Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Bruce Feiler is a writer from Savannah, Georgia. The 55-year-old has a column in The New York Times and he’s regularly appeared on PBS. Feiler published the book The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me (2010). The book was essentially a memoir that detailed how Feiler was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 and then proceeded to write letters to six of his friends asking them to look out for his twin daughters in the event he didn’t survive. Each of the men represented a different era of Feiler’s life and a different aspect of personality that he wanted passed onto his girls who were only 3 at the time. Obviously, as of the premiere of this series, Feiler didn’t die, so his so-called “council of dads” was never actually implemented, but this series, adapted by wife-husband duo, Joan Rater & Tony Phelan, does actually implement Feiler’s concept.
There are some notable differences though. Instead of New York City where Feiler currently lives, the series is set in Savannah where he was born. Instead of just two daughters under the age of 5, this series has five children of various genders and ages, the eldest being over the age of 18. One of the children isn’t even his biological daughter but instead an adopted daughter. Lastly, the so-called council isn’t six life-long friends of the man with cancer. They’re just three men. Only one could be considered a life-long friend. One is a random, older man that was met through Alcoholics Anonymous and the other is actually a college friend of the dying man’s wife.
Rater and Phelan are writers from the series Grey’s Anatomy. That series was created by Shonda Rhimes. Rhimes is a black woman who really did a lot to push diversity on network television, not only racial diversity but gender and sexual diversity. Having worked on that series for the better part of a decade, I get why Rater and Phelan would want to do what they can to Feiler’s concept in order to inject some diversity into it. However, the changes that Rater and Phelan have made only seem to dilute or undermine what Feiler’s original concept was or why he felt the need to do what he did.
In the book, Feiler specifically asks in regard to his daughters, “Would they wonder who I was? Would they wonder what I thought? Would they yearn for my approval, my discipline, my love?” Feiler later wrote, “I woke up suddenly before dawn and thought of a way I might help re-create my voice for them.” In talking about the council of dads, he continued, “These are the men who know me best. The men who share my values. The men who helped shape and guide me. The men who traveled with me, studied with me, have been through pain and happiness with me. Men who know my voice.” By changing it the way they do, Rater and Phelan essentially sap the intention and goal of Feiler for doing this. The protagonist finding some random, older man and his wife’s colleague don’t feel like they possess the kind of knowledge of the voice Feiler wanted to perpetuate. Basically, Feiller wanted men who would be his surrogate or proxy in a deep or fundamental way. This series doesn’t translate that idea.
Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead and Prison Break) stars as Robin Perry, a doctor whose husband is diagnosed with cancer. When he dies, she’s left to raise five children. One of whom is over 18 and is living out of home, but, before her husband’s death, he concocts this council of dads idea. He picks three men and they show up to help Robin raise her remaining children. A lot of it is the family dealing with the trauma of losing their father and the subsequent grief.
If you put aside the changes from the book that undermine the whole premise, the series is about loss and makeshift families or families that come not automatically due to genetics but instead by choice. This is absolutely fine, if so many other series didn’t already tread on the same ground. NBC’s hit series This Is Us (2016) also has the father of a family die and the surviving loved ones deal with the aftermath. Unlike This Is Us, which skips ahead in time, this series is apparently going to slow down and deal with the day-to-day struggles of raising children in the wake of the father’s death. However, ABC’s A Million Little Things (2018) already beat this one to the punch. That series by DJ Nash also has a “council of dads” aspect to it, as well as a similar plot twist that occurs, a plot twist of secret biological paternity versus adopted paternity.
I will criticize this series though for something that A Million Little Things also did, which actually this series does more so and is perhaps the worse for it. If you’re divorcing the series from Feiler’s concept of requiring men who would be his surrogate and replicate his voice, then the idea of a council of dads feels very sexist and patriarchal. Why not a council of moms? Or, a council of parents where it wasn’t gendered? Yes, this series underscores the proverb that “It takes a village to raise a child,” but this series proffers that the village has to be mostly of men.
This series also invokes the important topic that parents have to consider. If the parents die, who will take care of the children? It’s rare that both parents of a group of children would die before all the children are old enough to care for themselves, but if the worst should happen, this series puts forth that there should be people there to pick and carry the ball. Unfortunately, this series ignores that a lot, if most parents already do consider what this so-called council would be. For most people of faith, that council is typically called the “godparents.” Those godparents can be friends of the parents or adult family members. Typically, those godparents are aunts and uncles of the children or cousins of the parents.
So far, this series has made no introduction of Robin’s family. Does she have siblings or cousins who could help her with raising the children? It might even be conceivable if Robin’s parents were still alive that one or both of them would move in to help raise their grandchildren, but, in setting this series up in the first, three episodes, there is no mention of extended family members to Robin. There have been so many TV shows, mainly sitcoms that have been about extended family members like siblings or cousins moving in with someone and helping them with childcare. One such example is Full House (1987). Even the recent series Broke (2020) has a similar tact, so this council of dads idea isn’t new, certainly not the way Rater and Phelan craft it here. In fact, in order to make the premise work and make it diverse, they can’t see the forest for the trees.
That being said, I do appreciate the diversity on display here. J. August Richards (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Angel) plays Oliver Post, one of the three guys on the council of dads who was Robin’s college friend. He’s also a fellow doctor at the same hospital as her. He’s also the one who diagnoses her husband’s cancer. Not only is Oliver African-American, but he’s also gay and married to another African-American man named Peter Richards, played by Kevin Daniels (Sirens and Modern Family). Two dark-skinned black men who are gay and married to each other is rare on television and film. The last time was Logo’s Noah’s Arc (2005) and that was on cable not broadcast TV. I also appreciate that one of the children is transgendered. One of the children is an adopted Asian girl. All of this opens the door for possibilities of exploration not normally seen on broadcast TV. I hope Rater and Phelan really lean into those possibilities.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Thursdays at 8PM on NBC.