I’ve been so focused on this fall’s crop of television shows about women that I haven’t spent that much time checking out the roster of shows about How to Man Correctly. The always-excellent Linda Holmes at NPR makes a persuasive argument that for once, television is actually handling men worse than it’s handling women. So if you don’t want to watch How to be a Gentleman but do to think about masculinity, try one of these currently airing shows — or watch them with a new focus.
1. Parks and Recreation: I give this show infinite props for its awesome feminism, but it’s actually a stealthily terrific show about what it means to be a man. From Tom, who thinks the road to happiness lies through the achievement of a particular lifestyle; to Ben who’s trying to prove that he’s worthy of responsibility after a burst of teenage arrogance; to Andy’s maturation from unemployed lump to husband, the show is all about how to be a grown-up man without any resort to extreme violence or Pickup Artist-style womanizing. And that doesn’t even get us to the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness:
The only thing that even comes close is Jack Donaghy’s video for his unborn son. But on 30 Rock, Jack’s really the only man, so there isn’t much of a conversation about masculinity.
2. Breaking Bad: I sort of assume everyone here is watching Breaking Bad already, but in a way, it’s a perfect dramatic counterpoint to Parks and Recreation. Walter White’s journey from decent cancer victim to monstrously pathetic wannabe kingpin is fundamentally steered by a toxic conception of masculinity: that he should be willing to do everything to provide for his family. That rationale’s evolved from a motivation for Walt to cross a previously unthinkable line to an excuse for him to behave terribly. As Skyler, Walter’s wife told him this season, “someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family.”
3. Bones: You know what, I’m a stan. But Seeley Both is a genuinely fine old-fashioned performance by David Boreanaz. The character is in many ways an incredible throw-back: a military man, a conscientious father, a devotee of American ideals. But he’s also a great illustration of the ways such a man functions in an environment where those aren’t the highest values, and about how to reconcile masculinity and feminism in a way that’s not adversarial. So much of our conversation about gender over the last 50 years has centered around the idea that someone has to win and someone has to lose. Pop culture that insists that doesn’t have to be true is critically — and in this case quietly — important.
4. Boardwalk Empire: Nucky Thompson. Chalky White. Jimmy Darmody. Nelson Van Alden. Eli Thompson. Arnold Rothstein. Boardwalk Empire is very much a show about a time when official and unofficial power was an essentially male preserve. And in the show, the characters’ roles as bootleggers, sheriffs, leaders of crime syndicates, spokesmen for Atlantic City’s black community, and revenue agents directly intersect with their sex lives, their abilities to lift up their families, and their understandings of themselves as men. The show isn’t as good at being mannered as Deadwood is, but it’s still powerful.
5. Up All Night: OK, there had to be one new show on this list. I’m not normally a huge Will Arnett person, but his performance as Chris is refreshingly vulnerable. Some of that is turnabout is fair play; it’s nice to see a male character get a makeover, especially when it involves him and Will Forte (with a transformingly good haircut) standing around in a living room in their underwear. But it’s also a worthwhile acknowledgment that trading gender roles isn’t the world’s easiest thing, it’s worth working through this. It’s not just that men should stay home with their kids, sometimes, but that we need to work on making staying at home feel like less of a sacrifice for both partners.