The Masculine Mystique

Fast cars, faster women—those are the much-parodied signifiers of the male midlife crisis in pop culture. At least, they were, because while surely middle-aged men still claim the lion’s share of the Corvette market, the MMC has been going through a crisis of its own.

On TV (and in the multiplex), the classic MMC was fun for the guys—in theory, anyway—and fun for viewers, especially when the fantasies gave way to reality—wind whipping thinning hair in convertibles, the pretty young things who want to party until dawn or, worse, start families.

There was dependability in the havoc these age-stricken dudes wreaked. From HBO’s Martin Tupper (Dream On) and Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), to CBS’ Charlie Harper (Two and a Half Men), they stuck to the script, even as they careered off the rails.

But recently, that midlife moment has become considerably less entertaining. In fact, instead of a visit to a strip club, how about this: a visit to Palm Springs for a group colonoscopy—which is exactly what happened in a memorable episode of Ray Romano’s Men of a Certain Age.

The TNT hour-long drama, which just ended its second season, focuses on three men, friends since childhood, who discuss, dissect, and rein in every dysfunctional impulse. During Joe’s first postdivorce date, he barricades himself in a bathroom. When he tries to fix up his party store, it gets trashed by his bookie (because, of course, he has a gambling problem). Even his source of envy, as well as ridicule, his whore-buddy, Terry, has grown up and fallen in love, and with a woman his age.

The show has charm and humor; it’s just that the humor is a lot talkier, the charm a lot more pained. The MMC, it seems, has surrendered its misbehaving privileges.

Going to the opposite extreme is no better. Californication on Showtime, starring David Duchovny as a blocked writer–sex addict, has a character whose behavior is pathologized, joyless. Hung, on HBO, with Thomas Jane as an “escort,” takes it further: seducing women doesn’t merely seem like work, it is work.

Perhaps it’s only natural that the MMC is having its own crisis. After all, nearly 50 years have passed since psychologist Elliott Jaques coined the term in 1965. Since then, the midlife marker has edged up. It’s 50 rather than 40 that frightens these men. And in a world where economies are collapsing, foreign conflicts growing, and an increasing number of divorced men are raising children on their own, it makes sense that the archetype is being revised.

Take Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) in FX’s Rescue Me. Leary enacts every macho fantasy in the book—fireman, hockey ace, screwer of any piece of ass he wants—but his actions, which are due, in part, to post-9/11 trauma, feel like an imprisonment.

Also, between boozing, brawling, and bed-hopping, Tommy moons over his estranged wife and talks to ghosts, while fellow firefighter Kenny writes poetry. Whereas testosterone was once seen as the cure, these shows suggest it’s their feminine side that midlife men need to connect with.

(Of course, testosterone is still seen as the fountain of youth by marketers and consumers alike; CBS News last month reported that sales of testosterone-based products claiming to halt or reverse male aging have leaped from $550 million in 2006 to $1.3 billion in 2010.)

Unfortunately, what’s depressing for the characters can be equally so for the viewer. Watching men not only down and out, but also beaten, can be, well, a bit of a drag. Pop culture may be revising the archetype, but do we want the reinvention?

The MMC, in fact, isn’t doing so well in the ratings. The numbers for Men, Hung, and Californication are lackluster. Likewise, while Rescue Me enters its seventh season this week, it’s populated with typical male rewards—e.g., hot women and heroic action.

The ratings suggest more than the fact that networks like TNT, with their schizophrenic programming, have trouble attracting the right viewers to the right shows. For one, while some women (OK, a lot of women) might find men sharing and emoting to be highly desirable, they’re desirable as mates, but not necessarily for a night on the town (or on their TVs). As for men, as healthy as it is to see sharing as a sanctioned sport, being expected to emote is a lot of pressure. Morbid intimations of mortality? Pass the beer, bro.

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