Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
Since the release of Spider-Man in 2002, the Hollywood superhero movie has experienced something of a renaissance. Yet, for all the philosophical richness of a Batman Begins or the quippy, whiz-bang excitement of The Avengers and Iron Man, a Faustian bargain must be struck. To get one of these franchises off the ground, you need to tell an origin story. And origin stories, as anyone who’s ever sifted through the pile of “begat”s in a dry compendium of ancient mythology can attest, can get mighty tiresome, mighty quickly. Handled incorrectly, an origin story ends up as nothing but a bunch of exposition, a deadly quantity to any creative type trying to pull an audience into an ongoing story.
It’s rather telling that the CBS sitcom We Are Men originally flew under the mutant-punning banner of Ex Men. The show’s pilot, written and directed by former How I Met Your Mother producer Rob Greenberg, plays like the origin story for a particularly sad team of heroes whose superpower involves repelling members of the opposite sex. Like The Avengers or X-Men: First Class before it, a small chunk of the episode is devoted to bringing viewers up to speed with the respective members of the team—serial divorcé Tony Shalhoub, sloppy philanderer Kal Penn, and alimony victim Jerry O’Connell—as seen through the eyes of its newest member, dumped-at-the-altar sad sack Christopher Nicholas Smith. Brought together by a common enemy—abandonment, though the crosshairs of their anger are frequently and incorrectly aimed at the women who are no longer in their lives—these four bachelors seek to begin anew. At the very least, they seek to relive a singlehood they didn’t live the first time—but that pop-culture products like We Are Men insist they should’ve.
Why? To quote the pilot’s unofficial rallying cry: “Because it’s awesome.” Which represents the core problem with this premiere: Though We Are Men occasionally calls back to the “mancession” wave of 2011-12 (the season of Last Man Standing, Man Up, and Work It), at least those shows gave their characters a motivation (myopic and ill-advised as it was) for trying to reclaim their manhood. “Boys will be boys,” We Are Men seems to shrug every time O’Connell tears off his shirt or Shalhoub leers at a woman half his character’s age. Each of these characters has been profoundly hurt in one way or another, yet for all of the origin-story mechanics of this pilot, there’s not a lot of time to take inventory of all their emotional bruises. The episode tries to have it both ways, filling in backstory while relentlessly pushing the characters toward a place where they can get into these types of hijinks on a weekly basis.
But like the dullest of origin stories, it all seems pretty perfunctory, a series that longs to be a shaggy hangout show shoehorned into a rickety single-camera framework that may as well be called How I Left Your Mother. Which is too bad, because Greenberg has previously worked on some of the most enjoyable hangout shows of the past few years, comedies like My Boys and Happy Endings that didn’t really find their legs until the constraints of premise were removed and characters were allowed to careen wildly off of each other, riffing and gibing in ways that reflected real-world friendship. In its first installment, We Are Men is pitched uncomfortably between HIMYM and Happy Endings, the joys of a game cast playfully antagonizing one another hemmed in by clunky devices like Smith’s narration. But the desire to coach high-school basketball—the apparent sticking point between Smith and the woman who leaves him—isn’t quite as compelling as the search for true love, so the show ought not be so concerned with the trajectory of its main character’s life.
Greenberg’s a reliably steady sitcom hand (he’s one of the few people to helm an episode of HIMYM who isn’t regular director Pamela Fryman) and he’s assembled a capable-enough cast, so the deficiencies of We Are Men’s clearly fussed-over pilot can probably be chalked up to months of tooling and retooling. (This would explain why the narration subscribes to the Michael Scott school of public speaking, not settling for one opening line when it can fit in a second one.) When the leads get to riffing, they squeeze out a few laughs; even so, Dave Foley scores the biggest laugh of the episode with a tossed-off aside about hardboiled eggs. But even the least disciplined of hangout sitcoms need to persuade viewers to return week in and week out with a better argument than “because it’s awesome.” If this team ever finds its true reason for being—and maybe ditches some of the more toxic ingredients in its battle-of-the-sexes stew—then it might transcend this lackluster origin story.
We Are Men
Created by Rob Greenberg
Starring: Christopher Nicholas Smith, Tony Shalhoub, Kal Penn, and Jerry O’Connell
Debuting: Monday, September 30 at 8:30 Eastern on CBS
Format: single-camera sitcom
Pilot episode watched for review