Each year at least one new show arrives that critics don’t just rule bad, but which they’re tangibly disgusted by. Offensive, tone-deaf hits of the past include Man Up!, Rob!, and Work It. This year, the prodigious title goes to Dads. The Fox sitcom, however, is a special case, as its very badness is actually earning it a bit of fame, haunting us with the prospect that the hideous “any publicity is good publicity” mantra might come true in this case.
The show is about two videogame developers, Martin (Giovanni Ribisi) and Eli (Seth Green). Both guys have dads they can’t stand, played by Martin Mull and Peter Riegert, respectively. Both guys’ dads have found ways to weasel themselves into becoming permanent houseguests at their sons’ homes. A slew of “dads: can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em—amiright?!” jokes follow.
It’s a rudimentary sitcom premise, retreading setups and punchlines that became stale decades ago. Under the guiding mind of producer Seth MacFarlane, however, the show takes a misguided approach to spicing up that banality—by infusing those punchlines with an almost unfathomable amount of bigotry, racism, ageism, and off-color “humor.” That’s the source of the show’s notoriety and the reason that Dads transcends status as a crappy series that should be ignored and allowed to die its probable quick death into a series whose very existence is a blight on culture at large and must be publicly shamed into dying a certain death.
One stretch of the pilot, in particular, earned a public flogging from the press when the show’s actors and producers were on a Television Critics Association press tour this summer.
It begins with a “bad dad showdown” between Warner and Eli, where each makes the case for why his father is the most insufferable. Warner’s dad “quickly closes the laptop anytime he walks into the room.” (Punchline: He’s looking at porn! Cue laugh track!) Eli’s dad can “clear his throat for 50 minutes of a 90-minute movie. (Laugh track!) Warner’s dad is in debt on three continents, including Antarctica. “Who owes money there?” (Amiright!? Laugh track!) Eli’s dad likes to lightly kiss people on the lips. Etc.
As soon as the anything-your-dad-can-do-mine-can-do-worser duet ends, Warner and Eli’s Asian assistant, played by Brenda Song, interrupts with the groan-inducing zinger: “You’re lucky your dads are American. My dad beat me with a math book until I was 16.”
To add insult to racist injury, a despicable plot unfolds in which Song is forced by her bosses to dress like a Harajuku girl and giggle in an imbecilic baby voice in order to appease potential Asian investors. “Hello, Kitty!” Warner quips. Yes, there’s a fine line when it comes to jokes about stereotypes, where owning the stereotype becomes part of the comedy and all of that—but that implies that the defense of “humor” arrives at some point in the debate, something that’s impossible here.
But fear not. Asian viewers are not the only people who were offended by the Dads premiere. If you are gay, Jewish, old, or have any sort of moral compass, you will be, too. Here is where I am going to list out the premiere episode’s most offensive bits, in the hopes that by spoiling the moments for you here you won’t find your curiosity piqued enough to dare find the show on Hulu to see what all the fuss is about, giving Dads another viewer it does not deserve.
—“You’re a terrible girlfriend,” Eli tells a woman apparently not important enough to be named. “I thought you said I wasn’t your girlfriend,” she says. “Well, whatever you are you’re terrible at it.” Yay, misogyny!
—The term “Orientals” is used.
—Eli’s dad is watching TV in the scene, rapt as if it’s the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Upon closer listen, it becomes apparent that he’s gleefully shoveling popcorn into his mouth while watching a documentary on the 11th-century Granada massacre of the Jews.
—Warner’s wife, played by Vanessa Minnillo, who is part Filipino, co-hosts a party. Eli’s dad confuses her for a maid because she isn’t white. A riot!
—There’s an incredibly awkward segue where a scene begins in the middle of a conversation between the two dads, for the sole purpose of this non-sequitur: “It would’ve been a better deal if someone told me the correct pronunciation was Shiite Muslim.”
—Trying to teach his son a valuable lesson, Mull’s character explains, “The Chinese are a lovely and honorable people, but you can’t trust ’em. There’s a reason Shanghai’d is a verb.”
—Mull’s character visits his son’s office and, for no reason, demands, “Where’s your gay guy? Show me your gay guy.” (Spoiler alert: Gay guy is shown.)
—There’s a wildly not-funny scene toward the end where all the characters bond together over crass racism, a moment that the audience is supposed to coo “aww” at. Song’s character is sexted a photo of the penis of one of the Chinese investors for whom she dressed up as Sailor Moon. They all giggle over his “tiny China penis,” which “looks like something you’d pick out of a salad” and “an inchworm in a little tiny fireman’s hat.”
Almost instantly after screeners of Dads were sent to critics, a pitchfork-wielding mob tried to bully Fox into reshooting the pilot to tame down its blatant offensiveness. Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly declined, encouraging critics to ease up, claiming that the show scored highly with a large cross-section of viewers during early focus groups. (If this is actually true, pour one out for humanity.)
Fox is even capitalizing on the critical vitriol as a selling point for the show, drawing battle lines between critics and fans in commercials. “Critics may say, ‘Offensive.’ Fans say, ‘I don’t see how you can be offended by this. You just laugh.’” In other words, “These high-falutin’, snooty elitists may think they’re too good for racism, but we here at Fox know better. You must love it!”
You must not. Please don’t.
Eli and Warner are obsessed over whose dad is the worst. Call the argument off, boys. This Dads is.