Primetime shows feeling for sensitive men
EmptyMichael Vartan considers himself a guy's guy -- just as much as the next guy's guy. He swears like a sailor, likes fast cars and enjoys a good high-testosterone action flick. "I can't wait to see the next Jet Li movie!" he says.
And yet, says Vartan, "I'm a lot more sensitive than anyone would really know, and it's definitely interesting to portray that in a character."
As the star of ABC's hourlong fall dramedy, "Big Shots," the former "Alias" secret agent is just one of a number of actors playing complex, emotionally evolved, heterosexual alpha males putting their softer side on display in prime time.
In the late 1990s, "Sex and the City" ushered in a new portrait of single women with their frank discussions of their sexual exploits, desires, fantasies and beliefs about men. Of late, however, it's the less-fair sex going sensitive.
In a number of broadcast ensembles premiering this fall, men are opening up about issues beyond sports, money, power and sexual conquests. They're expressing their feelings -- often to other men -- on fatherhood, intimacy and love.
One such series is ABC's "Carpoolers," which centers on commuter pals who commiserate about everything from their jobs and their wives ("If we don't provide for our women, do they really need us?" queries one character) to their personal secrets (one confesses to losing his virginity to Air Supply's syrupy '80s ballad, "All Out of Love.")
"The whole idea behind the car pool is that anything can be said," says co-star T.J. Miller. "It's almost like the huddle before they go into the football game that is life. Then they go back into the huddle because there's another game at home. So it's guys trying to figure stuff out and wanting to get the perspective of other guys."
Other series featuring men bonding include HBO's popular comedy, "Entourage," just renewed for a fifth season and CBS' returning "Rules of Engagement," highlighting the friendship of three men: one married, one engaged and one happily playing the field. Then there's the new ABC sitcom, "Cavemen," which follows a group of modern-day Cro-Magnon men who are far more enlightened than their counterparts in the days before fire.
"There's a bit of an evolution, the idea of male bonding, which has always been around in entertainment, but in the past it was done with a little more machismo," says Nicole Vecchiarelli, entertainment director of Details, a men's fashion and lifestyle magazine. "But in the post metrosexual era guys bonding isn't necessarily about guns and action and high testosterone activity. They're exposing their more sensitive side because that's a reflection of the typical urban male."
Although the idea of the metrosexual man focused on outward appearances, where men were as conscious about the way they looked -- and smelled -- as women, "now it seems they can, on the inside, feel a little bit more like girls and that's still OK," adds Vecchiarelli.
The men in "Big Shots" are very in touch with their feminine sides. Vartan, Dylan McDermott, Joshua Malina and Christopher Titus play high-powered Manhattan CEOs with everything in the world they could want, except for stable relationships at home. In the pilot, the men groan so much about their dysfunctional marriages, their need for intimacy and fidelity, McDermott's character declares: "Men. We're the new women."
Series creator and executive producer Jon Harmon Feldman believes that men are now having "to deal with traditional female issues of fidelity, rejection or the challenges of love or making relationships work. We're trying to attack those (issues) in a way that is true to how men would deal with it and hopefully bring a glimpse into men that women might not ordinarily get."
But "Carpoolers" scribe Kit Boss argues that there has to be a line drawn on all this male camaraderie. "I just wrote an episode that answers the question: Are they friend friends or carpool friends? In the case of that story, we definitely looked for a way to undercut anything that felt too emotional or too sensitive."
For example, one of the characters, happy to find out that they were more than carpool pals, goes for a hug. "The guy he was going to hug said: 'Whoa, we're not girlfriends. We're friends.' ... To me, the danger would be: Does this match the reality that I know? I generally find more humor in the inability to express one's self ... than in being able to be more highly evolved as a male."
That's how TV has traditionally handled the topic of men and their hearts, with humor. It was the case with the father and son stories of "The Andy Griffith Show" and "The Courtship of Eddie's Father," workplace comedies like "Barney Miller" and "Cheers," buddy romps like, "The Odd Couple" or the long-running "Frasier."
"Male bonding, from whatever perspective, there's just something silly about it," says "Rules" star Patrick Warburton. "Personally, with me, just hanging out with my buddies playing some golf, playing some poker and, of course when I get my drink on out in the barn and I'm watching DVDs of Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains, if you're a female it's got to be silly -- the same way, you know, that you're a guy and you're watching 'Sex and the City,"' he says, laughing.
Generally, dramas featuring sensitive men have had a tough time garnering large audiences, female or male. HBO's comedy "The Mind of a Married Man" (2001) only lasted a season. And of the 2006 releases: NBC's sitcom "Four Kings," CBS' hourlong "Love Monkey," and the ABC drama, "What About Brian," all came and went.
"One of the things that I loved about Brian was that he was so much of who guys are, the modern man, a little more sensitive, a little more open about showing certain feelings," says "What About Brian" lead Barry Watson. "I think the reason why 'Brian' still isn't going on actually doesn't have anything to do with that -- at least I would hope not."
"We still have a deep-seated need for the man being the rescuer, the man being the hero," says Warren Farrell, author of numerous books on men, including the best-seller, "Why Men Are the Way They Are." "We're sending a huge mixed message to men. First we want the football player and then we blame him for being rough and insensitive with women."
Kevin Kay, general manager and executive vice president of men's cable network, Spike TV, contends that broadcast executives -- driven by advertisers -- have long been interested in courting female audiences, so shows about men need to appeal to women. "I think that for advertisers, safer, cleaner, not as risky, not as edgy, more mainstream ... that tends to fall more into the category of shows that women want to watch."
"The Sopranos," to some extent, "is a good example of that," says Kay. "The way Tony Soprano and his guys hung out ... you see the way guys talk to guys when nobody else is around. That's the ability of cable TV to be a little more edgy."
"Big Shots"' Feldman realizes that "there's a natural skepticism among men to embrace male characters unless you can prove to them that they are real men, which I think to men means they are not overly indulgent with their feelings. So you're kind of walking a line. You want to write men that women find appealing and also men find appealing, which is sometimes paradoxical. That's the challenge."