Contemporary life is full of confusions and anxieties, especially for men. This hardly novel premise is the basis of the WB’s new sitcom, Modern Men. Three best pals since high school, Tim Clarke (Josh Braaten), Doug Reynolds (Eric Lively), and Kyle Brewster (Max Greenfield) find themselves approaching 30, still engaging with women in the same juvenile modes they’ve used since their adolescence, and still confused about why they keep failing in love.
In the pilot, Tim’s long-term girlfriend has just broken up with him, telling him that she wants “more.” Tim finds the comment totally obtuse. He’s not at all sure what this more is that’s missing. Kyle thinks she left him because of Tim’s failures in the sack, but Tim assures him that he’s always “tended to her needs.” So it can’t be his fault.
Doug, divorced for over two years, still stalks his ex-wife, desperate to get back together because it’s scary out in the dating pool. One moment in Doug’s opening arc has racist overtones, invoking the “threat” to normative, white masculinity posed by difference. On one of his nightly calls to his ex-wife, whom we never see or hear in person, Doug is surprised to find she has a new boyfriend, Hector, whose presence in his previous conjugal domain sends Doug running. What hope is there for white guys when males of color move into their territory?
Kyle is the show’s resident Lothario, whose one-night stands have earned him the nickname “Screwster,” because, according to women, he’s a “sure thing.” When Kyle finds this out, however, his self-image is destroyed. He goes from a self-perceived playa to the “town whore” in scant minutes. Suddenly he realizes the degradation of being treated as a “sex object.”
These stereotypes (the befuddled one, the needy one, the sexist pig) hardly make for the most engaging cast of characters. And so the series brings in reinforcements. To help the guys navigate the high seas of heterosexual romance, as they’ve clearly been unable to make it on their own so far, Tim’s sister Molly (Marla Sokoloff: what was she thinking?) directs him to “Life Coach” Dr. Victoria Stangel (Jane Seymour: I guess a girl’s gotta work).
As Modern Men frames it, the job of the Life Coach is to help the client figure out what to do with his life, what he wants, and then how to achieve that goal. Dr. Stangel’s advice amounts to little more than suggesting that the guys behave more like women. She tells Kyle to try not having sex on the first date, to wait for an emotional connection before jumping in the sack. She tells all three to be honest with women, to expose their fears and hopes and dreams. Yawn.
The problem here is that the show presumes from the outset that there are essential differences between men and women, and if men could only learn to embrace their feminine sides, the war of the sexes would finally be over. But Modern Men belies its own premise. If men experience all sorts of anxieties over their place in today’s society, it is largely because of challenge to and refutations of “natural” and traditional gender roles. The answer to those anxieties is not merely to reassert gendered differences as biological and somehow absolute. This “solution” only re-entrenches masculine privilege via a more “evolved” and “empathetic” relationship to women’s desires. But the boys still remain on the top of the power pyramid. There’s nothing very “modern” about them.