End of Men on US Television?
Numerous television trend pieces this summer highlighted evidence of the interrogation of contemporary masculinity supposed to be on offer in new shows this season. I’ve learned to largely disregard such stories because, more often than not, the shows that look like really bad ideas often disappear from the screen within an episode or two because they are simply really bad ideas or poorly executed shows, rather than evidence of some cultural apocalypse. These articles revealed interesting insight on the motivation for the trend, such as that television executives reported hearing at least 20 show pitches citing Hannah Rosen’s “End of Men” Atlantic article as the harbinger of this particular zeitgeist of emasculation, while Rosen herself weighed in on the shows as well. I wasn’t ready to comment the first week of the season, suspecting many of the shows wouldn’t last long, but with a few episodes (and shows) now behind us, here’s an update on primetime, broadcast television’s new engagement with the state of men. (The story on cable is another matter entirely).
How to be a Gentleman was a classic example of poor execution, and as a result, just utterly awful television. Audiences realized this, didn’t watch, and it was quickly removed from the schedule. I don’t think the concept was inherently worse than others, but this show was painful to watch, unfunny, not at all smart. No meaningful lessons about the state of men in this.
Man Up began airing a bit later than most and is just, well, … meh. The show offers glimpses of the inner lives of men, but never with much complexity. It is oddly cast and acted, so that the tone of the series is really unclear. The show isn’t offensive so much as uninspired and cliché. I’d categorize it as trying to ride the tide of interest in shifting constructions of masculinity, but not offering much to engage with, and doubtful to return for a second season.
The surprise of the supposed tidal wave of men in crisis shows, at least for me, has been Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing, which isn’t bad and actually a kind of sweet little show (not that “sweet” is a particularly critical assessment). Sitcom history is not being redefined here, but the show is nuanced in its working through of what it constructs as generational shifts in dominant masculinities. A direct link can be drawn from Allen’s “Tim the Tool Man Taylor” Home Improvement character, a character Robert Hanke excellently critiqued as exemplary of a “mock-macho” masculinity, to the one on offer here. Age has softened the patriarchal perspective that Allen’s Mike Baxter-character voices, and importantly, his boss, played by Hector Elizando, at Outdoor Man—a Cabela’s-like hunting/sporting good store that previously allowed Baxter to traverse the world on catalog photo shoots—more often plays the patriarchal heavy, although both are clearly men who are artifacts of a world gone by.
The show doesn’t harbor undue nostalgia toward a more patriarchal past; instead Mike tries to make sense of his sense of norms relative to a world he now lives in—a gyneco-centric home that he seems more a visitor in than master of. Mike shares his home with three adult/young adult daughters, his wife, and a toddler grandson, creating a very different dynamic than Home Improvement’s family of three rambunctious young sons.
My biggest complaint about the series is the simplicity of Mandy, the middle daughter, who so far seems a caricatured dumb, shopping-loving, female teen, while her sisters are more fascinating studies in the range of femininities now available to women. Despite this, I’ve appreciated the adultness of the parental relationship that, in what might be throwaway lines, acknowledges the process of a couple aging together. A recent episode featured Mike saying something about going “for ice cream” which his wife and the audience (as represented through laugh track) seem uncertain of as a possible double entendre. But no, he meant let’s go for ice cream.
Although Mike may huff and puff about as though he’s king of the roost, it is clear this is not the case, and the resolution of episodic tension often works subtly to critique some of the ways the world works now without supporting the view that Mike’s patriarchal old way is any better. If anything, this connects the series more with the father/adult son tensions evident in Parenthood, Rescue Me, Men of a Certain Age, or Sons of Anarchy, among others, than with sitcoms debuting this fall.
From the vantage of a few months into the season, it seems the trend pieces—that also included men in Free Agents (cancelled) and Up All Night with what were termed “wimpy,” “emasculated,” or “loser” depictions of men—overestimated the phenomenon. ABC’s Work It, featuring victims of the “mancession” dressing as women, is scheduled for a January 3rd debut. Stay tuned, but my suspicion is that its tenure might not match How to be a Gentleman.
*Update: Since submission of this post, Man Up has been pulled from the ABC schedule.*