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By Liana M. Silva · October 20, 2011
Despite the title, reminiscent of several misogynistic TV ads that show us what it means to be manly, I thought I'd give Man Up! a shot. After all, ABC’s description of the show made it sound like it would provide entertaining comedic fodder: three bumbling suburban men who are trying to come to terms with what it means to be manly. However, the reviews I came across were not kind. There was talk of how the characters are all “child men, confused by the simplest task” and how the show is built on “old, over used stereotypes.”
The premise behind Man Up! is that it is a show about three male friends – Will (Mather Zickel), Kenny (Dan Fogler), and Craig (Christopher Moynihan) – who try to come to terms with their masculinity while playing video games, using pomegranate body wash, and singing “Brown Eyed Girl” on their guitar at an ex-girlfriend’s wedding. The show falls under the situational comedy tradition, where the half-hour show follows a clearly demarcated arc and hilarity ensues throughout. As Modern Family has shown us (according to this TSL review), the sitcom need not be over the top or necessarily present unconventional plotlines. Man Up! has the potential to be that kind of show. Butit also has a lot of work left to do in order to make it to the level of TV hits such as Modern Family and Up All Night.
The perfect example of what went wrong in this show is one of the earliest scenes in the episode: the kitchen scene in Will's home. Will and his wife Theresa (Teri Polo) are standing in their kitchen the morning before their son Nathan’s (Jake Johnson) thirteenth birthday. Theresa gives Will a box to open that contains the birthday present she got for Nathan: Assault of the Dead. Will opens it and remarks that the game is too violent for Nathan (but perfect for him). He then talks about how he wants to give Nathan a present just from him, “from father to son, something that says ‘I know you’re a man now because…I too am a man’.” Theresa then tells him that he is not as manly as he thinks he is: "Your grandfather fought in World War II, your father fought in Vietnam, but you play video games and use pomegranate body wash.” She follows this with a look of pity.
The fact that this conversation takes place in the kitchen is key: it takes place during breakfast, in a part of the house that is stereotypically conceived as a woman’s arena. The setting on its own could help send the message the writers were trying to get across that Will is constantly trying to prove that he is manly but that his wife undermines his efforts and self-esteem. This, coupled with the conversation about Nathan’s birthday gift, would have been a solid scene. But the fact that the writers had to force the wife to interject right then and there the story about Will’s patriarchal lineage and how Will comes up short when measured against it was ineffective. In fact, this is a classic case of telling instead of showing when in fact writers should find creative ways to make us see it: Show! Don’t tell.
And Man Up! was a lot more successful when they showed me the characters’ concerns and insecurities about their masculinity, as they did through Kenny. Kenny, as a character, is a better example of how to showcase the show's themes without going over the top. At Nathan’s birthday party, Kenny meets his ex-wife Brenda’s new boyfriend Grant (played by Amanda Detmer and Henry Simmons, respectively.) As Kenny and Brenda watch Grant play basketball with some of the kids, Brenda tells Kenny that Grant is better at basketball than he is. Kenny crumples up his red plastic cup, throws it over his side, screams “Grant!” and challenges him to play.
In this scene the power of setting is still at play because we see two men playing basketball (and it is no coincidence that this interaction happens at Will’s house). Instead of going on a rant about how much more manly he is than Grant, Kenny makes a comment to his ex-wife about how he is better at basketball; he complains again and again that Grant is not playing the game right. In reality, what happens is that Kenny has no game and Grant beats him; Kenny, who didn’t want to see his ex-wife at the party in the first place, walks away from the court with his ego bruised. The setting and the interaction with Grant shows us that Kenny isn’t as tough as he tries to act, but that there are some insecurities hiding under the surface.
The show comes about at a time where hyper masculinity is the order of the day on TV, and it may be poking fun at that. However, Man Up! needs to be wittier and subtler if it wants to stand out from this fall’s manly line-up. It shouldfocus on developing its characters and, through them, the theme of the show. This series can be the place in popular culture where manliness will be de(con)structed, butit has a long way to being the witty, funny response to all of those commercials telling you how real men act.