Jon Harmon Feldman wrote ABC's new drama "Big Shots" because he wanted to explore what it means to be a man in 2007. It says so, right on ABC's website. If what he has discovered is even remotely accurate, we may be mere minutes away from the apocalypse. Because Feldman has created a quartet of rich guys so insufferable, self-centered and whiny that they make the men of feminist masterwork "The Golden Notebook," or even "The Nanny Diaries," look positively heroic.
The women in "Big Shots," to be fair, aren't much better. In fact, they're worse. They just don't get much screen time. Because the point of "Big Shots" is that high-powered men, surrounded by conniving female reporters, shrewish wives and demanding mistresses, can find sanctuary only in each other. In case you were wondering.
It is possible, of course, that Feldman is not so much trying to analyze the state of man as attempting to cash in with the animus equivalent of "Desperate Housewives" -- "Reckless CEOs," as it were. The grass at the Firmwood Country Club is almost as green as that of Wisteria Lane, but where the housewives are surprisingly complicated and often sympathetic in their insularity, these guys seem just boorish.
"When Lisbeth and I were married, she couldn't have been less interested in sex," says one gent to the others as they enjoy their country club shrimp. "But now that we're both single again, mmmm, Mommy. . . ."
Here's the rogues gallery Feldman whipped up to represent modern masculinity. There's Duncan, a cosmetic titan, who (see above) still has the hots for his ex. He also has a defiant daughter, a penchant for truck-stop sex and, as played by Dylan McDermott ("The Practice"), general blue-eyed smoldering issues. Karl (Joshua Malina, "The West Wing") is a nebbishy pharmaceutical giant, buff but terribly pale, whose mistress wants the same perks as the missus, including couples therapy.
Christopher Titus ("Titus") plays Brody, the group wiseacre, who dances constant attendance on a demanding wife, but the pilot goes by without a glimpse of her face -- dear Janelle is simply a nagging voice through a cellphone. At the heart of the group is James (Michael Vartan), Feldman's stab at a decent, regular guy. The show opens with James being fired from his hotshot job but, as luck would have it, the boss bites it minutes later, run down by a golf cart.
The golf cart incident sets both the tone (a self-conscious irreverence) and the action. At the funeral, James discovers his perfect beloved wife is not so perfect, pushing him into the jaded, love-bites, women-bashing camp of the other three. In fact, the show can pretty much be summed up in an exchange that takes place when all four lounge together in the steamy intimacy of their health club like so many Romans just before the fall.
"Look at us," Brody says, leaping to his feet in self-righteousness. "We're supposed to be these alpha males but now James' wife is sleeping around and Carl can't control his crazy mistress and I'm so whipped I can't tell my wife that the delivery company can't seem to find her shipment of Napoleons."
"Men," says Duncan. "We're the new women."
Ah yes, so many female CEOs find themselves embroiled in a potential sex scandal involving a transgender prostitute and a truck stop as Duncan does. (Memo to ABC: Stop with all the "tranny" usage. It's a pejorative of, if not quite n-word status, then at least right up there with other unacceptable slurs.) Or up for the CEO position of the guy who just fired them.
Feldman has, to his credit, taken on an ambitious task -- to humanize his Masters of the Universe even as he satirizes them. Powerful men are tough as protagonists in these times -- you can't have them sitting around dishing about their irritating wives or their sexual exploits and expect it to come off like a "Sex and the City" moment.
The fact that men talk about their sex partners or spouses in a less than honorable way isn't new and thrilling, it's old and dispiriting. (Which is why what works in the period piece "Mad Men" doesn't work here.) Tee-time satire requires nuance and that, unfortunately, has been checked at the clubroom door. Instead we have a show peopled by all the one-dimensional, duplicitous male characters of every chick lit novel in the world.
You don't have to like the main characters of a show for it to be great. But empathy or at least recognition -- two of the forces that drive the success of "Desperate Housewives" -- help. A lot. James' heartbreak attempts to build a bridge to real human experience, but with a demolitions expert like Duncan -- "Right of passage for men. Loss of virginity, first threesome, discovery of the cheating wife. The trifecta" -- it's almost impossible to sustain. Instead, the viewer is left to wonder why any normal guy would care what these three big-shot losers think. And why, by extension, would we.
When: 10:01 to 11 tonight
Rating: TV-14-DS (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and sex)