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Don't underestimate the power of Dad TV: 'Reacher' is the genre at its best

Dad jokes for Dad TV: Alan Ritchson and his back are back as Jack Reacher in a new season that drops Friday.
Prime Video
Dad jokes for Dad TV: Alan Ritchson and his back are back as Jack Reacher in a new season that drops Friday.

Jack Reacher is a distinctive, down-to-earth action hero.

Created by novelist Lee Child, Reacher is smart, strong and out of the military, traveling the country with no home base or fixed job. He's a typical wandering hero — in the books and Prime Video's Reacher series, which has a second season dropping Friday — using the skills he developed as an investigator in the U.S. Army's military police to help others.

In the series, he's played by Alan Ritchson – a mountain of a man with a movie star's face and an instinct for Reacher's incisively blunt, no-nonsense style.

But Reacher is also a, um, prime example of a genre some critics are calling Dad TV.

Dad TV: an insult that isn't

Alan Ritchson is Jack Reacher.
Brooke Palmer / Prime Video
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Prime Video
Alan Ritchson is Jack Reacher.

For me, Dad TV is one of those pop culture terms that may have been invented as an insult, but actually describes a potent and powerful genre. These are TV shows aimed at appealing to and reflecting the perspectives of middle-aged guys – men over age 30 who are often, as it turns out, dads – with a yearning to see fellows like themselves reflected in some of the programs they watch.

It's John Krasinski's game-but-underwhelming take on the hopelessly bland intelligence analyst in the Prime Video series Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan. Or Titus Welliver's soulful, passionate portrayal of jazz-loving-cop-turned-private investigator Harry Bosch in Prime Video's Bosch and Amazon Freevee's Bosch: Legacy.

Or Ritchson's note-perfect embodiment of Reacher. The towering, muscled actor is so good at matching the character from Child's books, you will quickly forget those lackluster films starring a terribly miscast, much-less-towering Tom Cruise.

It's no coincidence that Amazon's streaming platforms Prime Video and Freevee have floated so many Dad TV stories, searching for mainstream hits like Justin Timberlake strapping on a trucker's hat and camouflage for an album and tour.

That strategy has worked best with Reacher — a hero perceptive enough to spot a car tailing him for days, burly enough to set off that same car's airbags by stomping on its front bumper and fierce enough to pull the driver out of the car and beat him down in seconds ... before discovering that might not have been the best move.

Dad TV with appeal beyond dads

The best Dad TV channels fantasy. Another reason Reacher nails it.

In this second season, he's reunited with members of the old investigative unit he used to lead in the Army; one of their old crew has been murdered and they fear they're all on a hit list, for some unknown reason.

Alan Ritchson and Serinda Swan.
Brooke Palmer / Prime Video
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Prime Video
Alan Ritchson and Serinda Swan.

As the new episodes unfold, the story takes us through a lot of emotions dads can find relatable. Reacher winds up working with a beautiful, female former colleague — Serinda Swan as Karla Dixon — who he was attracted to but couldn't romance while he was supervising her in the Army (dads often fantasize about reconnecting with old flames.) He's also the kind of guy who reacts to pointless obstructionism by barreling through it, either with his sharp intelligence or his fists (dads also often fantasize about beating up people who get on our nerves or in our way).

And the scene where Reacher takes out a guy who is trying to force a woman to give him all her money from an ATM rings all the superhero and crime-fighter fantasies that many of us middle-class dudes also walk around with — along with lots of other people.

The fantasy of living life completely on your own terms

Most of all, Reacher is a character freed from all the pressures and responsibilities many dads face every day. He has no wife, steady romantic partner, kids or family – not even a mortgage, rent payment or full-time job. He lives a nomadic life going where he wants, doing what he wants, funded by his military pension and the kindness of strangers.

And though there are moments in this second season where Reacher questions how his itinerant lifestyle left him in the dark about his comrades' lives until they were in serious trouble, the series' attitude toward Reacher is mostly that he's a badass dude living the only way he can.

This season's episodes have a few more clunky moments than the debut season – which mostly worked until its bombastic, blow-it-all-up ending. And despite the premise of reuniting Army buddies to saddle up again, there's few partnerships here that works well as Reacher's alliance last season with Willa Fitzgerald's tough female police officer and Malcolm Goodwin's persnickety chief detective. (His connection with his former master sergeant Frances Neagley, played with effortless cool by Danish actress Maria Sten, comes close.)

Still, the new Reacher season is an entertaining ride that takes a compelling character through an adventure filled with wish fulfillment, fistfights, a dollop of romance and heroes crusading for justice.

And, in the end, that's pretty much the core mission for most successful examples of Dad TV.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.