Pity the poor, misunderstood TV male. O.K., don't. (But stop laughing so loud! It stings!) Consider this, however: while TV's menfolk hardly lack for meaty roles or paychecks, when it comes to self-reflection they almost bump into a glass ceiling. Feminism gave us decades of women who pondered what it means to be female--Mary Richards, Ally McBeal, Carrie Bradshaw. But a lack of curiosity about what being a man means is practically TV's definition of masculinity.
This fall, though, may leave you wondering when men turned into such sensitive, introspective creatures. On the syndicated talk show The Other Half, four men will attend Lamaze classes, test depilatory creams and offer daytime's female audience entree into the male psyche. The guys on HBO's The Mind of the Married Man reveal adulterous fantasies (and adulterous acts) and wrestle with being men in a PC era "where no one wants to hear s___ about [men's] problems." Single or suddenly adoptive fathers are becoming nurturers on sitcoms like UPN's One on One, the WB's Raising Dad and Fox's The Bernie Mac Show. And no less than three CBS debuts--The Education of Max Bickford, Citizen Baines and Danny--look at that most stereotypically male of personal dramas, the midlife crisis.
"In The Rockford Files, Rockford never had feelings. He only solved crimes," says Dawn Prestwich, who created Bickford (8 p.m. E.T., debuts Sept. 23) together with Nicole Yorkin. "Until now, that's been the traditional male role on television." Few men in TV dramas have been so explicitly defined in terms of their maleness as Professor Max Bickford (Richard Dreyfuss). He describes himself as a man who "always surrounded himself with women." He teaches American culture at a women's college, has a female boss and believes that women are "more thoughtful, maybe even a little smarter, than most men." But his woman's world is becoming hostile territory: he has grown alienated from his students, has just lost a powerful chair position to a woman (Marcia Gay Harden), and is flailing to defend teaching the works of "dead white guys."
He is, in other words, a liberal humanist whom circumstance is threatening to turn into an angry white male. But while Bickford often seems whiny--the angst of the tenured baby boomer doesn't ring tragic to many folks--at least it promises to take Max into new emotional territory for a man. And then some. Dreyfuss, Yorkin says, "is not afraid to be shown looking at his own paunch in the mirror and feeling fat."
Similarly, in the understated Baines (Saturdays, 9 p.m. E.T., starts Sept. 22), Senator Elliott Baines (James Cromwell) loses an election; his existence as the ultimate alpha male over, he must search his soul and remake his life, largely by reconnecting with his three grown daughters. (Al Gore, are your ears burning?) Why are men becoming so open? In a way, they're not. Bickford and Baines were created by women (just as men created Mary, Ally, Maude et al.), and like many "relationship" dramas they're expected to draw female viewers in particular. Baines creator Lydia Woodward believes the story transcends Mars-Venus issues, but says, "A man's emotional life is every bit as interesting as a woman's. Why not go there?"