BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 14, 2013
On January 17, “Legit,” a new comedy featuring Australian comic Jim Jeffries, will air on FX with an explicit, if broad, premise: What does it take to be a legitimate human being? A more precise question, for the show—and the network—might be: What does it take to be a legitimate man? FX, the premium cable affiliate of Fox founded in 1994, has made no secret of its male-oriented programming, hosting shows like the biker gang drama “Sons of Anarchy,” experimental schlub comedy “Louie,” and fantasy-football sitcom “The League.” But the 18-year-old network has been busy not just figuring out what the modern man likes, but what he would like to be, and what he should be. FX, in short, is feminism for men.
At least since the middle of the twentieth-century, women have benefitted from the conscious reevaluation of everything from the workplace to pop culture. As recent arguments—like Hanna Rosin’s reasonable End of Men and Suzanne Venker’s less reasonable Fox News screed on “The War On Men”—have pointed out, gender roles for men are in similar need of reevaluation. If masculinity has traditionally meant heading a household, bringing home the bacon, and dominating the upper echelons of the workforce, what does it mean to be a man in an America where fewer than half of households are headed by married couples; women occupy 51.4 percent of “management, professional, and related occupations”; and almost one-third of preschoolers with working moms are cared for by their fathers?
Through comedy and drama, FX is asking this question. “Sons” is as much a show about what it means to be a downwardly mobile white man as it is a show about bikes. “The League” describes what it means to view your wife not just as a helpmeet but one of the guys (she’s in the fantasy league, too). And “Louie” is about how to be not just a good single father, but a single father to daughters. As a network, FX is the televisual equivalent of publications like the Good Men Project—a self-proclaimed effort to foster “a national discussion centered around modern manhood”—but with a healthy dose of bad and struggling men in the mix.
Perhaps FX’s most obvious exploration of modern manhood is the network’s running preoccupation with fatherhood, specifically, crises of fatherhood. FX fathers aren’t just the bumbling sitcom stereotype, but, more painfully, they can be absent, disastrous influences, or not who they appear to be. One of the jokes of “Archer,” the animated James Bond–parody, is that its seducer of a secret agent has been misled his entire life about the identity of his father—his sexually adventurous mother doesn’t even know who he really is. In “Sons of Anarchy,” Jax, the motorcycle gang's leader, eventually learns that his beloved, deceased father John was actually a paranoid dreamer who left Jax with a half-sister he never openly acknowledged—and that the man who caused John’s death was his stepfather and mentor Clay. At the climax of the third season of “Justified”—an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s short stories—the main character’s father shoots a man he believes to be his own son.
But while this type of dramatic unleashing of the fatherhood id is FX’s bread and butter, the network is also interested in quieter investigations. Moreover, in spite these manifest daddy issues, the men of FX tend to run toward fatherhood rather than away from it. While the single father remains an exotic creature played for laughs on other networks—think NBC’s idiotic “Guys With Kids” or ABC Family’s similarly silly “Baby Daddy”—on FX, he is a something of a mainstay: Louis C.K. (for a time), Jax, and perhaps Raylan (“Justified”’s leading man). And his predicament is not just a plot point, but a compelling conundrum. The second season of “Louie” begins with the divorced man brushing his youngest daughter’s teeth. When the little girl announces that she misses her mother’s house because the food is better—and also because she loves her mother more than her father—Louie strains to hold his anger in check. Watching Louie process his daughter’s casual dismissal was painful; when he (mostly) managed restraint, it was a minor victory for civility. In this tragic-comic moment, the show made a point about blame and power and co-parenting. Jax has, at various points, foisted his own caregiving responsibilities onto his mother, Gemma, only to discover that he isn’t always happy with the results. At the end of the third season of “Justified,” Raylan’s ex-wife, Winona, is pregnant, but has decided that their relationship cannot work, leaving him to face the failure of his family before it even truly comes into being. Like “Louie,” “Sons” does not treat such questions blithely.These men may blame their own troubled fathers, but past failures aren’t an excuse. Instead, they’re a standard to exceed, an example of how not to do the hard work of fatherhood.
FX also gets away with surprisingly strong challenges to sexual double-standards. In a recent episode of “Louie,” the titular character found himself on a bad setup with a woman named Laurie (Melissa Leo). After blithely accepting oral sex, he grew flustered when she demanded reciprocity. “You know how many dicks I sucked that I didn’t want to suck, because I’m a good kid?" Laurie asked him. Though the episode suggested she was a bit of a nut, her argument stood. The encounter disturbed Louie not just because of his date’s behavior, but also because it forced him—the show implied—to consider the one-sidedness of his expectations.“The League” pokes gentle fun at sexual boasting when married couple Jenny and Kevin compared their romps-in-a-day record. When Kevin discovered that Jenny’s tally outranked his, he decided that they should try to top it. As they schtupped away, Kevin looked exhausted, Jenny looked bored, and the sex looked lousy. As it turned out, Jenny’s number was even higher than she originally remembered, but neither of them felt the need to revive the contest. Jenny was freed from the idea that her sexual history bothered her husband, and Kevin was liberated from the idea that he had to find a way to measure up. In both “The League”and “Louie,” mutual happiness is part of sexual success.
And being a good provider, in FX shows, doesn’t always mean bringing home more bacon than your wife. Jax struggles throughout “Sons of Anarchy” with the fact that his girlfriend and then wife, Tara, a pediatric surgeon, has both more income and conventional social currency. The only place in which he clearly out-ranks her, the town where his position as president of his motorcycle club gives him leverage, makes him reluctant to move; his stubbornness on this matter is one of the long-running sources of tension in their relationship. “Louie”’s commentary on this theme has been more subtle but nonetheless pervasive, with off-hand remarks from his daughters and glimpses of his wife’s fancier apartment. (Louie is mainly a denizen of the grubby comedy clubs where he works.) Breadwinner women could feed bitterness, but the network doesn’t treat successful women like emasculating harpies.
Of course, not all of FX’s shows display this kind of subtle, envelope-pushing sensitivity. Charlie Sheen’s latest vehicle, “Anger Management,” has him playing a therapist, Dr. Charlie Goodson (note the surname), who maintains a civil relationship with his ex-wife and shows up at his daughter’s sporting events, among other unimpressive feats—not sleeping with a woman who is one of his patients, for example. Last July, when I asked Sheen how “Anger Management” fit into the network’s larger exploration of what it means to be a good man, he deferred the question to Bruce Helford, the show’s creator. “A good man is somebody who is there,” Helford answered, quoting Bernie Mac. “He doesn’t have to be asked to be there.” That definition, and the scenarios laid out in the show’s episodes, seem like little more than How Not To Be A Jerk 101. They’re not a genuine challenge to the kind of violence and entitlement that have been hallmarks of Sheen’s own life. Given where Sheen is coming from, behaving civilly may be progress for him—but it's a testament to FX that it normally expects more from the jerks, criminals, weirdos, and lost boys that populate the rest of its lineup.
Alyssa Rosenberg is the culture critic at ThinkProgress and a columnist for the Double X section at Slate.