Have you noticed how many TV and streaming series about men in situations usually known for their toxicity – professional sports, bar culture, contract killing, celebrity – are instead grappling with kindness, forgiveness and self-love? Ted Lasso, Platonic (both AppleTV+), Barry (HBO) and Bupkis (Showcase/StackTV) are awash in dudes being dudes, but their hijinks are merely a hook to pull us in to where their real action is: the struggle for emotional authenticity.
Sure, the second and third seasons of Ted Lasso – about an American soccer coach in England (Jason Sudeikis) who wins over skeptics with his cheery goodness – were often cringey. I don’t care, because I like what they were trying to do. After season one became a smash hit, its showrunners had the eyes of the world. They decided to fill them with images of pro athletes, men revered for their machismo, enacting public service plots about 2SLGBTQ+ acceptance, father/son relationships, confronting buried traumas and the dangers of revenge porn.
In an excellent New York Times essay, Elamin Abdelmahmoud called it “soft masculinity,” but for me, that term sounds too much like a dis. I prefer thinking of it as non-toxic masculinity, a road map for how to be manly without being macho, even in a culture where a U.S. football player can be caught on an elevator camera cold-cocking a woman and kind of get away with it.
Lasso’s ethos boils down to one scene, the final meeting of the Diamond Dogs, a mash-up of men’s group therapy and consciousness-raising. Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein), the epitome of gruffness, admits that he wants to be “someone better,” and asks if people can change. Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt, also one of the showrunners) replies that change isn’t about trying to be perfect, because perfection in people is boring.
Then Higgins (Jeremy Swift), the team’s director of operations – the ultimate teachable Lasso character, because we go from underestimating him to learning what an interesting family man, community figure and jazz musician he is – says the ultimate teachable Lasso line: “The best we can do is to keep asking for help and accepting it when you can. If you keep on doing that, you’ll always be moving toward better.” A sports show about asking for help. Go figure.
Similarly, Barry, about a hit man/actor (Bill Hader) – two professions centred on hiding in plain sight – ended its four-season run with a satire of Hollywood insincerity. But its true emotional climax was the confrontation between Barry’s mentor Fuches (Stephen Root) and the garrulous mobster Hank (Anthony Carrigan).
With phalanxes of rough-guy archetypes behind them – gangster businessmen in expensive suits on one side, leather-clad hardened criminals on the other – Fuches tells Hank, “Denial, it’s tough,” and then proffers a deal: He’ll walk away if Hank admits that he killed his lover, that he screwed up, “that you were scared. That you hate yourself. That there are some days where you don’t think you deserve to live and the only thing that will make you forget is by being someone else.”
Hank’s eyes fill with hot tears. “I just wanted to be safe,” he says.
“We all do,” Fuches replies.
The denouement that follows is as bloody as Hamlet, but there’s one exception: Fuches, the old king, gets away. Because as hard as he tries to enact anger and revenge toward Barry, he keeps surrendering to what he really feels: empathy and love.
On Platonic, Will (Seth Rogan), a just-divorced craft beer brewer, reconnects with his old pal Sylvia (Rose Byrne), now a stay-at-home mom married to Charlie (Luke Macfarlane), who embodies good-husband squareness. (The casting of Macfarlane is a wink, because he regularly stars in Christmas TV movies.)
Five episodes in, there’s an obvious contrast between Will, a “‘90s grunge clown” man-boy who’s fun but can’t even take care of his iguana, and Charlie, who’s stodgy but knows how to rip off his shirt to tourniquet an arterial wound. “You’re an adult man, and that is anything but boring,” Sylvia says.
But we root for Will, too, because under his shorts/socks/sandals surface, within his beer-bro milieu, he’s trying to figure out what a 21st-century man should be. He wrestles with succeeding versus selling out; he asks for sexual consent; and he pleads with Sylvia to accompany him to a strip club, because “it will be so sad and pathetic if I’m a divorced man at a strip club with a bunch of frat guys. If you come it will be fun and ironic.”
Maybe these stars (who are all producers of their series) and their writers were raised by feminist parents who went to therapy. Maybe they’re digging into characters who buck traditionally toxic settings because they know what their culture wants them to be, and they know what they don’t want to be.
Bupkis is especially fascinating here. The pilot opens with a graphic masturbation scene, and Pete Davidson stars as a version of himself: a celebrity who suffers from depression but also has internalized the super-macho Staten Island environment he grew up in, where he still lives under the shadow of a hard-drinking firefighter dad who died on 9/11.
“We’re in Staten Island,” Pete’s bluff, cool uncle Tommy (Bobby Cannavale) spells it out for him. “I’m not going to therapy and I’m not getting divorced.” Then episode two knocks you sideways with beautiful evocations of male longing and confusion.
Tommy intimates that his relationship with his daughter isn’t great. He chokes up singing Creed’s My Sacrifice (“When you are with me I’m free/I’m careless/I believe”). He admits that he’s got screwed-up thoughts in his head, such as driving off a bridge – “You’re not the only one.” He confesses, “Sometimes I think it’s over, you know?”
He tries to wash away that honesty by peeing on his own front gate, but not before Pete tells him (and us) what the series is about: “I don’t think anybody really knows what they’re doing,” Pete says. “When I was 18, I thought, ‘When I’m 21 I’ll have it all figured out.’ Then 21 came and I was like, ‘Maybe 25?’ Then 25 came, so maybe 29, and now I’m 29 and I’m thinking, 33?
“I think it’s okay to not know what we’re doing,” he concludes. “We’re all trying our best.” That’s the voice of 21st-century manhood working to shed age-old expectations, figuring out to redefine itself. And I’m riveted.
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