TV (and at least one good ol’ toy in the movies), but none can claim the type of efficient impact made by Chet Hunter. Putting a face to the comically negligent parents of bad­-boy best friend Shawn Hunter (Rider Strong), the first of Clark’s 12 Boy Meets World appearances establishes Chet as an inveterate schemer and a crummy con man. On an eventful “Career Day” at John Adams High School, he claims the invention of 24-­hour cable news (“That’s exactly what I called it—CNN: Chet’s News Network”) and fails to pose as principal George Feeny (William Daniels). And then he’s gone, setting off to track down Shawn’s mother after she absconds with the family trailer. Chet leaves his son stewing in shame and dad envy, but the door is open for subsequent appearances in which he flirts with redemption, only to let the kid down all over again. The cycle finally ends when their reconciliation is cut short by a fatal heart attack. But in death, Chet finally has something in common with one of his son’s many surrogate fathers: He appears to Shawn in a helpful vision, just as the still­-living Feeny once did for goofball Boy Meets World older brother Eric Matthews (Will Friedle). [Erik Adams]

6. Gavin Schmidt, New Girl

Having Peter Gallagher appear as the dad to Max Greenfield’s Schmidt is one of the most inspired bits of casting in recent sitcom history. Just the eyebrows alone. The appearance of Schmidt’s long-lost dad also explains a lot about our favorite one-named neurotic. Through a series of flashbacks, we see how the elder Schmidt continually let down his son, canceling plans and breaking promises, with Schmidt’s long-suffering roommate Nick there to pick up the pieces and offer a comforting milkshake. With Gavin’s latest reappearance in Schmidt’s life, both Schmidt and Nick are understandably wary that this deadbeat dad will run true to form. Fortunately for the world of TV casting, Gavin ends up rallying at the end, not just making good on his promise to attend Schmidt and Cece’s wedding but also hosting the event at his vineyard. Sure there’s a make-out session with Jess, but since both parties are unaware of their Schmidt connection, they can’t be blamed for that. Honestly, who could resist those eyebrows? [Gwen Ihnat]

7. Elijah Van Dahl, Gotham

It’s probably not fair to refer to Elijah Van Dahl (Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman) as a deadbeat dad, since he didn’t technically know he was a father, but given that he accepted his family’s payoff of his true love, Gertrud Kapelput (Carol Kane), and never saw her again, it feels earned. Once he learns of the existence of his son, Oswald, he springs into action, inviting the young man to come live with him, share his life (and family fortune), and meet the rest of the clan. Too bad his wife poisons him almost immediately thereafter. Perhaps it’s cold consolation, but if Elijah is looking down from heaven, he watches Oswald revert to his Penguin identity and enact bloody vengeance on the murderous Van Dahl family. Also in the inspired TV dad casting category: making Reubens the father of Robin Lord Taylor. [Alex McCown]

8. Thatcher Grey, Grey’s Anatomy

Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) is a self-described “dark and twisty” person in part because of her relationship, or lack thereof, with her father, Thatcher (Jeff Perry). Meredith believes that he abandoned her with her overachieving mother, who neglected her in favor of surgeries and medical breakthroughs. But Thatcher feels that it’s not so much that he left but that he was pushed out. He returns to Meredith’s life after his new family comes to Seattle Grace for various ailments. At first, Thatcher is a mess. After his wife dies, he becomes an alcoholic and needs a liver transplant. Meredith’s a match, and her donation gives Thatcher a second chance not just at life but also at being a dad. In caring for him, Meredith and her half-sister, Lexie (Chyler Leigh), are able to form their own bond. Thatcher hasn’t been seen since season seven, but that has less to do with his parenting skills and more to do with the actor’s job prospects. Playing Thatcher got Perry a pretty sweet gig as Scandals Cyrus Beene. [Molly Eichel]

9. Alex Reiger, Taxi

Given Taxi’s commitment to showing the melancholy of its characters’ lives, it’s not surprising that it chose to cast its main character as an absentee father. Cynical cabbie Alex Reiger (Judd Hirsch) admits in the pilot, “Like Father, Like Daughter,” that he has a daughter named Cathy (Talia Balsam) who he hasn’t seen since she was 2. When he gets an opportunity to see her in between flights in Miami, he takes it—only for her to be not thrilled to see “Mr. Reiger” after all this time. Alex makes no excuses for his absence, but when she claims he doesn’t know a thing about being her father, he expresses all the things he remembers from the two years he was there. It’s a wrenching interaction, even more so when the PA system keeps calling for her to board her flight. Taxi doesn’t try to shade their reunion as the start of something great, but when Alex hands over his driver’s license so she’ll have his address, it’s the first step toward a relationship. “I think I have your smile,” Cathy says tearfully. “That’s funny. I just got it two minutes ago,” a beaming Alex quips. [Les Chappell]

10. Jack McKay, Beverly Hills, 90210

90210’s antihero, Dylan McKay (Luke Perry), was the most troubled teen in Beverly Hills, raised in a household where his father was an extremely wealthy but corrupt businessman who abandoned his family periodically to father even more to-be-neglected children. Turns out Dylan’s dad, Jack McKay (Josh Taylor), followed up his career in corporate crime by becoming an informant for the government, cutting a deal to lessen his time in prison. Bonding with his now ex-con patriarch, the long-suffering Dylan almost seems on the verge of putting his painful childhood behind him, even (and improbably) singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” with dear, old dad. Almost immediately afterward, Jack appears to get blown up in a car bomb, right in front of Dylan, leaving the teen free to embark on yet another downward cycle of self-destruction. But it turns out that the explosion was just a setup to get the now-legit Jack in the Witness Protection Program. No wonder Dylan had so many trust issues. [Gwen Ihnat]

11. Seth Holt, Parenthood

Every time something starts going well for Parenthood’s Sarah Braverman (Lauren Graham), you can pretty much bet her ex-husband, Seth Holt (John Corbett), will show up. Seth, the father of Sarah’s children, Amber (Mae Whitman) and Drew (Miles Heizer), always knows the exact wrong time to make his presence known. Sarah tries to put her their marriage behind her, but that becomes difficult when Seth wants to make up for lost time with his kids. Drew is always thrilled to see his dad, as he was too young to understand the severity of his father’s alcoholism and erratic behavior, while Amber remembers all too well and remains reluctant to his attempts at reconciliation. But Seth eventually proves his commitment to sobriety and his family. As a grand gesture, he gives Amber a crib for her unborn child; but as proof that he doesn’t always get it, he isn’t around to help her put it together. [Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya]

12. Victor Bennett, Charmed

Even the charmed Halliwell sisters of Charmed—Prue (Shannen Doherty), Piper (Holly Marie Combs), and Phoebe (Alyssa Milano)—need a biological dad to exist, which is where Victor Bennett (played by Anthony Denison in season one, James Read thereafter) comes in. A mortal, Victor struggled to fit into his magical family, and after the death of his wife and girls’ mother, Patty, he left Prue, Piper, and Phoebe to be raised as witches by his mother-in-law. Twenty years later he reappears only to leave again for three years before returning to his daughters’ lives permanently—and, most importantly, earning a stubborn Prue’s trust—as an involved father and grandfather. He even acts as a secondary father figure to the women’s half-sister, Paige (Rose McGowan), the love child of Patty and a Whitelighter, solidifying his spot in the blended and magical family. [Becca James]

13. Caleb Calhoun, Bates Motel

This is easily the creepiest and most unsettling entry on this list, but it’s also—weirdly—not inaccurate. Ready to feel uncomfortable? Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot), Norman Bate’s brother, was the result of an incestuous rape, committed by Norma’s disturbed older brother, Caleb Calhoun (Kenny Johnson). They leave, and Norma and her sons spend the next 20-plus years avoiding Caleb (obviously), until he shows up, wanting to make amends. Shockingly, it actually works. He bonds with Dylan, leaves town in an effort to protect his son from danger, and even Norma eventually forgives her older brother for his seemingly unforgivable crime. On one level, yuck; but on another, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more potent example of not only the human capability for forgiveness of the terrible mistakes children can make but also of the way a once-damaged person can redeem themselves. It’s a rare moment of grace on a show full of the opposite. [Alex McCown]

14. Ornette Howard, Friday Night Lights

Dud parents were fairly common in the world of Friday Night Lights. But the show never quite got a handle on how to effectively portray one until its final season, when rising star Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan) is forced to confront his wayward father, Ornette (Cress Williams), an iron-fisted bully of a man with a distinctly unsavory history. But Ornette, who’s fresh off a five-year prison sentence, wants to make things right, both with Vince and Vince’s mother, a woman he made miserable a lifetime ago. His penitence manifests in both his sobriety and Vince’s football career, which he champions with gusto and intimidation. What’s obvious throughout the season, even as Ornette succumbs to his demons once again, is that he truly loves Vince and finds a newfound purpose in being an ambassador for the boy’s career. Trouble is, he’s an addict. He’s also new at this whole “being a caring father” thing. Many of his bad decisions come out of an overprotectiveness for his son, while his descent into addiction is born out of betrayal. His stumble is sad and not quite righted in the arc of the season, but it never once invalidates his genuine desire to reconnect with his family. Vince can’t shut Ornette out, as his father clearly wants to be better. The hard truth is that Ornette needs to get himself right before he can patch things up with his family. [Randall Colburn]

Share This Story