Is ‘Surviving Jack’ a man fail?

One evening our daughter’s best friend Melissa ran upstairs and lamented, “They cancelled the show Surviving Jack!” Her love for the new Fox show, based on an autobiographical book, convinced my husband and I to give it a go. We watched a few episodes, asked her what she liked about the show, and then my husband and I began to think about it.

Since it only aired for seven episodes, here’s the basic premise: taking place in the ’90s, Surviving Jack revolves around a family of four. The father, Jack, played by Christopher Meloni (formerly of Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit) is a doctor who has decided to work part-time and become the primary caregiver to his teens, one girl and one boy, so that his wife can attend law school.

One of the surprising differences we noticed about this show, compared to others of its kind was the lack of reverse sexism. Jack doesn’t manifest the usual characteristics of a typical TV father. Family sitcoms such as Everybody Loves Raymond, The King of Queens, Malcolm in the Middle, and The George Lopez Show, while comical, have maintained a standard for sexist portrayals of husbands and fathers.

For example, usually husbands in prime time are much less attractive than their wives. Yet, Jack is an attractive, physically fit man with an attractive wife.

Another difference is that often husbands are portrayed in these shows as bumbling idiots who are incapable of functioning as caregivers; indeed they can barely care for themselves. Jack is clearly portrayed as a competent capable adult who can care for others as well as for himself.

Of course he may make mistakes, but that is necessary for hilarity and entertainment to ensue.

Overall, Jack is portrayed as a man who is his wife’s peer, friend, and lover. It is clear in the few episodes available that his wife is his first priority — not his work, nor his children — but his wife. He is committed to meeting her needs. He is her helpmeet.

And, yes, he wants to have sex often. But unlike other sitcoms, Jack wants to have sex exclusively with his wife, not because he is a ball of hormones that cause him to act like an adolescent around any attractive woman, but because he loves and desires his wife.

And, here’s the real shocker: unlike all the TV wives who have to be nagged, cajoled, or lavishly romanced before agreeing to have sex, Jack’s wife also wants to have sex with him!

I’m not arguing that the show is some anti-sexist enlightened utopia of family life. In fact the program’s appeal relies on the prescribed gender roles in our society. Jack’s character is often funny because of his masculine, gruff, style of nurturing. Yet, I can’t help wondering if these deviations from the typical sitcom standards for fathers are part of why the show was not so popular.

And it is not just mainstream culture that would have difficulty with Meloni’s character transcending gender roles.

Many evangelicals, particularly those influenced by the likes of Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and Owen Strachan, would not approve of Jack being his family’s primary caregiver.

A few years ago in response to a Tide detergent ad featuring a laundry folding stay-at-home dad, Strachan used the term “man fail.” For Strachan, this is a subject of significant theological weight. Dads like Jack are “abdicating their creational responsibilities.”

Strachan does clarify that men can help out with housework and caretaking, but that they should not be the primary housekeeper or caretaker. Instead, men must be the primary financial providers for their families.

While I disagree with Strachan’s thoughts on gender roles, I’m guessing we could agree and be on board with more authentic, less sexist, portrayals of men on TV sitcoms. Well… maybe he’d agree with me, at least as long as the men were portrayed as very manly providers who avoid folding clothes, except on occasion of course.

Surviving Jack didn’t survive very long in prime time. But I’m hoping, perhaps naively, that other programs will stop characterizing husbands as caricatures of overgrown adolescents, and instead start portraying them as capable, serving, loving individuals.

Photo courtesy of Fox Broadcasting.