Primetime's Looming Male Identity Crisis

By Hanna Rosin

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.

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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.

Loser men have been a staple of sitcoms at least since Norm was consistently failing to pay his tab on Cheers. But in the old days they were not surrounded by women who were so conspicuously eating their lunch. In Up All Night, Will's wife, Reagan, (played by Christina Applegate) is the producer for an Oprah-like diva played by Maya Rudolph, who is the embodiment of supreme female power. In Work It, a woman shows off the new bracelet she bought herself, saying, "I could wait around for a guy to buy it for me, but none of them have any money." Man Up features a hot alpha girl at the office who calls everyone "pussies," and Last Man Standing includes a boss who gave the company to his granddaughter because his sons are both "jet-skiing idiots" and she has an MBA from Purdue.

You can feel the seething beneath the surface. And because Hollywood is still largely run by men, I listened closely for notes of hostility toward women. In most of the shows, the wives and daughters are admirable, lovable types who might be a little uptight but not nearly as much as, say, Judd Apatow's version of wives in Knocked Up. Work It thrives on boatloads of female stereotypes but mostly of the harmless kind: women snipe about each other's purses, join book clubs, talk about Bethenny from The Real Housewives, and eat lettuce and pomegranate seeds for lunch. The show that came closest to hostility was Man Up, with several vagina jokes. For example, Will tells his buddies that he might buy his son a journal for his 13th birthday: "A journal's a good place to put all your thoughts. You know? Hopes and dreams. Poetry," he offers. His friend responds: "You know, another good place to put all those things is in your vagina." For the record, he ends up giving his son a knife his own father gave him -- the old Mohaska -- and of course the episode ends with his son cutting his hand on the thing, just as his wife warned Will would happen.

In nearly every scenario, the women win the I-told-you-so; they are heirs of the level-headed Alice Kramden and not the bumbling Lucy Ricardo. "Today it's a woman's world, and this man's man is on a mission to get men back to their rightful place in society," reads the press release for Last Man Standing. But it's clear from episode one that the mission is doomed. Which makes me wonder what self-respecting American man will watch these shows. Two and a Half Men, arguably the most successful sitcom of the past decade, also features a cast of male losers, but its undisguised hostility toward women serves as a balm of sweet revenge. When Charlie Sheen was on the show, he slept with a different bimbo in nearly every episode; one of his regular hook-ups was an actual hooker. Regular cameos were made by Megan Fox as the 16-year-old daughter of a housekeeper who in one episode soaped down the windows in that porny way Paris Hilton perfects in her Carl's Jr. commercial. Sheen's character even treated his mother like a senile idiot. The men on the show are losers in some statistical sense, but like Norm on Cheers, they are still kings of their own domain.

Two and a Half Men proves the truism that what people want in an age of recession is a little escape. Elsewhere in the network line-up are other notes of nostalgic escape, mostly spin-offs of Mad Men: ABC's Pan Am, for example, and NBC's The Playboy Club, both set in the early '60s, when apparently it was uncomplicated for women to show a lot of cleavage, or at least for men to admire it. The loser-men sitcoms, by contrast, are fairly heavy on the realism. There is one great moment of raw angry nostalgia, from Tim Allen's character. He is supposed to be doing an online promotion for a crossbow, but he turns it into a rant about the younger generation of man-boys. It is a perfect example of that weird sitcom blend of real rage punctuated by timed breaks for the laugh track.

What the heck is fantasy football? I got a fantasy for you. Get off the fricking couch, you moron. What happened to men? Men used to build cities just so they could burn them down. They used to get a haircut from a guy named Hank. Modern men, what do you do? You run from things, from responsibility, from fatherhood. You can't even change a tire! Get off the couch, you moron, and go outside! See something bright called the sun. It's like a tanning bed, but it's free!

There's some Charlie Sheen in that rant, but you'll notice it's directed toward other men.

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This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/09/primetimes-looming-male-identity-crisis/244692/