Washed-Up Men The Stars Of Fall Sitcom Lineup

Read Hanna Rosin's Atlantic Piece, "Primetime's Looming Male Identity Crisis"

A slate of 2011 shows feature men who are unemployed or underemployed and spend lots of time playing video games. These characters aren't necessarily new, but the twist this season is that they are juxtaposed with women who are running laps around them.

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NEAL CONAN, host: A story in The Wall Street Journal on this fall's new television sitcoms caught the eye of Atlantic contributing editor Hanna Rosin. Amy Chozick quoted a CBS executive who said that 20 sitcom writers came into their pitch meeting with copies of an article called "The End of Men," an article which happened to have been written by Hanna Rosin. Now that several of those sitcoms are about to hit primetime, Hanna Rosin writes that "with this fall season, I will reach the pinnacle of my cultural influence."

She joins us in a moment, but we want to hear from you, too. How do our sitcoms reflect our changing times? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. And email us: talk@npr.org. Hanna Rosin is here with us in Studio 3A. "The End of Men" will also be the title of her forthcoming book. Nice to have you with us today.

HANNA ROSIN: Thank you. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And congratulations, I guess.

ROSIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: You're going to be the one responsible for these new TV sitcoms.

ROSIN: Sorry, Neal. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: What is the theory that ties them together?

ROSIN: Well, the TV Guide called this season the emasculation of men season on TV, which is slightly insulting. The theory is that we live in a season of the rise of women, that it's a women's world now - that's how all these TV executives are describing it - and that men are in trouble. So if anybody out there watches sitcoms, you can imagine all the potential for comic tableaux between a husband and wife, when the husband - when the wife is going off to work. It's sort of - think of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, but in reverse, basically.

CONAN: The husband, as you point out in your article, sent out to buy yogurt. Oh...

ROSIN: God forbid.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Oh, the humanity.

ROSIN: Exactly, exactly. But all sorts of, you know, bumbling of the husband taking care of the baby, the wife is kind of a big shot at work, those kinds of things that happen. The husband can't find his way around a supermarket. The wife never gets home from work. He's staying at home whimpering, wondering what to do with the baby, sad, alone, depressed, that kind of thing - playing videogames, mostly.

CONAN: Playing videogames, mostly.

ROSIN: Yes, largely. Yes.

CONAN: And one of them says, you know, one of the shows, this is not a recession. It's a mancession.

ROSIN: Yes. It was weird for me, because these are lines from my piece, which I was writing as sociology, which are then quoted before laugh tracks by these kind of schlub characters in the bar, talking to their dude friends. It was really weird.

CONAN: Did you have a moment, thinking: maybe I went into the wrong profession?

ROSIN: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Should have gone to Hollywood with this.

ROSIN: I had a kind of Frankenstein moment, like what have I created here? I didn't mean it. I didn't mean it. It was kind of scary.

CONAN: Yet, of course, you didn't create this world. You were just reporting on it.

ROSIN: Yes. I was just reporting on this world, and, you know, the TV writers took it and ran with it, and it was a marvel to see for me.

CONAN: Have you had a chance to see any of these shows? I know we've read about them, but...

ROSIN: Yes, I have seen all six of the shows which are based on this premise. They are almost all sitcoms, and they range in quality. I liked some better than I liked others. Some are sort of a standard sitcom. The theme of "The End of Men," the kind of male identity crisis, runs through the American sitcom, I think, for a good 25 years. The difference now, as I say, is, in a lot of these, there are these alpha female characters, you know, these women at the office or the wife who's kind of eating these men for lunch. So that's a revelation to see. The most literal-minded one has men dress up as women because they decide that you can only get a job as a woman these days. So they actually do the "Tootsie" thing, dress up like women - or "Bosom Buddies" thing, I guess - and try and get a job in an all-female office.

CONAN: I was thinking "Some Like It Hot," but

ROSIN: Yes, OK.

CONAN: ...I'm older than you. And so there's "Last Man Standing." There is, what, "Man Up" is another one.

ROSIN: Yeah. "Last Man Standing" is a Tim Allen vehicle, so people will recognize Tim Allen as good at that guy rant, and he actually has a fabulous rant about the generation of young men, in which he says - I'm trying to find what he says, and his - it's good quite good, actually.

CONAN: Can I read it?

ROSIN: Yes, you can read it. You have a better voice than I do. You have a more Tim Allen-ish voice. Go ahead

CONAN: Thank you. I'll accept that.

ROSIN: Yes.

CONAN: What the heck is fantasy football? I got a fantasy for you. Get off the fricking couch, you moron. What happened to men? Men used to build cities just because they could burn them down. They used to get a haircut from a guy named Hank. Modern men, what do you do? You run from things, from responsibility, from fatherhood. You can't even change a tire. Get off the couch, you moron, and go outside. See something bright called the sun. It's like a tanning bed, but it's free.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROSIN: I think it's that weird sitcom mix of humor and seriousness, that, you know, they're laughing as he's saying these fairly biting things. So - but that's a good rant, I thought.

CONAN: And is this indeed the world in which we are in?

ROSIN: Yes. It is the world in which we are in because as we see in the newspapers every day, the recession is not ending. The manufacturing economy is not getting better. And women are still doing better at work than men. I mean, this fluctuates on and off here and there. But in your average American family, this is a dynamic that just keeps getting deeper and deeper. I mean, we now have about a third of American wives make more than their husbands, which is fairly shocking given that this was unimaginable not all that long ago.

I, in fact, recently watched an episode of Lucy and Ricky where they switched places and she goes to work and he stays at home. And the whole thing just seemed like such a farce, you know, such comedy that nobody could possibly imagine happening in the real world. But you realize, you know, only these 30 years later, it's fairly common.

CONAN: And sitcoms, in a way more than scripted shows, often reflect reality. You have a lot of police procedurals that are really sort of escapist dramas.

ROSIN: Yes. Yes. I mean, you have - the ABC sitcoms reflect a middle-class American reality. You have the NBC sitcoms, which reflect a slightly more upper-class American reality. And I think you see both versions of this phenomenon I described in my "End of Men" story playing out in these different kinds of sitcoms. So in the NBC version, you've got the stay-at-home dad, which is still a fairly rare phenomenon but less rare in the upper classes - the stay-at-home dad - and the very high-powered American wife.

And then in the other - the middle-class versions, you got wives who are sort of working double shifts while the men are out of work, looking for a job, just got fired, you know, from their car dealership, that kind of thing. So those are two American realities happening simultaneously.

CONAN: And are these sitcoms hostile to women?

ROSIN: I looked carefully for that because Hollywood is controlled by men, no matter what Hanna Rosin says. It is true that, you know, the vast majority of people in charge at Hollywood are (unintelligible). Now, there are some jokes, which I can't say on the air - you can read my story if you want to know - that are fairly hostile. But as I watched the Charlie Sheen - well, I guess Charlie Sheen's not...

CONAN: Not - no longer in "Two and a Half Men."

ROSIN: He's no longer in "Two and a Half Men." I was thinking in my mind "Three and a Half Men," and I knew that wasn't right. "Two and a Half Men," he's no longer in it. The hostility to women in that is totally undisguised. I mean, there are hookers in that show, and he sleeps with a different person every night. And all the women are very stupid, including his mother, and played for laughs.

And so you get the feeling that in that show, men are still kings of their own domain even though they're technically losers, alcoholics and don't have jobs, whereas in these new shows, you really are in a woman's world. So whether you have moments of hostility, I think the overall point is that it's a woman's world now.

CONAN: Here's an e-- a tweet, rather, from Triangle Man: More pervasive still are the ads. There are very few men shown as anything other than uninformed buffoons or sports-obsessed.

ROSIN: You know, one of the first inspirations - thank you for tweeting that - of my story when I originally wrote it was the Super Bowl ads. You would think that the Super Bowl would be the one time when men could be whatever they wanted and portray themselves as anything they wanted. And we had a series of ads in which the men were just utterly pathetic. And this was two years running, now, that we have these loser men ads in the Super Bowl. So that really brought home the point for me.

CONAN: If anything's going to be responsive to the zeitgeist, it's going to be the ads.

ROSIN: Right.

CONAN: We're talking with Hanna Rosin, author of "Primetime's Looming Male Identity Crisis," a piece that she wrote in Atlantic - that spins off "The End of Men," which she wrote in The Atlantic and was cited by a lot of sitcom producers in their pitch meetings at CBS, at least, according to a CBS executive quoted in an article in The Wall Street Journal. Do our sitcoms tell us about reality? What do they tell us? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Jason, and Jason's in Oklahoma City.

JASON (Caller): Hello. Yes. I just wanted to ask the author if she watched the series "Men of a Certain Age." I know that some of the sitcoms seem to depict men at a certain time in their lives and really kind of dumb down the whole male experience. But I think that particular show that was created by Ray Romano is really more distinctive, at least, in my lifestyle right now. I am Christian here in Oklahoma City, and I find myself really dependent on male bonding as far as to get me through, you know, given these hard economic times. I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you very much.

CONAN: All right, Jason. Thanks very much. That, of course, is sort of a dramedy but certainly had its comedic elements. The show has since been canceled.

ROSIN: Yes. I'm so glad you brought that up because that show is much more sensitive, and I actually think that these shows that I'm describing are so unbelievably heavy-handed on this theme that they might lay off a little bit. They might become a little more gentle and just revert to sitcoms that are about family dynamics, some of which are male loser, dumber guys playing video games, but if they're going to succeed, a little bit like say "Cheers" did where you had ups and downs with both the men and the women. But that's a really good example. Thanks for bringing that up.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Victoria. Victoria with us from Okmulige(ph), is that right, in Oklahoma?

VICTORIA (Caller): No. It's Okmulgee, Oklahoma. It's the town where they have the largest black rodeo in Oklahoma.

CONAN: Oh, well, OK. I'll take your word for it. Go ahead, please.

VICTORIA: Yes. I'm - I - over the years, I have become very disinterested in sitcoms, primarily because I'm African-American and Native American, and I wanted to see more diverse sitcoms. And friends and I were discussing, they're like, well, how come you no longer watch TV anymore? I said - and I will be honest. I said, well, you know, I'm tired of looking at white males or white females. I want to see some Chinese people or something, you know, that's more diverse. And yes, there's diverse show, but you have to realize if you're African-American and you live on a - you turn the TV on, 95 percent of the time, someone's going to be Caucasian.

And that had - to me, has brought a certain level of boredom to where there might be new shows, but I'm so disinterested in watching them now. And I'll take my comment off air.

CONAN: Are these - and thank you for the call, Victoria. Are these programs any more ethnically, racially diverse?

ROSIN: Absolutely not. I mean, "The Cosby Show" is the great heyday of the African-American sitcom, and that's always considered one great family sitcom that was out there. But these shows are white, white, white. And I think, partly, the sociological phenomenon, what people talk about is, oh, it's creeping up into the white middle class or it's creeping up into even the white upper class, these new sets of dynamics.

And so people are actually newly interested, I'm sorry to say to the caller, in the white experience of these phenomenon. And so I'm not sure it's going to get any better.

CONAN: It does raise the question, though, which you raise in your piece, who is going to watch them?

ROSIN: Well, I wonder about that. I wonder what a man would feel like, because when I watched "Two and a Half Men" and Charlie Sheen again to write the story, I sort of reacquainted myself with the sitcom, and I thought - immediately, I thought, oh, I get why guys watch this show. There's something deeply satisfying. If you're feeling like a loser, well, you can console yourself in seeing Charlie Sheen do all his antics and get all these women. You don't really have that kind of consolation in these shows. I'm not sure where you'd find it, unless it's just - and having your own experience reflected in that is interesting enough.

And I would say "Roseanne" succeeded on that (unintelligible). She's a very strong woman. Her husband was often out at work. It was a similar dynamic. It wasn't so sociological. It's really just like Roseanne and her thing. But that show is very successful on the same premise, so they could succeed.

CONAN: So maybe not more racially or ethically diverse, but more class diverse.

ROSIN: Yes, more class diverse, absolutely.

CONAN: We're talking with Hanna Rosin. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News. And let's go next to Barbara, Barbara with us from Gainesville.

BARBARA (Caller): Hi, I'm wondering if while they're talking about changing now, that they're now going to allow the woman to be the average-looking woman with the hot husband, what's been done for years in reverse. Like with "King of Queens," "Everybody Loves Raymond," where the husband's kind of an average, but the wife's got to be hot. I'm wondering if that's gonna change now, too, so women aren't expected to look like a model every time you see somebody on the air.

CONAN: Well, does that change?

ROSIN: That would be absolutely awesome. I have - I'm now running through these couples in my head. And I do think that, unfortunately, in every single one of them, the woman is considerably better looking than the man. However, here's a phenomenon I wanna put in your head if you think nothing's changed. I often think about the alpha wives in celebrity culture, that you can really point to a lot of women who are much more famous than the men that they date, or the men that they're associated with, or the men that they marry. So there is this phenomenon of women marrying down in the way that men used to. So maybe we can count that as progress. I'm not even sure.

CONAN: And one of the sitcoms, the wife of the partnership is a producer of an Oprah Winfrey-like show...

ROSIN: Yes.

CONAN: ...not to draw too close a comparison.

ROSIN: Yes. Actually, they've - that's the show that Maya Rudolph and Christina Applegate are in that people are quite excited about on NBC. And it was - yeah, they've sort of upped the ante on the women. They've made them even more glamorous and wonderful than they were in the pilot episode, so says Variety and all the Hollywood newspapers. So I think they're even, you know, they're making the women even more powerful.

CONAN: So a role for an African-American woman, but...

ROSIN: Well, no. I don't...

CONAN: ...not the starring role.

ROSIN: Yeah. I guess so. Yes.

CONAN: She may get cameos every once in a while. Let's see if we can go next to Wyatt, and Wyatt's on the line from Tucson.

WYATT (Caller): Hey, how's it going?

CONAN: OK.

WYATT: I'm a college student over at the University of Arizona. And to tell you the truth, I'm one of the rare people because I don't really even watch TV as much anymore. I mean, I watch sitcoms here and there with my friends, but I'm disappointed, obviously, with the overall quality in terms of improvement of our society. It's teaching people on our future generations not to really improve, not to have a leading foot. And I really agree with what you were saying earlier, about the whole switch from how males are staying at home. I mean, seriously, get up, Roman analogy, go build something, go, you know, even if you want to destroy it, just do something productive with your life.

CONAN: Tim Allen fan. I'm - are - is it the role of sitcoms to be instructive and to teach us things?

ROSIN: This is an eternal debate. People ask us about soap operas as well. And I have to say there have been moments - you can think of "Murphy Brown" or obvious ones - where sitcoms have introduced certain issues that people who said the American public is not quite ready for, such as AIDS, such as the single working woman, even the working woman for that matter. And so I think that maybe you can consider it some kind of progress that these sitcoms are introducing the stay-at-home dad, which is still a - an uncomfortable phenomenon in American society. There aren't that men - men who wanna stay at home full-time. So maybe this is some kind of breakthrough to have a stay-at-home dad.

WYATT: Yeah. And I agree, too, with that. But it's the idea of a not-advancing society. And hey, look at it, you know, you are your influences around you. I mean, what type of things are we bringing to new perspectives, new futures. I mean, these are all questions that you definitely raise.

CONAN: All right. Wyatt, thanks very much.

WYATT: Yeah, absolutely.

CONAN: It's interesting, in an interview about "Man Up," which is one of these new shows, Christopher Moynihan, one of the stars, says, "Man Up" is a contemporary look at the modern man. Our grandfathers fought in World War II. Our fathers fought in Vietnam, and we play "Call of Duty" on PlayStation 3. We're not the same guy that prior generations were. This is - that's sad.

ROSIN: That is sad, but I feel like the lamenting over lost American manhood is something that's built into the American man. I mean, if you read histories of American manhood, this is something that American men have been agonizing over ever since there was the American man. There's always some previous era in which men were better than men are now. I don't think there was a previous era in which women were racing ahead of them. That seems slightly different. But that nostalgia for the beautiful - I mean, that's why I like this Tim Allen quote because he really does capture something essential about American men that's not just for this moment, but really that's eternal. You're always thinking, ah, these young guys can't do anything. You know, they can't hold screwdriver. They can't, you know, fix - change a tire. They can't do anything right.

CONAN: Alice did not race ahead of Ralph Kramden but he still answered...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROSIN: Exactly.

CONAN: ...to the wife in the family.

ROSIN: Exactly.

CONAN: Hanna Rosin, thank you so much for your time today, and we'll all now look forward with new eyes to the upcoming sitcoms of this fall television season.

Hanna Rosin is a contributing editor for The Atlantic, a founding editor of Slate's DoubleX. You can find a link to her Atlantic piece "Primetime's Looming Male Identity Crisis" on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow, a two-part, seven-hour theatrical epic that's part political statement, part a reflection on grief, part a comedy, above all, a meditation on optimism. "Angels in America" approaches its 20th anniversary. Tony Kushner will join us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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