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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

The extinct male animal

Felix Unger is a pillar of masculinity next to the men in `What About Brian,' about a single guy in a couples world.

April 14, 2006|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

I had to watch an episode of "Prison Break" the other night just to remember what a man is -- refresh me, "Prison Break." That's because I had also watched this marshmallow of a pilot called "What About Brian," an ABC drama that premieres Sunday.

"What About Brian" is "Prison Break," except the prison is a man's feelings and escape involves eluding the warden of his doubts, and we're talking maximum-security misgivings. In the pilot's climactic scene, the U2 guitar lick narrating (music clearances on this show must've been murder), our man Brian (Barry Watson) drives from L.A. to Vegas to tell his best friend's fiancee that she's the girl of his dreams.

They've already had the forbidden kiss, establishing that the feeling is mutual. So what does Brian tell her after he's spent five hours racing through the desert to get to her (allowing for bathroom breaks and a stop at an In-N-Out)?

I think I have serious feelings for you.

Brian, it's Vegas, haven't you heard? What happens here, etc., etc. Say "I love you," or "You complete me/can't quit you" or even "Why stay at the Venetian when I've got a suite at the Wynn?"

"I think I had them long before we kissed last night," Brian continues of these feelings of his that, being in his middle-30s and male, it's taken him this long, this pilot, to identify and express. "But now that I'm here I realize I can't say that. Because it doesn't matter how I feel about you; I can't do that to Adam or you. Because if I'm going to be the best man at your wedding, I'd better actually be the best man."

It's like the famous scene in "The Graduate," Benjamin Braddock speeding to the wedding and banging on the glass and causing a ruckus, only instead of knowing what he wants he says: "I'm thinking that the sheets I got you guys aren't a high-enough thread count."

"What About Brian" would make more sense if Brian were gay and didn't exactly know it, or weren't gay but gave off that vibe. This uncertain sexual terrain is something that writer-director Nicole Holofcener has fun with in her just-released film, "Friends With Money," in which at least one of the husbands sets off gay-dars like car alarms. The other men in the film are mostly insensitive or cold.

As it happens, "What About Brian" has the same rough premise and milieu as Holofcener's movie, which is about a gaggle of L.A. women friends, one of whom, played by Jennifer Aniston, is single and adrift and cash-deprived in an ocean of monied, L.A.-based ennui.

Here the equation is reversed: Brian is the single one, the odd man out in a group of close-knit couples, though contextually it's presented more as a complication in a Heineken ad. Brian has a video gamer's brain but also listens with his eyes and dresses hip and drives a tragically cute old station wagon and hangs out at the party long enough to help with cleanup.

Given these great qualities, it's supposed to make no sense that he's not found true love. But why he's not attached turns out to be the pilot's stalled engine, its McGuffin -- no sooner is the question posed than it's taken away, because we know what Brian wants: He wants Marjorie (Sarah Lancaster).

Unlike her boyfriend, Adam (Matthew Davis), Brian knows that Marjorie prefers Junior Mints to Goobers. Inside, Brian's all nougat.

"Do you ever have a day where you question every decision you ever made in your life?" Brian asks his friend Dave (Rick Gomez).

"Yeah," Dave responds, "every day."

I was expecting Brian and Dave to move on to discuss a hand lotion they'd mutually discovered in a boutique on Montana, but no dice; their grooming secrets exist on a "Don't ask, don't tell" basis. A series like "The Sopranos" can pit Tony's violent belief system against his emotional core, but on a show as blithe about character as "What About Brian" it can drive a guy to throw his $175 Camper loafers at the TV.

Perhaps it's that the equivocating male has become so familiar to the culture that it can now be a default character on TV. Even Felix Unger, a precursor of the sitcom's fussy male, exuded more masculinity than some of the men on "Grey's Anatomy" or "Scrubs."

That very un-masculine exercise of overdone soul-searching is also the premise of a curious new reality show premiering on A&E Sunday, "God or the Girl?" In it, four young men mull whether to join the priesthood or go off with a girlfriend.

It's more male equivocation as street theater.

"We live in a gender-neutral society," Harvey Mansfield, conservative Harvard professor and author of the new book "Masculinity," told Stephen Colbert, who plays a blowhard with so much certitude he comes off, against all odds, as sexy and masculine on his Comedy Central show "The Colbert Report."

"That's a society where sex matters as little as possible. It doesn't give you your rights, it doesn't give you your duties and it certainly doesn't give you your place. And manliness is a kind of challenge to that gender-neutral society."

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