In 2003, Spike TV was launched as "The first television channel for men"—a sort of a man's answer to Lifetime. And it was. Just as Lifetime gave women simpering, saccharine-sweet, sentimental crap, Spike gave men juvenile, idiotic, useless crap. Real men don't care whether or not Genghis Khan could beat the Comanche in a fight. Real men know Genghis Khan would own. Seriously.
But as Kevin Fallon pointed out, Showtime has stepped in to fill the role that Lifetime (and Oxygen) was so obviously poorly equipped to do, providing intelligent, engaging and entertaining shows about women. And just as women get Showtime, men get FX.
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Over the past few years, FX has emerged has the channel to go to for unabashedly masculine programming. I'm sure they've got female viewers for many of their shows as well. But they offer a suite of series starring characters that walk and talk like they stepped out of a 17-year-old boy's fantasy: a fireman who drinks too much, a grizzled motorcycle gangster, and a hard-bitten deputy U.S. Marshal who can't be outdrawn.
They've even got male-oriented comedies down —Archer, a cartoon about a flamboyantly chauvinistic, incompetent secret agent who works for his mother that just might be the funniest show on television, though It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia—also on FX—could take that title as well. Sunny's main characters are characterized by a total lack of the responsibility that characterize their dramatic counterparts. Like the time they qualify for welfare by getting addicted to crack.
FX's dude-centric shows embrace their archetypes, but they don't bow to them. There's something masculine about doing something, doing it right, and not trying anything fancy. The leading men from Sons of Anarchy, Rescue Me, and Justified, (Ron Pearlman, Dennis Leary and Timothy Olyphant, respectively) take what on Spike could have been irritating muscle-flexing into genuine portraits of conflicted, angry, and entrancing men. Even the usually wooden Olyphant slips off his hat (literally—he wears a cowboy hat. Awesome) often enough to let a glimpse of humanity out.
How hard is it being one of these men? Dennis Leary's Tommy Gavin tries to explain to a bartender why he isn't paying for eight fingers of top shelf Irish whiskey.
He shows a jagged scar on this hip—"See that one?" he says. "That was this drunken asshole in the Bronx, fell asleep while he was smoking in bed—he started the fire. Woke up trying to crawl out, I got him, bringing him down, trading my mask off with him—we went down the stairs, the stairs give way, we go right through half a story onto these metal spikes. Needless to say—he lived. Four kids and their mom died."
"I don't have any money because my wallet and my badge were in my new truck which got stolen this morning—my wife's pregnant, she's gonna have a baby but we don't know who's it is because she's been having sex with me and my brother. My uncle's in the joint because last year he shot a drunk driver who killed my only son."
The bartender pours him another. A girl in a black tank top sidles up to him.
"Sweetheart, believe me. This is way, way more bad boy then you're ever going to able to handle. Do yourself a favor. Go blow a drummer."
The beer commercials tell us that we are dumb. Fast food seems to think the epitome of masculinity is a large hamburger. We're patronized by our own pants. Men on TV are either idiots, children, or dust-covered cardboard cutouts perpetually shaking hands and driving over gravel. And so it's nice to see that there is a place on TV where being a man doesn't mean chunky soup. There are hard decisions, responsibility, and a plurality of AK-47's.
In this magazine, earlier this year, Hanna Rosin proclaimed "The End of Men:" citing a post-industrial society for a female ascendancy that is finally, after untold thousands of years, undercutting the phallocracy. It wasn't the first time someone had made such an observation, and the Internet had a field day debating the article, but a core observation remains—the old stereotypes of what makes a man a man just don't mesh with an age of the iPad.
It's no coincidence that while the traditional masculine roles may be disappearing in reality, they've only become stronger on television. After all, the cowboy never became the pinnacle of American manhood until he was crushed by a freight train. Mad Men's Don Draper on AMC is the poster man of the small screen: tortured, broad-shouldered, drunk, fading.
None of the main characters in FX's manly lineup are entirely comfortable in the modern world. More than eulogize an archetype of a day long past, they stare their extinction in the face. They all drink. Like men.