I spent most of this summer trying to figure out what was in the water at ABC’s comedy development offices that resulted in the network ordering three different sitcoms – “Last Man Standing,” which debuted last week, “Man Up!,” which debuts tonight at 8:30, and “Work It,” which will hopefully debut sometime half past never – about the difficulty of being a man in 21st century America. I wondered who was so convinced this was a topic much on the hearts and minds of comedy viewers, and also why a network that is so heavily aimed at female viewers would bother with three male-centric shows – even if one of them features the men dressing up as women. (To balance that out, “Work It” features a cast of female characters who are too stupid to live, let alone recognize that their new co-workers are really two guys built like defensive backs.)
Mostly, though, I wondered – especially given the lame-to-horrible execution of the three shows – whether there was actual entertainment value and laughter to be found in exploring this topic.
Then I watched last week’s episode of “Parks and Recreation,” in which alpha male Ron Swanson struggled with many of these issues, lamenting that his scout troop was much less interested in learning survival skills and other manly arts than they were in eating candy, putting on puppet shows and doing all the other entertaining activities in Leslie Knope’s all-girl troop. “When did kids get so interested in having fun?” he asked, dismayed as much at recognizing what an anachronism he’d become as he was at seeing all the boys defect to Leslie. Same subject, vastly funnier, smarter, sweeter execution. Where Tim Allen’s “Last Man Standing” character walks through each scene with a chip on his shoulder and a lawn for everyone to get off of, Ron’s certainty in the rightness of his beliefs is played in much more confident, straightforward fashion. (When Leslie rounds up a new group of more like-minded kids for him to mentor, he asks if they have any dietary restrictions, and when everyone shakes their heads, Ron says, deadpan, “Correct. You do not.”) It’s the difference between trying to get your point across just by being louder and doing it by simply knowing that you’re right and that other people will recognize that.
So there’s definitely comedy to be mined from the topic of whatever happened to men. But “Last Man Standing” isn’t the show to do it, and “Man Up!” doesn’t seem like the one, either.
I’ll say, in fairness, that I’m comparing apples and oranges by bringing up a veteran show in the middle of its creative peak like “Parks and Rec,” which had its own creatively bumpy period back at the start of its run. And I do like a couple of the “Man Up!” actors, as well as executive producer Victor Fresco, who was responsible for ABC’s brilliant-but-canceled corporate satire “Better Off Ted.” But at this stage, “Man Up!” (which was actually created by co-star Chris Moynihan) is a show with forgettable characters, jokes that don’t land and a shaky grasp at best on its own premise.
Mather Zickel, Dan Fogler and Moynihan play Will, Kenny and Craig, three buddies who get to act out alpha male fantasies during their nightly video game marathons, but who aren’t so much with the machismo when they have to operate in the real world.
In the pilot, Will struggles to come up with the perfect gift for his son’s 13th birthday, insisting he wants, “Something that says, ‘I know you’re a man now, because I too am a man,'” before pausing to tell wife Theresa (Teri Polo), “We need more hazelnut creamer. And next time, can you get the non-dairy stuff?”
It’s a guy’s show, but the women – mainly Theresa (who’s also Kenny’s sister) and Kenny’s ex-wife/Therea’s friend Brenda (Amanda Detmer) – make all the decisions, and Theresa even gets to deliver the series’ thesis statement, telling Will, “Your grandfather fought in World War II, your father fought in Vietnam, and you play video games and use pomegranate body wash.” (When Will asks if she’s saying he’s not a man, she furrows her brow and suggests, “You are man… ish?”) Most sitcoms built around doofus dudes have a “mother knows best” undercurrent, but the “Man Up!” women come across as particularly shrill and unpleasant in the way they enjoy manipulating these clowns.
Though Will and Craig (who spends the pilot obsessing over the upcoming wedding of his college girlfriend) don’t seem like the second coming of Race Bannon (let alone Brock Samson), they’re seemingly only defined by their lack of being something. They’re not macho dudes, but they’re also not anything else. They’re just… there. Though that may be better than constantly frustrated beta male Kenny, a role that seems to have been written with Tyler Labine in mind and mainly asks former Tony winner Fogler to look like he’s on the verge of a stroke as Brenda continually crushes his dignity.
Part of how she does this is by introducing Kenny to her new man, Grant, a marble statue of a man played by “NYPD Blue” alum Henry Simmons. Grant’s written and played as a cartoon character, but at least he makes an impression that none of the three leads do.
Because it lacks both Tim Allen at his crabbiest and a laugh track, I’d call “Man Up!” a slight improvement on its lead-in. But the only thing memorable about it at this point is its presence as the middle show of this odd, unfunny ABC trend. Maybe there would be hope if we could get Ron Swanson to write a few jokes for these guys (Ron’s great at everything else; why not comedy writing?), but I fear for the show if left to its own devices.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org