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Review: The Descent of Man Up!

ABC's newest manxiety sitcom is about men estranged from their masculinity, and it will never let you forget that.

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A while ago I wrote (about ABC’s Happy Endings) that some sitcoms are best when they are burdened by as little premise as possible. ABC’s newest sitcom, Man Up!, debuting tonight, proves this principle by negative example. It is not a very good sitcom. But I could imagine it being a decent—if never great—sitcom if it were simply not about what it is about.

Or at least if it were not so aggressively about what it is about. Man Up!, you may have figured from the title, is one of this fall’s manxiety sitcoms—about the confused place of men in the civilized modern world, or something—one of which, CBS’s How to Be a Gentleman, is already canceled and the other three of which are on ABC. Man Up!, to its credit, is the better of the three: it’s at least scantly funnier than the retro Last Man Standing, and the upcoming cross-dressing comedy, Work It, will make Last Man Standing look like Mamet.

Where Last Man is about a man’s man rebelling against a feminized world and Work It is about men’s economic fears in a changing economy (but mostly men wearing dresses), Man Up!—and I hate that exclamation point more every time I type it—is about white-collar men who feel that modern life has alienated them from their masculinity.

Boy, is it ever about that! Lest you ever forget that this is a sitcom with something to say about what it means to be a man today, Man Up!’s pilot reminds you roughly every 30 seconds. It opens with its three dude protagonists playing a multiplayer videogame (a kind of scene that is to current pop-culture what funny-ringtone jokes were a couple of years ago). After a great kill, Will (Mather Zickel) yells, “I’m the man! I’m the man!” Upon which, his offscreen wife Theresa (Teri Polo, wasted in a thanklessly nagging role) scolds, “Honey, the kids are sleeping!”

You see, he is not the man. He is not the man at all.

In case that subtlety slipped past you, the three guys are discussing what Will should buy his son for his thirteenth birthday. Something that will say, “I know you’re a man now, because I too am a man.” Because these are men, talking about being men. Sensitive Craig (show creator Christopher Moynihan) suggests a journal: “A journal is a great place to put all your thoughts, your dreams, your poetry.” Responds snarky, divorced Kenny (Dan Fogler), “You know another good place to put all those things is in your uterus.”

And like that. When Will concludes a talk about teaching his son about manliness by asking for the hazelnut creamer, Theresa says, “Your grandfather fought in WWII, your father fought in Vietnam, but you play videogames and use pomegranate bodywash.” Later, all three guys find their masculinity threatened when Kenny’s ex brings her date, Grant (Henry Simmons) to a party—Grant, in a bit of awkward racial typecasting on a show with three white leads, being a big, musclebound African American guy who’s great at basketball and has a sonorously deep voice out of an Old Spice ad.

It’s not that masculinity is a bad subject for a sitcom. It’s just that this kind of thing rarely works when hammered so blatantly. Compare this with FX’s The League, which, I’ll admit, I didn’t like originally but has grown into a rudely funny show about the dynamics among some guys (and the occasional woman) who play fantasy football while also happening to be men—playing out their masculinity through a meta-game involving the athletic exploits of other men. It’s not about maleness, explicitly, it just allows that to be one of the things that develops in the process of telling the story.

In the moments that are not devoted to restating Man Up!’s premise, there’s an easy hangout vibe to the three guys’ friendship. The pilot, for instance, builds to a fairly comic slapstick showdown involving the wedding of a woman Craig is still pining for. Then it piles on with another Will speech, this one about how the three guys’ fathers would have stood up and fought for themselves “because they were men. Real men. Not the overevolved generation of pantywaists we’ve become. It’s time to man up!”

Note to the writers’ room: the title of the show is Man Up! We already get it. There’s even an exclamation point. And this sitcom could just develop into a watchable half-hour if the show decides to stop being a Statement About Men and just tries to be a sitcom about some guys.