Disclaimer: Growing Pains will be viewed entirely through rose-colored glasses for the duration of this article.
But regardless, in retrospect the ABC sitcom that ran from 1985 until 1992 (and even charmed when it was on its last, take-in-a-sweet-but-rebellious-young-Leonardo–Dicaprio legs) still holds up—and Alan Thicke is a major reason for that.
And if you were one of the lucky kids whose parents let them watch prime-time TV when you were about the same age as any one of the Seaver kids, then Thicke was one of several essential TV dads who would forever shape your view of the onscreen paternal landscape. (Personally speaking, Growing Pains, Who’s the Boss and Family Ties were the holy triad.)
Thicke’s Dr. Jason Seaver, a psychiatrist with a home office so that he could always be around, never claimed to have all the answers, but ultimately he knew most of them. Blessed with a doting but independent wife (Joanna Kerns‘ Maggie Seaver, née Malone) and three kids who balanced each other out—the class clown and barely-bad boy with a good heart (Kirk Cameron‘s Mike), the brainy perfect middle child (Tracey Gold‘s Carol) and the cute grade-schooler (Jeremy Miller‘s Ben) who would have a few adolescent mishaps in later years—Dr. Seaver often served as a moderator for the usual bickering between siblings.
Thicke’s character bumbled just enough through the family’s conundrums to add to the laughs, but ultimately retained the authority to ensure that a lesson was learned at the end of every episode. His appearance helped add to the gravitas. The Canadian actor was a manly man, tall, dark and handsome, with a deep voice, so even when he had to act goofy (all the TV dads of that time had to get goofy), he never became too uncool.
So, that was for the casting department to be proud of.
It couldn’t have been easy to stand out in the late ’80s (though when you were a kid, you didn’t realize that a show was jumping the shark when Chrissy was born in 1990) as a sitcom dad, when TGIF meant destination television and TV Guide promised family-friendly broadcast-network comedies almost every night of the week.
Tony Danza was the cool yet overprotective single dad on Who’s the Boss; Michael Gross was the even-keeled, post-hippy romantic who worked for public television on Family Ties; Bob Euker‘s uncouth but caring George Owens played second fiddle to…well, Mr. Belvedere; and Bob Saget‘s Danny Tanner was the king of cheese on Full House. The Cosby Show was among the greatest in its day (more on that later). Then you had Just the Ten of Us (a GP spin-off of course), My Two Dads, Silver Spoons, Roseanne… Oh, the memories. So many doting dads up and down the dial.
But while Kirk Cameron was the recipient of all the teen idol adoration in Growing Pains‘ heyday, Alan Thicke was the glue holding it all together.
He had the comic timing down as the befuddled dad, but he was also pleasantly sarcastic. He was loving but not schmaltzy, patriarchal without being obstinately old-fashioned (he didn’t love Maggie going back to her journalism career as “Maggie Malone,” but he dealt with it), protective but not off-putting to audiences when he was forced to lower the boom on Mike for cutting curfew (a rather generous 1 a.m.), again.
In the course of a scene, particularly when facing off with troublemaker Mike, Thicke would go from bemused and skeptical to concerned and helpful, and usually back again. There were countless plot lines that required this, and perhaps they ultimately blended into each other, but this show would not have worked without a watchable father-family dynamic.
And unlike Danny Tanner (Full House is a classic in its own right but almost unbearably schmaltzy today), Jason Seaver had an edge. Danny Tanner didn’t even make Uncle Jesse and Aunt Becky pay rent, let alone think of having one of his own children pay to live in the garage!
Meanwhile, just as the best sitcoms continue to do to this day, while the dramas are piling it on so thick you aren’t satisfied unless heads are rolling weekly, Growing Pains would get intensely real on occasion—and when sadness invades a comedy, it sticks with you.
There was a hilarious babysitting episode where the kids cut a hole through the coffee table with an electric sander while trying to smooth over a wine stain, and in another ep years later you were just as proud of Mike as his dad was when he astutely left a party instead of submitting to peer pressure to try cocaine. But easily the most haunting episode was when Carol’s boyfriend, Sandy (Matthew Perry, so double the retrospective anguish), died of internal injuries after getting in a DUI accident, right after dropping Carol off.
Jason Seaver goes from livid that Carol was drinking herself and then got into a car with a boy who’d been drinking, to comforting when she admits she made a terrible mistake, to lighthearted when they return to sitcom mode, to realistically at a loss when they return home from visiting Sandy in the hospital, Mike tells them that Sandy died and Carole gets hysterical.
The scene is as sad now as it was then—or maybe even worse now that we’ve all got a little life experience under our belt. And those types of episodes of shows back in the day, the “special episodes,” helped pave the way for today’s best sitcoms to tackle tragedy and serious issues.
And yet we were young enough for it never to occur to us that Carol might never get over it. She had her family, after all.
So Alan Thicke’s sudden death Tuesday at the disconcertingly young age of 69 was a blow, perhaps particularly upsetting for the kids of what we’ll call the einties (too young to really get all the ’80s homages in Stranger Things but you certainly remember the TV shows and weren’t really paying attention to when the ’80s ended and the ’90s began).
He had just appeared in all his Alan Thickery on the series premiere of This Is Us, and he had an amusing cameo as D.J. Tanner’s blind date on the second season of Fuller House, which started streaming on Netflix just last week.
After Growing Pains ended in 1992, Thicke remained a prolific presence on TV, as a game show host, a voice actor and often times as an outsized version of “Alan Thicke,” parlaying his fame as a TV-sitcom dad into a cheeky, I’m-not-exactly-that-dad persona. On How I Met Your Mother, for instance, he played himself as an old pal of Cobie Smulders‘ Robin, whose Canadianness was played up for laughs.
But even though he wasn’t exactly Ozzie Nelson off-camera (he was married three times and he was an early regular on The Howard Stern Show, back when Howard was known as just a shock-jock), and would play the wink-wink jerk on occasion, Thicke never intentionally torched his sitcom-dad cred—either intentionally, like Bob Saget did with his turn in Half Baked or by making jokes about the Olsen twins being hot, or unintentionally, like Bill Cosbydid by being (allegedly) a reprehensible person in real life.
(Not that we don’t find the real Bob Saget hilarious, but getting to know his comedy over the past 10 years makes Fuller House all the more delightfully ridicuous.)
Alan Thicke remained a welcome presence onscreen throughout the rest of his life, usually pretty dashing or at least funny, and readily making fun of his own outsize persona was reliably a good move. He also didn’t bite the hand that fed, joining Tracey Gold and Jeremy Miller at ’80s/’90s nostalgia fest REwind-Con in Chicago barely a month ago.
And so all of that results in us being able to remember him as one of the best of the TV dads, a solid presence we can still admire in retrospect, who was an unsung hero on a show that maybe wasn’t considered prestige viewing, but was essential viewing all the same.