The Fall TV Season is Tough on Men

Posted on September 13, 2011 at 8:00 am

It’s funny the way there often seems to be a cosmic convergence in the fall TV season.  One year it was two different shows about people behind the scenes of a thinly disguised version of “Saturday Night Live.”  If you predicted the one that would last would be the half-hour comedy from an SNL writer (“30 Rock”) would win out over the one-hour drama from the “West Wing” guy (and didn’t we love the meta-joke on “30 Rock” where he appeared as himself), you were savvier than I was.

Several sources have noted that this year’s fall season seems to have a lot of strong women and weak men.  And in the New York Times Magazine, Heather Havrilesky has a very thoughtful piece about the prevalence of infantilized grown-ups of both genders in the 2011 line-up.

In decades past, TV comedies tended to capture the clamor and conflict of children through an idealistic lens; from “Leave It to Beaver” to “Growing Pains” to “Full House,” these TV shows featured charmingly sassy kids (“Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”) engaging in mildly naughty activities (teasing, lying, petty thievery), necessitating awkward family discussions that end when the perp apologizes (cutely), then buries his tear-stained face into somebody’s Cosby sweater.

Lately, though, the focus of the family comedy has shifted. Instead of offering us adorable, bewildered children learning big life lessons from wise adults, we are now presented with adorable, bewildered parents learning big life lessons from bawling tots and jaded teenagers. On shows like “Modern Family” and “Parenthood” and a bevy of new comedies this fall, it’s the parents who fumble and whine plaintively and require coaching and reassurance from their peers in order to weather the snares and toils of child-rearing. And unlike the lunatic-children-running-the-asylum vision of family that has echoed Erma Bombeck’s oeuvre since the ’70s, on today’s family comedy, the children are the only sane ones in the picture. The parents are the lunatics.

While even the most misguided moms and dads of sitcom lore — Archie Bunker, George Jefferson, Mama of “Mama’s Family” — had at least a stray nugget or two of wisdom to impart, today’s shows are populated by parents who make big mistakes and regret it seconds later. NBC’s “Parenthood” has supplanted both “Brothers & Sisters” and “Desperate Housewives” as the gold standard of parental agony, though it has some competition from a new ABC comedy, “Suburgatory.” When a single father (Jeremy Sisto) living in New York City discovers unused condoms in the dresser drawer of his teenage girl (Jane Levy), he reacts by moving them both to the suburbs in search of a more wholesome life. Instead of old-fashioned values, though, they find blonde, fake-breasted moms with daughters who emulate the high style of Vegas prostitutes and “Jersey Shore.” While Dad gamely tries to fit in, his daughter rolls her eyes dramatically and mocks his awful choices. The moral? Father (or mother) doesn’t know best. They don’t really know much at all.

Especially unappealing is the description of a show actually called “I Hate My Teenage Daughter,” which makes both mothers and daughters sound particularly unpleasant.   I’m going to have to think about what this says about where we are, or where television executives think we are, right now.


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