Christopher Moynihan, Mather Zickel and Dan Fogler, from left, with Henry… (Karen Neal, ABC )
Although it may seem a classic case of grasping at straws, the one positive thing that can be said about this fall season is that it has been equally tough on both genders. While female characters revisited the Madonna/whore trope, cramming themselves into girdles ("Pan Am," "The Playboy Club") and dialogue seemingly lifted from a Judd Apatow-inspired video game ("Whitney," "2 Broke Girls"), male characters revealed their inner morons, getting lost looking for the cheese aisle ("Up All Night"), refusing to acknowledge the 20th, much less 21st century ("Last Man Standing"), and talking like Judd Apatow characters while playing actual video games ("Man Up").
One could argue that all of these shows are attempts to understand the increasingly blurry gender lines in a country with a serious case of sociopolitical jitters. That is certainly what the creators of "Man Up," which premieres on ABC on Tuesday night, would like you to believe. In fact, that is what they say they're doing right on the show's website. But if this is an exploration of what it means to be male in 2011, then seriously, dude, we're in much bigger trouble than we thought we were.
We meet our three protagonists as they play an online video game. There's Will (Mather Zickel), a classic passive-aggressive who "got permission" to play by asking his wife, Theresa (Teri Polo), if she wanted to have sex while she was folding the laundry; sensitive slacker (please to note the unshaven countenance) Craig (Christopher Moynihan); and Volcano o' Dweeby Anger Kenny (Dan Fogler), who thinks Tobey Maguire is the coolest person in the world.
They are all child men, confused by the simplest task (Will spends much of the episode agonizing over what to buy his son for his birthday), to whom women are an alien race. Not that the women help much; early on Theresa meets Will's declaration that he is too a man with one of those withering wifely looks that ruin more marriages than drink and infidelity combined. His grandfather fought in World War II, she informs him, his father fought in Vietnam, while he plays video games and uses pomegranate body wash. "You're mannish," she says, with a wistful maternal smile.
It is difficult to decide which is the most offensive aspect of this scene: The implication that masculinity is defined by war? The refusal to acknowledge the two concurrent wars, in which her husband could certainly enlist if she truly felt that way? The return of wife-as-castrating-witch? No, it's just the sheer bone-idle laziness of the writing, which is a dumbed-way-down "Modern Family" crossed with watered-way-down "Two and a Half Men." Didn't we go through all this quiche-eating, body-wash-preferring nonsense when Alan Alda was still a young man? Now, if they had somehow gotten Alda to deliver that little "you're no man" speech, that would have been funny.
As it is, the pilot vacillates between the simply unfunny and the painfully unfunny. Kenny's ex-wife, Brenda (official bright spot Amanda Detmer), shows up with a date who resembles the super-virile Old Spice guy just to make Kenny feel inadequate; Craig ruins a wedding; and Will decides to show his son that real men aren't afraid of a fistfight.
Written and produced by Moynihan, executive produced by Victor Fresco ("Better Off Ted") and directed by Beth McCarthy-Miller ("30 Rock"), "Man Up" mistakenly believes that what is essentially a front of the book piece for GQ or a mildly amusing stand-up riff — my father wore a hat and a tie, I wear a hoodie — is enough to support the weight of a sitcom. If only they had bothered to learn basic carpentry from their own dads, they would know that if you don't have a solid foundation, you might as well not bother.