Primetime's Looming Male Identity Crisis

Assessing fall's crop of sitcoms about men who are unemployed, underemployed, or in desperate need of a makeover

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CBS

With this fall network season, I will reach the pinnacle of my cultural influence. I know this because it was reported in a June Wall Street Journal in a story titled "A Generation of TV Wimps," which was sent to me by a friend. A CBS executive is quoted as saying that 20 different producers came to meetings with my recent Atlantic story, "The End of Men," in hand, claiming it described a new gender dynamic that must be set to a laugh track. I was not invited to such meetings and no doubt my name was not invoked, but in my own quiet way, I bragged.

A half-dozen pilots were made by the three major networks, and they will all be released in September. Some of their names are interchangeable--Man Up!, Last Man Standing, How to Be a Gentleman. They all feature men who are unemployed or underemployed, love to play video games, and are desperately in need of a makeover. "Life is a big jerk and punches you in the face over and over again," complains Bert Lansing, a lughead personal trainer in ABC's How to Be a Gentleman, played by Kevin Dillon from Entourage. Now that I have actually seen them, my secret pride is definitely tinged with a little terror. I worry that maybe I have helped to unleash a race of genetic mutants onto the population--diseased and dysfunctional men ranging from placid to sad to furious, fumbling around in the office, the supermarket, or the bedroom while the rest of America laughs.

My original story was a mix of sociology, statistics, and reporting, so I never considered its sitcom potential. In fact, I must confess, I thought the sitcom was mostly dead. But apparently all the old genre needed was a new kitchen-sink configuration to breathe new life into it. In this generation of sitcoms, the wives are working double shifts or getting promotions while the men sit around confused. The potential for fresh comic tableaux is endless. Husband lies to wife about how much hockey he watches during the day while he's supposed to be taking care of the baby. Sister does homework while brother feeds orange juice to the dog. Wife sends husband to buy cheese and he comes home with a giant orange wheel. Wife sends husband to buy yogurt and he is humiliated. A man! Buying low-fat yogurt! The indignities! "In a world when women are succeeding and sometimes surpassing the careers of their husbands, that produces conflict and conflict produces comedy," Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, which made ABC's Last Man Standing, explained to The Wall Street Journal. (For an analysis of the corresponding wave of young powerful lady shows, see this story in Slate.)

TV Guide called this the season of "the emasculation of men on TV." The Wall Street Journal summarized new sitcom man this way: "He's pretty happy. He respects his wife, loves his kids, helps around the house. So how come he feels like a total loser?" The shows go so heavy on this loser theme that if it weren't for the standard sitcom punch line they might be Urban Cowboy-level depressing. In ABC's Work It, scheduled to be released mid-season, two buddies sit around the bar wondering how they found themselves unemployed: "I'll tell you how. This isn't just a recession we're in. It's a Mancession. Women are taking over the workforce. Soon they'll have all the money, and the power, and they'll start getting rid of men. They'll just keep a few of us around as sex slaves." This show finds the most creative -- or maybe the most literal-minded -- solution to the crisis. So desperate are the men that they decide to dress up like women to get a job, much like in Bosom Buddies from the '80s--only then the stakes were much lower. The boys were just looking for cheap rent and girlfriends, not to feed their families.

The men in these shows range from car salesmen to fancy ad executives, but they all have in common a sense of confusion about how to be men. In Man Up, Will agonizes over what he can get his son for his 13th birthday to show "he's becoming a man." In a world of "Axe ads and manscaping," reads the ABC press release, "what does it really mean to be a guy anymore?" In Last Man Standing, Mike Baxter (played by Tim Allen from Home Improvement) rages about the young boys who play soccer worse than his daughter and who "run around and get hair gel in their eyes and crash into the goal posts and cry." Up All Night is NBC's version of the new landscape, which means it's aimed more at Brooklyn and L.A. Will Arnett plays a supportive stay-at-home dad whose wife can't make it back for their anniversary dinner because she's working late. His situation seems less depressing mostly because his wife seems to make enough money to pay for their cool furniture.

Presented by

Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of the book The End of Men based on her story in the July/August 2010 Atlantic.

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