The Real Men of TV

Macho men invade new reality shows, while this season’s fictional fare features guys plagued by uncertainty. Which portrayal of manhood is closer to the real deal?

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Both Ray Romano and Steven Seagal are about six feet, four inches tall, though there’s little doubt who would win a battle between the two – unless that battle, of course, was one of the wits.

The two star in new programs – one a comedy-drama, the other a “Cops”-like reality adventure  – that underscore a dichotomy found this TV season: we’re seeing reality shows portraying confident macho men at work while the best fictional fare features male characters at crossroads, unsettled and unsure of their place in the world.

Which is closer to reality of our times?

Seagal, whose movie career as an action hero expired nearly a generation ago, is finding a new life in “Steve Seagal: Lawman.” Cameras follow him on the job as a reserve deputy with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office in Louisiana, a role he’s played behind the scenes for two decades. The show’s recent debut drew record ratings for A&E.

At the same time, our country’s first pro wrestler turned governor is starring in “Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura” on TruTV. The man variously known as “The Body” and “The Mind” is tackling the likes of the Kennedy Assassination and 9/11. “I’ve heard things that will blow your mind,” he declares in the same kick-butt-ask-questions-later voice of authority he employed with the WWF and in the Minnesota statehouse.

Minds don’t seem to figure much into MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” where guys lift weights, chase chicks and inspire controversy. Meanwhile, shows with (nearly) tell-it-all titles like “Gator 911” and “Danger Coast” are set to debut soon, following in the treacherous tracks of “Ice Road Truckers,” “Deadliest Catch” and the like.

How can regular guys hope to compete with the tough guys, especially in a world filled with ambiguity?

That’s probably the type of question Romano’s angst-ridden character would stress over in “Men of a Certain Age,” which traces three old college pals facing life crises as they slump into middle age. “The writers have grounded this script so much in reality," co-star Andre Braugher told The Los Angeles Times.

“Men of a Certain Age,” which debuts Monday night on TNT, is the latest in a season of smart new shows that portray men of various ages in various states of uncertainty. Joel McHale’s ex-lawyer and Chevy Chase’s much-married, aging former businessman on NBC’s “Community” both are trying to recover from falls from grace. There’s been no deeper plunge than the one suffered by Chris Noth’s politician character, who is caught up in a sex scandal of his own doing and a corruption conviction that may not be his fault on CBS’ “The Good Wife,” the best new drama of the season. Mr. Big is no longer a big shot – he’s behind bars while the wife whose trust he destroyed is holding together their family while holding him at arm’s length.

The male characters on Fox’s “Glee” are largely affable, if gullible, victims of deceit – fooled by everything from a fake pregnancy to a false immaculate-conception claim – as they face Slushees-in-the-face for daring to express themselves in song.

The most realistic of the new fictional shows of the season is shot in a reality-show style: the ABC sitcom “Modern Family.” The program features Ed O’Neill as the harried, old-school patriarch of an extended clan of eccentrics that includes a stepson who is an old-soul romantic trapped in a chubby prepubescent body; a clumsy, confidence-challenged young grandson; a clumsier, over-confident son-in-law who thinks he’s a cool dad, but is really a clueless one; and a neurotic son, who, with his male partner, is trying to be a perfect father to their adopted infant daughter.

The shows, in different ways, reflect the modern male experience: guys who are well meaning, but uncertain about their role and the expectations upon them in tough, ever-changing times.

Maybe the anxious among us can take a page from Seagal, who exudes an odd composure (he somehow incorporates Zen into a marksmanship lesson in the first episode) as he helps nab real bad guys, including an armed alleged carjacker caught after an adrenalin-pumping high-speed chase.

“Everybody calm down,” he says reassuringly.

If only real life were that simple

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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