TV’s Worst Parents

by Joshua Alston

TV’s Worst Parents

With Arrested Development poised to return to the small screen, we take a look some of the medium's worst parents. 

If there’s anything worse than an uncaring, neglectful, insensitive parent, it’s an uncaring, neglectful, insensitive parent on a television show.

Why? Because television’s parental underachievers don’t always have the common decency to die and stay dead. At least, that’s the case with Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter), the manipulative matriarch of the Bluth clan on Arrested Development, the cult comedy making its newfangled return on Netflix after being cancelled in 2006. The fourth season of Arrested Development premieres on Netflix on May 26, but while we wait to see what new depth Lucille will sink to—she once adopted a Korean child to make her youngest son jealous—it’s a great time to inventory the television characters you’d least want on carpool duty.

Plus: The New Normal: Family Redefines Fall TV

Betty Francis of Mad Men
Mad Men, which returns for its sixth and penultimate season this weekend, is a show full of characters who manage to be relatable and sympathetic in spite of deep, prickly flaws. But the one character who tends to inspire unmitigated disgust is Betty Francis (January Jones), the twice-married housewife who spends her days wallowing in ennui and figuring out innovative new ways of psychologically terrorizing her daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka). Betty shames Sally about her pubescent sexuality, once forged a bizarre, emotional bond with a neighbor boy who likes Sally, and uses Sally as a pawn to sow dischord into her ex-husband’s new relationship. It takes real commitment to be the most despised character on a show that features the supercilious Pete Campbell (Jared Kartheiser), but Betty manages by aiming her frustrations and insecurities at a blameless kid. 

Nancy Botwin of Weeds and Walter White of Breaking Bad
Walter (Bryan Cranston) and Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker) are parents who know how to deal. Unfortunately, what they are dealing is illegal drugs—crystal meth in Walt’s case, wacky tobacky in Nancy’s—and as both of them grew deeper roots in their respective criminal underworlds, it was only a matter of time before their kids got hurt. Nancy would have likely messed her kids up without the drugs—she’s flighty, impulsive and narcissistic. She was nonplussed when her elder son impregnated his high school girlfriend and when her younger son was found acting out terrorist beheading videos with a neighbor girl. Walt, meanwhile, started out a solid dad, but as the milquetoast chemistry teacher became more enamored of his new life and power, he put his quest for domination before everything–including his special-needs son and infant daughter.

Al & Peggy Bundy of Married with Children
Before Ed O’Neill became Pop-Pop to Modern Family’s blended, multi-culti clan, he was the rage-filled, shoe-slinging everyman Al Bundy in the groundbreaking sitcom Married with Children, the head of household in a nightmarish nuclear family. In fact, there’s no better adjective for the Bundys than “nuclear,” considering Al’s tendency to melt down when his shiftless, shopaholic wife Peg (Katey Sagal) figured out another way to spend his paycheck and poison his mood. The fruits of their unholy union were a promiscuous, dull-blade daughter and a son whose obsession with the opposite sex was creepy even by teenage-boy standards.

Tara Gregson of United States of Tara
Tara Gregson (Toni Collette) was always shifting the blame for her parental misdeeds—which often included physically abusing her teenage son and daughter—but at least there was a decent excuse. Namely, her battle with Dissociative Identity Disorder, which caused her to suddenly slip into any of a variety of wild, uninhibited and often dangerous personalities. When Tara’s herself, she’s a playful, present mother. But when she’s Buck, the lewd, tobacco-chewing trucker for whom any reason is a good reason to fist-fight, all bets are off.

Plus: In Praise of TV 

Frank Reynolds of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
It’s a good indicator of a man’s lack of fatherly fitness when watching him interact with his children causes you to forget that they’re his children. But that’s certainly the case with Frank Reynolds (Danny DeVito), the proudest scumbag of Sunny’s cast of bottom-dwellers. It’s atypical for a father to fit in so seamlessly into a group of friends that include his adult son and daughter, but he accomplishes the feat simply by playing by the gang’s rules: everyone looks out for their own self-interests at all costs. Perhaps Frank is best described in the words of his only son, Dennis (Glenn Howerton):  “People don’t trust you, Frank. You’re ugly. And you ooze sleaze. And you’re very, very ugly.”

Frank Gallagher on Shameless
A list of the worst parents on television isn’t complete without Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy), the estranged drunk at the center of Shameless. Perhaps “at the center” isn’t wholly accurate; Frank will do just about anything to avoid taking responsibility for anything or anyone, especially his six children. His eldest daughter raises them, while Frank stumbles home occasionally when he needs money, or booze, or money to buy booze. But, as Frank is all too eager to point out, he at least stuck around in some capacity—more than can be said for the mother who walked out on the Gallagher clan and never looked back.

Someone, anyone, everyone on Lifetime’s Dance Moms
Dance Moms is probably the most repugnant reality show on television, but when there are so many gutter-scraping non-scripted shows out,that kind of superlative becomes a subtle distinction. But what sets Dance Moms apart in terms of all-around horror is how it uses the victimization of children to heighten its stakes. The show centers on Abby Lee Miller, an unyielding dance instructor who leans her zaftig frame over her troupe of tween dancers and barks at them until they hit their steps correctly. But the show’s dramatic engine is the rivalries between the dancers’ moms as they fight with each other (and Abby) to see who can most transparently live through their child’s accomplishments. But all too often, those arguments include trash-talking each other’s grade-school daughters, often right in front of them. And unlike the other characters on this list, these women are actually the parents of these children. 

Who's on your list of worst TV parents? Let us know.