Road to the Emmys 2012: Comedy

Whither man? Or, judging from the emasculation-themed 2011-12 sitcom offerings “Work It,” “Man Up,” “Last Man Standing” and “How to Be a Gentleman,” perhaps the message was, “Wither, man.”

While men twisted in the comedy wind, new comedies “Whitney,” “Are You There, Chelsea,” “2 Broke Girls” and “Girls” presented modern females as decidedly more sharp-tongued and independent than the standard harried housewife and kooky romantic of old — raising the question of how best to explore gender issues in comedy.

“The thing about gender issues is that it’s constantly evolving,” says ABC senior comedy veep Samie Kim Falvey. “Men are not the same type of men their fathers or grandfathers were, and that goes for women. So we’re looking for a way to say, ‘Isn’t this something you’ve been feeling? Or something you’ve observed?’ ”

Viewership hasn’t been there for most of these shows, though. The aforementioned male-viewpoint offerings, notably the Tim Allen starrer “Last Man Standing” and the cross-dressing bomb “Work It,” posited a changed economic landscape that’s raised up women at the expense of men, but AOL/Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan isn’t sure “people really buy the concept that women have in fact taken over the world.”

Though she credits the great TV dramas of late — “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” — for exploring the changing of masculinity, comedies have struggled with the topic.

“It’s been a little more flopsweat-intensive,” Ryan says.

The sitcom dad, however, has seen interesting shifts, from the quartet of beleaguered fathers on “Modern Family” to comedian Louis C.K.’s caustic yet responsible single dad on FX’s “Louie.”

“He’s made it safe to admit that sometimes being a parent is incredibly irritating,” Ryan says. “But he can say and do a lot of things that a mother could not say and do on a sitcom. There would be an outcry. I think it’s very hard for TV to make a mother character who questions who she is as a mother.”

Over at NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” Ron Swanson, the gruff, mustachioed parks department director, is a comically understated vision of no-nonsense masculinity hailed as an instant sitcom character classic. According to showrunner Michael Schur, Swanson’s 19th-century maleness is a throwback, except when he’s not.

“It’s the barrel-chested, whiskey-drinking, meat-eating manly kind of guy who doesn’t participate in pop culture,” says Schur. “But he is his own kind of feminist in that he just believes everybody should be self-reliant and powerful, and he couldn’t care less what gender they are. We did an episode earlier where Andy (Chris Pratt) takes a women’s studies class and talks to his professor about Ron like he’s an actual feminist.”

Schur feels that the repeatedly used sitcom trope of men being threatened by women is regrettable.

“There’s the meathead moron, which is endlessly boring to me, and then the version of manhood on TV that’s the womanizer, which is also boring and frankly, usually misogynistic. That’s why it’s great to have Nick Offerman in your cast. There’s no one else like him on TV.”

There’s also a tinge of newness to the portrayal of young women that Lena Dunham’s “Girls” is offering: culture-smart but interpersonally unwise, paradoxically intelligent and oblivious.

“That kind of self-defeating female character is very rare on television,” says Ryan. “Female characters are typically presented as people who should be likeable, so to have one that it’s hard to root for is really interesting.”

Though NBC struggled to fit the sharp-edged worldviews of hip comedians Whitney Cummings and Chelsea Handler into sitcom success, ABC wrapped its year of initially male-centric offerings with a female-driven grabber: “Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23,” featuring Krysten Ritter’s unapologetically self-centered “demon with a heart of gold,” as Falvey describes her.

“Being able to take women out of their perfect pedestals and allowing them to be flawed, to be different things, has really helped,” Falvey says. “And I really feel like we, as a broadcast network, are trying to portray that diversity.”

In the long run, says Schur, sitcoms will be fertile ground for a national discussion of gender issues: “They’re very hard discussions to have, and I think they go down a lot easier if they’re funny.”

Road to the Emmys 2012: Comedy
A grander gander

at gender | Emmy spotlight neglects cable comedies | New kids in town enter sitcom race | 2011-12 TV comedy moments to remember | Sitcom standbys in kudo contention |Defending champ ‘Modern’ impresses past TV toppers
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