The pop-culture universe in 2007 is the realm of Men Who Won't Grow Up. Thankfully, TV offers one, refreshing antidote

By Mark Harris
Updated October 22, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Robert Voets

Grow up! Film and TV coddle the man-child

Remember this romantic-movie cliché? A woman would look a guy in the eye, caress his cheek, and then purr, ”That gruff, confident front you put up doesn’t fool me! Why, inside, you’re nothing but a lost little boy!” If you’re under 40, odds are that this line makes no sense to you whatsoever, since these days, men in movies and TV shows are wearing their lost little boy on the outside. Suddenly, we’re living in Kid Nation — and I don’t mean the completely fascinauseating CBS labor-camp series in which children talk to the camera with the practiced savvy of people who have never known a world without reality shows. I mean the rest of the pop culture universe, which has become the realm of Men Who Won’t Grow Up and the Women Who Tolerate Them.

On TV this fall, it’s impossible to miss. CBS’ The Big Bang Theory is about a bunch of science dorks who stare in awe at the blond bubblehead across the hall (seriously — the bubblehead character still exists! In 2007!) like abashed sixth graders at a dance. NBC’s Chuck offers the story of a sweet tech-support doofus who works nights as a superspy but who hasn’t quite mastered the whole tucking-in-his-shirt-and-talking-to-girls thing. The CW’s Reaper showcases a 21-year-old who lives at home and works (like Chuck) in a spirit-shattering chain store while sending damned souls back to a different hell in his off hours. It’s a good time to be an appealing but sexually nonthreatening leading man; play your hand well, and you can farm this particular piece of turf for a long time. Witness boy-man pioneer Zach Braff, now beginning year 7 as Scrubs‘ perpetually self-infantilizing doctor J.D., who’s still noting everything that passes before his wide eyes as fodder for his mental journal. (That’s nice for him, but when you’re choosing a physician, do you really want to be anybody’s learning experience?)

Every species of bumbling boy-man — nerd, geek, fanboy, slob, slacker, screwup — is having his day in the spotlight. In Knocked Up, Judd Apatow tagged him perfectly as a laundry-challenged stoner who likes his pals, his pot, and his porn but can’t figure out how an actual woman operates. The tiny/arty film movement known as ”mumblecore” has built an entire bemused worldview out of the perspective of overeducated, undermotivated twentysomething guys who can’t commit to a declarative statement, let alone a career or girlfriend. And Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited is nothing if not a fable about three boys whose daddy dies and whose mommy leaves them to toddle uncertainly toward adulthood. They can hold on to prized objects but not relationships; they can identify adult emotions but can’t quite feel them. The fact that two of these little tykes appear to be in their 30s doesn’t matter; in the boy-man playbook, you can take forever to grow up, and if the going gets tough, nobody will make fun of you if you retreat to your room for a week to play Halo 3 or reorganize your iPod.

It’s not hard to figure out the appeal of this notion: If you never grow up, you never grow old. But that familiar Peter Pan paradigm may be stretching to the snapping point. In November, MySpace TV (if you have to ask, you probably won’t like it once you find it) will debut a Web series called quarterlife, about that postcollegiate preadulthood stumble that is now permitted, apparently, to last up to eight years, since a couple of its stars, according to IMDb, are either 30 or close enough to feel its chilly grip around their wrists. There are many labels you can put on a 30-year-old who doesn’t know what to do with himself, but calling it a ”quarterlife crisis” suggests that his biggest problem may be too much optimism.

Madison Avenue likes to sell the idea that we’re forever young, reassuring us that 30 is the new 20 and 40 is the new 30 (does that mean dead is the new 80?). So it’s ironic and delightful that a great, astringent antidote to all this puppy-dog behavior has arrived in the form of a TV show about ad guys. AMC’s Mad Men, just wrapping up its first season, is a drama — actually, a psychological excavation — set in 1960, a moment when the ”good life” of the last decade was curdling and dread was starting to seep through the suburban wallpaper. Its protagonist, the 35ish Don Draper (Jon Hamm), is a New York advertising whiz with a wife, a mistress, unquenchable ambition, and not an iota of little-boyishness; in fact, he’s determined to grind his inner child into dust and obliterate any trace of vulnerability. Don is near the top of his game, but he’s also wearing down: He smokes, he drinks, he controls his wife in the guise of taking care of her, and he almost never drops his guard. He’s a relic of an ancient civilization, and a flat-out terrible role model. But in his struggle not to lose his soul, he is also, indisputably, a grown-up. No wonder he suddenly seems like the sexiest thing on television.