How to Be a Gentleman, based on John Bridges’ nonfiction book, is yet another sitcom in which opposites attract. But it’s also sometimes quick and funny, and features a solid batch of actors. And that makes it less tedious than the following first description will make it sound.
Onetime high school enemies meet some years later and find common ground. It sounds like too many romantic comedies, but in How To Be a Gentleman, the classmates are both guys. And so they must work out yet another currently popular sitcom problem, the perpetually adolescent male.
That would be Bert (Kevin Dillon), a recovering high school bully. The kid he used to abuse is Andrew (played by the show’s creator David Hornsby), who ended up graduating, going to college, and becoming a successful, if uptight, columnist. Bert, on the other hand, was expelled during his senior year and proceeded to take over his dad’s gym.
As How To Be a Gentleman begins, their paths cross again, when Andrew’s blunt older sister Janet (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and her goofy husband Mike (Rhys Darby) give Andrew a gift certificate to Bert’s gym for his birthday. Bert becomes Andrew’s physical trainer. Their relationship takes on another dimension when Andrew’s boss Jerry (Dave Foley) assigns him to write an article that will appeal to the “Holy Grail” demographic, namely, “men in their mid- to late-30s who act like they’re 15.” Deciphering that Bert will be an ideal reader for the piece, Andrew seeks out his input.
Now that the guys might have conversations, How To Be a Gentleman refocuses on the issue of bullying, specifically, its effects on both parties. If its insights are limited, its questions are good ones: can a victim forgive his bully? Can a bully come to understand what he’s done? In this show, the process of asking and answering these questions becomes grist for comedy.
Though Bert offers an apology when they first see each other again, he’s skeptical of Andrew’s choices. He knows “everything about being a gentleman,” Bert says, “And nothing about being a man.” True to stereotype, Andrew is proper and polite, and doesn’t look like he’s broken a sweat in the last decade. Predictably, Bert drinks milk straight out of the carton and takes Andrew to a strip club to discuss business. Indeed, as he hangs out with Bert, Andrew’s horizon expands—even if only because he’s still feeling intimidated by his bully. Bert will be breaking Andrew out of his shell.
As ordinary as this plot sounds, How To Be a Gentleman has a couple of things going for it, namely, Hornsby and Dillon. If Dillon has been here before—playing the willfully unknowing and highly performative tough—he’s also not entirely coarse in the part. Andrew describes himself as the kind of guy who wears “evening wear” to a party when it’s specified on an invitation, whereas Bert’s the one who “shows up in shorts.” Andrew blames Bert for his own lack of friends now (as well as his fiancée’s departure), as his high school experience continues to haunt him.
Bert, of course, has no idea what he’s talking about and doesn’t know how to defend himself. He counters that Andrew needs to build his self-confidence, not surprisingly deflecting the blame and any guilt he might begin to feel. As often as we’ve seen sitcoms use past traumas to explain today’s characters’ bad behaviors, immaturity, or outrageousness, Hornsby and Dillon have convincing reactions to each other—from fear to scorn to anger—and now, sneaking up on both Andrew and Bert, just a hint of self-reflection. You believe they have a history of violence, and also that it’s shaped them both, for better and worse.
Andrew has a similar relationship with Janet, in the sense that they’ve known each other forever. Although they don’t look like siblings, Hornsby and Rajaskub also share an entertaining rhythm on screen. At one point, Janet and Andrew are video-chatting, catching up on each other’s lives. When he tells her that “a creep from high school” who “beat him up all the time” is his personal trainer, Janet tries guessing who it is, listing off four other bullies who aren’t Bert. It’s a telling detail: the fact that she remembers, knows, and cares about her younger brother’s history with bullying suggests an endearingly close relationship when they were kids. Hers is the shoulder he might have cried on in the past, and she, more than anyone else, understands both his current anxieties, and also what he survived to emerge as an adult, however damaged.
Like so many other sitcoms these days, How To Be a Gentleman tackles—and reduces—a complex social through comedy. If the question of whether or not a victim can forgive a bully is not an easy one to answer, it does set up a friendship sure to be framed by deep feelings.