There Are Decent Men on TV, If You Know Where to Look

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Rather than bemoan the end of Andy Griffith era, people should take note of the positive portrayals of masculinity that exist today.

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As they bemoan the dearth of competent, goodhearted male characters in contemporary films and television shows, readers of The Atlantic's Sexes channel reference age-old, stodgy sitcoms like Father Knows Best and The Andy Griffith Show as shining examples of masculine culture. It's difficult to identify a group of TV shows that espouse a more one-dimensional, and often times paternalistic view of society. This is a somewhat remarkable accomplishment considering they were broadcast on the precipice of a decade that would bring significant social and political upheaval.

But perhaps the new legacy of these defunct television shows is that they are a reminder that since the 1960s it has become increasingly difficult to define the role of men in society. Are we supposed to be self-indulgent pseudo intellectuals? Heartless strivers bent on improving our social status at others' expense? Homer Simpson-like dufuses? Bros? Psychopaths with consciences? Heck, even James Bond has been called metrosexual in recent years. Such mixed messages can confuse and confound, and they are apparently leading some contemporary men to long for more simplistic times. It should come as no surprise that the most Alpha Male-ish character on television today stars in a show set in the 1960s. Don Draper can only exist in a time when three-lunch martinis and casual sexual harassment were the norm, because that was also a period when the idea of a white-collar world dominated by square-jawed breadwinners was still credible. Set Mad Men in the contemporary advertising world and the show would fold under a haze of un-believability. Today's office managers are perceived to be more Michael Scott than Roger Sterling; the rising office stars more shy Jim Halpert than domineering Don Draper.

The richest and most interesting contemporary male television characters exist on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, a show whose premise stems from the idea that the story of finding one's female partner is the story most worth telling your children. The leading men on that show, Ted (Josh Radnor), Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), and Marshall (Jason Segel), each have their quirks and flaws, but overall they come across as rich and real individuals with many admirable qualities. When HIMYM debuted in 2005 it seemed like an updated and slightly savvier version of Friends, but in the eight ensuing seasons the show's writers have shown the ability to smartly portray 21st century relationships among men and between men and women. It's a show about negotiating the pitfalls of early middle life with as much grace and humor as possible. While the show appears to be on its last legs, the overall body of work contains some of the smartest television comedy writing of the past decade.

In particular, season six of HIMYM broke new ground with a storyline about the unapologetic playboy Barney, who incidentally was raised by a single mother, meeting and bonding with his father (played by John Lithgow) for the first time. Some of the scenes between the two characters reached levels of emotional poignancy rarely seen on sitcoms with laugh tracks, and the creative forces behind those episodes deserve commendation for such audacious and entertaining writing.

The point is that rather than long for the days of television shows which depicted America at its most homogeneous, it would behoove audiences to look for the interesting and well-rounded male characters that still do exist on television and in films and to encourage writers to shy away from boorish and tired stereotypes in future productions. There's no shortage of interesting female characters on television today, from Zooey Deschanel's New Girl to Lena Dunham's witty protagonist on the aptly titled Girls. There's no reason to believe their male counterparts can't be just as interesting.

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Kevin Craft is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, and Arlington Magazine.

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