Many of us have been wondering why so many of the U.S. networks’ upcoming comedies (single and multi-camera alike) are obsessed with masculinity, or with the theme of a man in a world of women. Both ABC and NBC are starting new comedy blocks with shows about the changing roles of men in this unmanly world: ABC has Last Man Standing and Man Up!, while NBC is doing it a bit more subtly with a combination of Up All Night (where Will Arnett will adjust to staying home and raise the kids while Christina Applegate works an oh-so-relatable job at a PR firm) and Free Agents, whose producer describes the premise as “Manliness is under assault.”
I theorized that when a whole bunch of identical shows appear at once, the reason is that somebody somewhere has read a magazine article. The Wall Street Journal‘s Amy Chozick has a piece on all these new man-coms, and guess what – one of her sources mentions that a lot of the comedy pitches seemed to be inspired by a magazine article:
Many of the ideas for shows executives fielded sounded the same theme: Writers talk about how men are taking a more active role in child rearing, with more women serving as the primary breadwinners. One CBS executive said that about 20 producers cited, in pitches, an article titled “The End of Men” about “the unprecedented role reversal now under way” published in the Atlantic magazine last year.
There are several reasons why it’s easy to mock all these executives and producers for their obsession with this theme. One is that they’re selling it as something new, but it’s the same stereotypes TV sitcoms have been peddling nonstop since at least the ’90s: men are overgrown children; women are sensible but control-freakish; certain types of behaviour are not “manly” and met will get all tied up in knots about whether they’re acting masculine enough. This is a type of characterization that is unfair to both men and women, and which became really played-out in the ’00s. (I sometimes think one reason for the success of Two and a Half Men is that it came up with a twist on the men-are-this, women-are-that premise: it presented most men as disgusting overgrown children, but also presented most women as destructive narcissists. Eliminating the obligatory “sensible woman” character may have made it more appealing to men and women alike than shows were women are down-to-earth and men are morons.) But we’re going back to it now.
In typical TV fashion, networks are buying shows that offer these same basic characters and ideas in the guise of new premises – but the premise is never the most important thing about a half-hour comedy anyway. And the idea that masculinity is all about being a chest-beating caveman is one that would come as news to a lot of men in the world, at any time in history. It seems to be an idea derived from what Hollywood people think “real men” are like.
Also, while women are still frozen out of many positions of power in Hollywood – NBC executive Angela Bromstad had to (rightly) put pressure on her producers to hire more female writers, while other executives don’t even seem to be concerned about the imbalance – there are quite a few female executives at the networks and TV studios, particularly at the development level. Some writers and producers seem to perceive themselves as existing in a “feminized” TV world. That’s what drama showrunner Ed Bernero basically said in explaining why TV has fewer action-oriented “guy” shows today:
It’s very female, development. Development staffs are almost all female. It’s not that easy to get a male skewed show through development.
Well, whatever. (I would retort that that’s just because there are more women watching than men; he argues that there are fewer men watching because there are fewer non-sports shows for them. Chicken-egg.) But assume that there are other producers who feel that way, and you can sort of see why they might see themselves as “men in a world of women” – that world doesn’t actually exist in most places but it sort of exists in their daily lives. Remember the Dabney Coleman character in Tootsie, who was trying to turn Dustin Hoffman’s character into a veiled negative comment on his female boss? I would not be surprised if there were some Dabney Colemans (Colemen?) out there in the writing and production world. It doesn’t even have to be a negative comment, and I don’t think it usually is in real life, but the characterizations are sometimes similar to Coleman wanted Dorothy Michaels to be.
Another thing that’s annoying about this masculinity fixation is that it demonstrates how networks and producers want to be relevant without actually dealing with anything controversial. The idea of “a man in a woman’s world,” apart from not being true, is so vague that it sort of sounds like it’s topical without actually being related to life as it’s currently lived. The show Work It may be one of the worst comedy pilots of the season, but you have to give it this: it’s based on something that actually happens to its characters, namely discovering that the recession has hit male-oriented jobs harder and they can’t get a job unless they pretend to be women. It’s a dumb premise, but at least it tries to come up with a specific reason why this is a bad time for its leads to be men. Other premises just seem to be proceeding from the idea that successful, affluent men feel like this is a bad time to be a man. How many plots can you spin from a character’s vague, mistaken feeling of oppression?
Since it’s hard to say from a pilot whether a sitcom will be good or not (not impossible, just hard), I don’t know if any of these shows will get good, but moving beyond those silly hooks may be a necessity. I think apart from being not as relevant as Hollywood thinks it is, this type of premise is just too abstract. Tim Taylor was a man trying and failing to live up to his stereotype of masculinity, but he didn’t just talk about it. It was represented physically: he’s a guy who wants to fix and re-wire stuff, and it literally blows up in his face. (That show also subverted the “masculinity” stereotype by having Tim get most of his advice from a cultured and intelligent, albeit unseen, man – meaning that sitcoms actually regressed since the ’90s.) Showing, not telling – still the best bet.