In a recent episode of Kevin Can Wait, a friend to the wife of the show’s titular boob (Kevin James) complains about the protagonist of a novel they’re reading. “Why would a woman that educated stay with a guy that stupid and self-centered?” The none-too-sly ha-ha here is that her pointed book report could easily apply to Kevin, his better half (Erinn Hayes), and society in general: Kevin Can Wait aspires to entertain by satirizing the intolerable wrongheadedness of middle-aged men. In this way, the show is similar to two other new CBS comedies, Man With a Plan starring Matt LeBlanc and The Great Indoors starring Joel McHale. They’re all triumphs of decent intentions, and failures of insight and nerve. They are toothless, reinforce the boorishness they skewer, lack diversity and robust female characters, and pander to older demos with millennial bashing: So sensitive. So SJW. So damn #”hashtag”!
And yet, as limp as these shows might be, the muddled men they alternately mock and indulge vibrate with surprising resonance. I watched them with revelations of a certain presidential candidate’s toxic masculinity looping through my brain. I’d like to think I’m nothing like Donald Trump, although his awfulness has provoked me to interrogate my own buggy manhood. The characters played by James, LeBlanc, and McHale are by no means Donald Trump surrogates. But they are roasts of the alpha-male lout, and they’re meant to represent men my age. They don’t mirror my specific flaws, but they do reflect back my flailing efforts to improve, and contain a message I still need to hear: My fellow dude Americans, it’s time we got over our bad selves, ASAP.
Kevin Can Wait (Mondays, 8 p.m. ET) is a thesis statement for the lot of them. It’s technically a golden-years fantasy. Kevin is a newly retired ex-cop who spent two decades serving others — now it’s “me” time. His selfishness fuels the comedy but also serves as soft, fuzzy metaphorical satire of white male entitlement. In one episode, Kevin forces himself on his wife’s ladies-only book club. In another, he’s appropriated a black friend’s tale of heroism for his own gain. The best joke of the title isn’t the pun or sad-trombone self-pity, but the sly indictment of a worldview: Kevin can wait, because life has always been about guys like him, whether he recognizes that or not.
Man With a Plan (Mondays, 8:30 p.m. ET) is a corrective to Kevin’s clueless self-centeredness. LeBlanc plays a successful contractor and devoted husband, making good on a promise to dial back on his career so that wife Andi (Liza Snyder) can dial up her own. Yet his progressive self-sacrifice is undermined by lingering retrograde attitudes — a view of parenting as emasculating women’s work; a bros-before-wives orientation. His victories of reconstruction are qualified. “You know what it makes me realize?” says Andi in the second episode. “How little you were doing before.” Adam agrees: “Yeah, I was getting away with murder.”
The Great Indoors (Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. ET) rounds out the manly-man critique. McHale is Jack, a celebrated fortysomething writer for an outdoor magazine who’s forced to quit the field and work with tech-savvy twentysomethings after the publication goes web-only. The lampooning of millennials as easily triggered, grit-challenged wusses is inane, but by episode 2 you realize that the show’s ultimately about blowing up Jack’s vain machismo, gonzo individualism, and futile resentments about generational turnover.
To be clear: None of these sitcoms are going to set the culture on fire. But they do tell us that the culture needs to change and is changing, and the challenge to men is to lead, follow…or get out of the way.