There is a moment on a recent episode of NBC’s The Slap when Hector and Connie are on a rooftop overlooking Manhattan’s lights. If the scene were in a novel, this would be the point where I tell you they are ‘gazing forlornly’ at each other.
Connie, by the way, is eighteen. She is Hector’s babysitter. They have kissed, once.
“I thought you were different,” she angrily tells Hector when he says they can’t go any further. “No,” he tells her plainly, “I don’t think I am.”
And with that, Hector Apostolou joined Television’s newest gentlemen’s club, better known as The Sad Suburban Dads.
The first 10 minutes of The Slap perfectly encapsulate the requirement for gaining entry into the clubhouse. Hector lives in a nice Brooklyn brownstone. He has a loving and attractive wife and two young children. He is respected and holds a high position at his work.
He also pops Valium, lusts after his barely legal babysitter, and can’t seem to stop sighing, feeling like he’s suffocating in the house where his children never stop screaming and his busy-being-a-doctor wife barely sleeps with him.
There was once a time where there wasn’t a Sad Suburban TV Dad in sight. Joining the hero doctors and police officers that dominated the tube were dads who were always there to lend a helping hand and dole out advice. They were the calming force of Andy Griffith, the loveable Dick Van Dyke, the goofball men of Full House, who rescued their families out of silly hijinks without ever losing the smile on their face – in thirty minutes or less!
When The Sopranos dropped in 1999 it wasn’t only television the show would change forever. Tony Soprano was everything the fathers that had come before him weren’t. He was guilty and vulnerable and troubled. He frequently cheated on his wife and couldn’t decide if he feared or craved power. He was a mobster with a psychiatrist, and he was television’s first anti-hero.
It took television a long time to go dark. While Hollywood’s films were starting to fill with unsympathetic cowboys, psychotic taxi drivers and seductive cougars, television was still largely dominated by variety shows and feel-good, paint-by-the-number family sitcoms. Like with anything there were exceptions (All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Married…With Children) but by the early 90s everything had settled into a feel-good status quo. And then we saw Tony kill Petrulio while touring colleges with his daughter and everything flipped.
The anti-hero may have its origins in the Spaghetti cowboys out in the west, but they became fully formed behind a white picket fence.
If Tony Soprano is the frame for TV’s Sad Suburban Dads then Don Draper and Walter White are his pillars. They may not share every attribute (Walt was never a cheater, Don didn’t lust for power) but they share a sense of suffocation by their surroundings. For Walter, his ordinary one-story Albuquerque house symbolizes his failure. It’s no accident one of the last scenes in the series finale takes place in the mansion of his one-time coworkers. It is, for Walt, a moment of redemption. He may have never gotten the beautiful home – but he did get power.
For Don, the beautiful house outside New York with the perfect blonde housewife and two children are all a façade. He knows he looks the part, he’s got the top floor job in Manhattan and a fancy car, but he can’t stop feeling like a poser. While Don desperately tries to run away from Dick Whitman, Walter is chasing for Heisenberg. But in the end what they’re both really looking for is control.
There’s a scene in the first episode of The Slap when Hector is huddled behind a staircase with Connie at his fortieth birthday. She asks him how he feels, commenting that he looks sad. “I don’t feel like 40, I don’t act it,” he responds. “I’m just losing control of the elements.”
What was so revolutionary about Tony, Don, and Walt is that even if they were serial cheaters or serial killers we still cheered them on. They were allowed to be sad and bad, and it didn’t make them any less of a man.
But Hector is different. He’s described as “the last good man in America” during a toast on his birthday, a description he clearly feels as imprisoned by as his suburban life. Hector feels like he’s losing control because he’s completely passive. It’s Connie that makes the first move on him. And it’s the act of a child getting slapped at his birthday party that he decides has saved him from making a “mistake he would have regretted forever.” He’s neither hero or anti-hero, he’s just there.
With its varying portrayals of how to run a family, The Slap could have been a wonderful examination of middle-age. And Hector, who blurs out the world with drugs and jazz and jokes about suicide, had potential to explore depression. The show’s writing is too cliché and on-the-nose to ever cut that deep, but it does expose a gap. Because unlike Tony, Don, or Walt, Hector is the first Sad Suburban Dad allowed to be weak.
The pillars of the Sad Suburban Dad club were allowed to be depressed and to have their failures – but they were never passive for long. Everyone believed the final season of Mad Men would be Don Draper’s funeral march, but is has turned into the slow burn of redemption. Even Walter White got to choose how he was going to die. And David Chase wouldn’t even let us see Tony’s fate – which successfully keeps us talking about it almost 10 years later.
When I first started this article I wanted to figure out why we never saw a Sad Suburban Mom. I could come up with only two shows where women in suburbia were the stars – Desperate Housewives and Weeds – the former being a soap opera and the latter being a smart show that quickly turned into one.
Of course, that probably doesn’t surprise you. History has long portrayed women as easy to hysterics. But it has also taught us to believe that men are strong and capable. The women of Suburban TV may be locked into the overdramatic housewife, but no matter how vulnerable or screwed up their husbands get, they never forfeit control.
They are all imprisoned in the roles they’ve held since the 1950s, locked in by that damn white picket fence.
The Slap isn’t a very good show, but Hector is a quiet revolution of his own. A suburban dad who doesn’t have to be the perfect father or the anti-hero.
He just gets to be sad.