Lunchtable TV talk: “Men’s TV” – The Kominsky Method and Men of a Certain Age

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It’s been a long time since I devoured the rather under-the-radar Michael Douglas vehicle, The Kominsky Method; I won’t be diving into its finer plot points or achingly funny comedic value here. It’s been even longer since I saw Men of a Certain Age, but I think it aligns thematically with the point I want to make.

I watch, let’s face it, an alarming amount of television. For this reason alone, I would not have been able to avoid Kominsky or Men even if I’d wanted to. Not that either show earned popularity or love in the ways they should have. This probably explains, in part, why I found both so endearing.

After watching Kominsky, I recommended it to someone else, who watched and reported back that he loved it, but he was surprised I liked it so much because “it’s kind of a men’s show”. Here he didn’t mean anything sexist but simply thought that the themes were quite middle-aged/older man in nature, and the male characters reflected this bias. The women characters were a bit underbaked and inconsequential, although there was potential for growth. (Not that women or minority groups aren’t used to their stories and voices taking a back seat.)

To these observations, I could only reply:

  • Human stories are not gendered. They may be about gender, but one’s interest in watching them, or even finding them relatable, isn’t that reductive. That’s not to say that some entertainment isn’t offensive because of its depictions of gender, but that is not the case here. Deciding what something is before we give it a chance is one of the worst things about human nature; it may serve us well in not eating something that will poison us, but it does not serve us well in our interpersonal relations (and entertainment prospects).
  • It’s a human show more than a “men’s show”. Perhaps why women (sweeping generalization here) understand men better than men understand women is because we (generally) pay attention to people, what they say, what entertains them, what they fear. By listening to all people, we have a better understanding of humanity.
  • By classifying entertainment by gender or deciding that something is a “man’s show” or “woman’s show”, many stories are being sidelined and left unheard.
  • Pre-determining that a form of entertainment will have limited, possibly gender-based, appeal, we not only don’t give credit to others and the expansive nature of their interests, sympathies and imagination, we create conditions for prematurely canceling or never making diverse stories at all.

Of course, it’s true that different people will be drawn to different types of action, and sometimes this appears to run along traditional gender lines (and again, I know this is a broad and inaccurate descriptor). A lot of research exists about television and its role in sex stereotype acquisition and sex-role behaviors. I don’t plan to write a dissertation on this topic. There’s a wealth of work also on television-based gender discourse. Again, fascinating stuff, plenty of research out there.

I, instead, will highlight a point that struck me from TV writer and producer Tony Tost‘s Twitter feed:

Tony Tost, who has written some great (underrated) shows that on the surface would appear to be “men’s shows” (Longmire, Damnation) but which bubble over with strong, diverse characters, highlights that attention/interest level appears to be gendered on some level. I happen to think Tost has managed to create a balance in his works that holds the interest of the entire audience. This isn’t true of all such entertainment, but even those that aren’t invested in appealing to everyone or being perfectly representative interest me as a reflection of the society we live in. Our entertainment perhaps should reflect the world we’d like to see (maybe we’d have liked to have seen greater diversity in Friends), but would that have been realistic?

I’d like to get past the idea that entertainment has barriers and boundaries, realizing of course that the entire discipline of marketing deals in divisions and personas and targeting them. I want to be able to fall in love with the curmudgeonly Norman (Alan Arkin) of The Kominsky Method while also empathizing with Sandy’s (Michael Douglas) long-suffering daughter, Mindy (Sarah Baker). I want to see Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher at their finest, struggling their middle-aged struggles. I don’t need television characters to be relatable, to always reflect me or even be sympathetic. In fact because the stories told are different, they draw me in.

But I also want to live in a world where a show like Queen Sugar, which is mostly about black women in a single family (but is actually about the entire community they live in, their conflicts, socioeconomics, land rights, and a whole slew of human and societal debts and situations), and is run by women, gets a lot more attention and traction than it gets now.

What kind of a world are we living in when even the most enlightened of people expresses surprise that I’d like something that is about and “geared toward” men? We’re on the road to improving this, but it’s hard to say how we could speed it along. More visible promotion of things like the aforementioned balanced work from Tost, which shakes off and subverts expectations, and much more mainstream focus on nuanced works like Queen Sugar will hopefully go some way toward eradicating assumed preferences and the perceived “gender exclusivity” of entertainment.

Curiosity, interest, attention lead to questioning, and it’s here, in asking and listening to the answers, that we find common ground.

Photo by Josh Kahen on Unsplash

Lunchtable TV Talk: Looking – “Doris, I will definitely go swimming with you even though my legs are painfully white”

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Imagine you are an overweight, confused, closeted gay, adolescent boy growing up in the US Midwest. In your 13-year-old imagination, an “out” future could be filled with equally out friends in San Francisco, a mythical mecca for everyone like you. Your imagination would be full of gay gamer conventions and gay gamer proms where you could get a happy prom-night photo with your cute new boyfriend. You’d probably have a cool job and many nights would end in party sequences fueled by loud music and very little, but stilted, dialogue – possibly parties in the woods where anthems from Sister Sledge would form your soundtrack. (Days before the show’s party-in-woods premier featuring “Lost in Music”, Mr Firewall and I planned a Scottish John “Enunciate Excessively” Hannah remix. Whatever else I might criticize about Looking, it’s got a fab and fun soundtrack.)

If the premise of Looking, the recently canceled HBO show about a group of gay friends living in San Francisco, were to dramatize what a 13-year-old gay boy imagined his future would be like, the show would be perfect.

I am not a gay man; I am not in San Francisco; I would therefore never claim any kind of expertise about a gay man’s life, in San Francisco or not. Like most lives, there is no such thing as one, “normal” way to live. I wanted to like this show. The premise had promise – squandered because I don’t think the show resonated with viewers of any demographic.

Believe me, I kept trying to watch – giving up and coming back, hoping it might have been one of those shows that takes time to develop its characters. But it never got any better. Instead the characters mostly became more like caricatures and more petulant with time. I got the occasional glimpse of self-awareness in these characters, but opportunities were frittered away casually. The worst character and my biggest problem with the show was its main character, Patrick. His behavior and manifold diatribes and tantrums were reflective of a teenage kid – all bluster, fluster and inexperience – trying to assert himself. Unfortunately that is the problem with the whole show – it comes back to this unsophisticated and teenage approach to virtually everything, especially in imbuing characters with identities. Maybe viewers could relate to that kind of awkwardness and discomfort. But average adults in their 30s and 40s generally don’t behave like Patrick or his friend, the just-turned-40 Dom, who is struggling with facing the onslaught of age (but not with particular subtlety or realism).

The best characters and only ones I cared about were barely there – Scott Bakula’s recurring guest role as Lynn; a random wheelchair-bound guy at the gamer conference who, in a blink-and-you-missed-it conversation, called Patrick out on his cluelessness/obviousness; Malik, the boyfriend of Dom’s constant friend and roommate, Doris (who never ceased to annoy me), and Richie, Patrick’s ex-boyfriend. Yeah, in fact, if the show were about Richie and his life, I think that might have been a better premise.

TV critics and others who really rooted for the show, at least on a thematic level, have echoed my sentiments with greater eloquence and clarity. For one, it’s a bloody boring show. I kept waiting for something really interesting to happen, for someone to express something close to the depth that all the characters claimed to want. But it never elevated itself above the level of engagement or excitement I find in an ad for pharmaceuticals, nor above the manipulations and presumption of what will interest the viewer also characteristic of pharma ads. This same boredom is echoed in the aforementioned citation.

Many defenses of the show attempt to explain that the show’s ho-hum dullness is where its genius comes from – the world can finally see that gay people are just people like everyone else. This is not a revelation. There are other TV shows about all manner of people, including gay individuals and couples, that show us how normal they are, with daily routines, normal problems and happy families, who are not mind-numbingly boring. And their lives don’t revolve solely around being gay. It’s a big part of the identity as much as sexuality is a part of anyone’s life. But does it define everything? It feels like Looking wanted to find the balance between “look at how dull and normal we are” but still wanted to make the entire existence of this group of guys be about being gay. All of that is perfectly fine – I don’t expect a show to be perfect. I don’t expect this or any show to represent an entire, and varied, community. But I do expect that there will be some entertainment value or some compelling reason to watch.

It’s a tough balance to strike, as a fantastic Gawker article points out:

“And, of course, above all else, a piece of gay pop culture, in these United States, in 2014, has the challenge of arguing that gays are people too—that we’re more than sex maniacs and objects of amusement” and “In Looking, gay men get to be boring on TV at last.”

It would be stellar if, as the same great critique put it, the show didn’t make you feel like watching is akin to “paging through a magazine at the dentist”. Looking felt like work to watch, which was disappointing.

It does give me comfort to know that something like Looking (but good heavens, NOT Looking!) makes its way to TV and is seen as just another part of the TV landscape. Looking makes it all seem farcical, as an article at Huffington Post explains:

“Like those mostly forgotten, cheesy 1990’s “gay” movies that we watched because they put us in a fishbowl and were pretty much all we had as media representation and also had dark sets and muted tones and lots of Erasure songs (seriously, guys, in 2014 Erasure’s the band you pick to give your show its Episode Two finish?), Looking spends all of its time telling us what we already know: We are men, we are gay men, and we like to have sex with other gay men. If the show were about straight guys it would be 60 seconds long and a beer commercial.”

Despite all of this, and my relief at being able to cross this show off my Sunday-night viewing list (yes, I like torturing myself with miserable TV), Looking did find its way into so many of my TV-related conversations. Granted, I was always talking about how much it sucks and how much potential it wasted week after week. But perhaps that is a mark of something the show did right – it certainly did not unify any group of people behind it. Was it designed to spark these debates? Opinions were decidedly mixed – plenty of haters and then plenty of people who felt that its presence on TV was proof that there is not really such a thing as “gay life” – life is just life. Fair enough.