The women of Yemassee, SC, walk to the train in the Lifetime series "The… (Karolina Wojtasik, A&E…)
Darnell Wilson is frozen like a deer in headlights. He looks directly into the camera, eyes buggy and wide, and admits he's not sure how he'll cope with the challenge in front of him.
The source of his anxiety might send shivers down a lot of men's spines. He's agreed to run his household and take care of his two young children while his wife is away, and completely incommunicado, for a week.
Wilson, a railroad worker, is a participant in Lifetime's five-part series "The Week the Women Went," which packed a group of wives from a small South Carolina town off to a resort, leaving their husbands at home to juggle kids, homework, dinner, birthday parties and beauty pageants.
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Narrated by comedian Jeff Foxworthy, "The Week the Women Went" is one of a number of TV programs airing now and planned for the near future that turn traditional gender roles on their heads.
USA Network has in the works "Bride or Best Man," a reality series about men planning their own weddings. Both "Raising Hope," returning for its third season this fall on Fox, and ABC Family's new comedy "Baby Daddy" revolve around young single dads caring for their children. NBC's comedies "Up All Night" and the upcoming "Guys With Kids" feature a variety of hands-on dads. And for its first original sitcom, Nick at Nite will launch "See Dad Run" in October, starring Scott Baio as a clueless stay-at-home father.
Some of these sitcom dads grow to handle the job deftly, after making a lot of wacky and stereotypical mistakes. Increasingly, scripted fathers seem naturally cut out for the role of primary caregiver.
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Wilson, from "The Week the Women Went," had never seen himself that way.
"I knew it was going to be a nightmare," Wilson, 35, said recently of the week he spent as sole head of household late last summer. "I didn't fool myself for one minute."
He muddled through, pooling resources with his similarly wife-deprived best friend, who moved in temporarily and brought along his infant toddlers. The men figured they'd better handle the situation together, though — no real spoilers here — the communal living unleashed a load of chaos under that one roof. Producers, naturally, encouraged the arrangement.
"The Week the Women Went," launching Tuesday as a limited-run series, is "a grand 'what if?' social experiment" combined with fertile TV tropes, said Jon Kroll, executive producer.
"It's fish out of water, it's gender politics, it's seeing how the other half lives," said Kroll, a veteran of reality hits such as"The Amazing Race,""Big Brother"and "Amish in the City." "It's a conceit with so much potential."
"The Week the Women Went" is based on a series originally developed for British television. Since becoming a huge hit there, it's been exported to more than a dozen other countries, with audiences in France, India, Sweden and elsewhere lapping up Dad's hapless attempts at domesticity while Mom enjoys "me" time.
Kroll and his partners at BBC Worldwide Productions went through an extensive search for just the right town in which to set the U.S. show, settling on the tight-knit community of Yemassee, S.C., about 240 miles from Atlanta.
They wanted a place where traditional gender roles are fairly well ingrained, with lots of stay-at-home moms and hard-working manly men, Kroll said.
The families who agreed to participate were split up at the beginning of the week, with the women heading to Amelia Island, Fla. The guys stayed behind to handle daily chores and special events, with a few producer-fueled monkey wrenches thrown into the mix.
For instance, the town hosts a steady stream of kid beauty pageants, and producers ensured that one would be happening while the women were gone. That meant the men had to dress and primp their girls for the occasion. Wilson resorted to spray-painting his daughter Bailey's dress, and his attempt at customized fashion became jokingly known as "couture in a can."
"When you're in a bind, you just use what you have," Wilson said. "I was panicked."
Making sure that it wasn't just about Dad burning the toast, producers helped engineer some community-based activities. The men restored a landmark local train depot and spent time with their neighbors from a traditional African village that sits, oddly, on the outskirts of town.
The women, meanwhile, struggled with the separation, causing producers to spend more time filming on the island than they'd anticipated, Kroll said.
Tracy Wilson, Darnell's wife, said she and many of the participants were homesick because they'd never been away from their husbands or families for more than a few days.
"I was so excited about going, but I didn't realize how much I'd miss my family," she said. "I kept wondering how they were doing without me."