When you think of all the fictional mothers and fathers who have inhabited our small screens, it’s hard to picture, say, Mike Brady waking up next to a puddle of pee or June Cleaver shouting because Beaver is using “toilet words” at the dinner table.
Both those things happen in the pilot episode of “Children Ruin Everything,” a new CTV sitcom that, as the name suggests, looks at the more trying aspects of parenthood.
But don’t let that cynical sounding title fool you: “It’s really a love letter to parenting,” says creator Kurt Smeaton, an Emmy-winning producer for “Schitt’s Creek” who has written and/or produced shows like “Kim’s Convenience,” “Mr. D” and “The Beaverton.”
He’s also the father of an 11-year-old son and two daughters about to turn nine and five, but the inspiration for “Children Ruin Everything” actually predates a couple of those kids.
Smeaton was working on the talk show “George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight” about a decade ago when he heard about research that said childless people were happier than parents.
He was offended at first, but “as I read the articles, I thought they made some pretty good points like, yeah, it is time-consuming and expensive and frustrating. So I wanted to create a show that acknowledged that but also showed the other side, which is having a family is worth it.”
Television, of course, is chock-a-block with shows about families, starting with wholesome, moralistic series of the 1950s, like “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.” There were the oddball families of the ’60s like “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family”; ’70s shows with cool parents like “The Brady Bunch” and “The Partridge Family”; ’80s sitcoms with a focus on dads like “Full House,” “Growing Pains” and “The Cosby Show”; ’90s favourites like “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Home Improvement”; and more current offerings like “Better Things,” “Modern Family” and “Breeders,” which also focuses on the downsides of parenting, not to mention new Canadian additions “Run the Burbs” and “Son of a Critch.”
Smeaton enjoyed watching the family sitcoms of the ’80s, but “I feel like those family shows were really about … becoming a family is fun and beautiful and all that, and I really wanted to focus on what you lose and what you gain by becoming a parent. And that’s where the comedy was for me …
“Raising kids is funny. I’m in my pyjamas, finishing kids’ cereal over the sink and getting them ready for school, listening to the theme song from ‘Paw Patrol’ (that’s) stuck in my head 24 hours a day, and there’s comedy to it.”
“Children Ruin Everything” is full of moments the average parent will recognize — courtesy of a writers’ room made up mainly of parents — from a family dinner ruined by the kids’ antics to having to throw a birthday party when both parents are suffering with flu, imported into the house by someone else’s child.
For Meaghan Rath, who plays mom Astrid, it was a bit like getting a glimpse of her future.
Rath, who’s known for series like “Hawaii Five-0,” “Being Human” and “New Girl,” was five months pregnant while shooting “Children Ruin Everything,” her baby bump hidden by costumes and props. Her son is now four months old, while her TV kids Felix (Logan Nicholson) and Viv (Mikayla SwamiNathan) are seven and four, respectively.
“There were definitely moments where I’m like, ‘Am I gonna like my kid?’” she joked in a phone call with her co-star, Aaron Abrams, who plays father James.
Abrams isn’t a dad in real life, but “Kurt writes so personally and so specifically that it’s very easy to slip into his shoes and relate to the things that the characters were doing,” he said.
Abrams, who’s known for shows like “Hannibal” and “Blindspot,” also welcomed the chance to do a comedy.
“I’m not sure what happened; my face got real punchable and I started playing bad guys all the time, and I was happy to do it … But it’s a real blessing to do a show that is just sort of about human interaction and relationships … and not to deal with plotting to blow up Times Square or whatever it is.”
Of course, part of playing a parent on TV is bonding with your screen family.
Smeaton, Rath and Abrams all say the show hit the jackpot casting Logan and Mikayla, who were nine and five when filming began last spring.
“We wanted to have a show where the kids behave like real kids and not sort of Disneyfied, they’re smarter than the adults or whatever,” Smeaton said in a separate phone call.
“These were kids who just were kids, and they wanted to play and have fun, and that was very infectious,” echoed Abrams. “What you’re watching in this show is really us interacting with real kids, so they’re not precocious punchline machines.”
“It was really fun to have those kids on set and there was a different energy when they were there,” added Smeaton. “I think everyone grew to really love those kids.”
Rath appreciates that “Children Ruin Everything” is “a kind show at heart” and that there’s love and respect in the way James and Astrid interact, even amid the tantrums and the mess (Smeaton shouted out the set decorators for the realistic clutter).
She attributed that to Smeaton’s own experience as a husband and father, “as someone who wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
Smeaton joked there would be some schadenfreude for the childless people watching the series, but said there’s also a way they might relate.
“This is a show about parenthood changing you and you can’t go back to the person you were before, and I think there’s a certain aspect of the pandemic and (how) it’s treating people without kids … They don’t go out as much. They are worried about all the germs that are coming to the house. I think when it’s all over, as much as we want to go back to the way things were, we’re all going to be a little bit different.”