Man Up!

This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Todd VanDerWerff and Phil Nugent talk about Man Up!

Man Up debuts tonight on ABC at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.

Todd: ‘Twas a time when bein’ a man meant more’n just havin’ a penis. Bein’ a man meant provin’ it, as often as possible. Meant hittin’ guys, goin’ out into the great outdoors and rescuin’ what needed rescuin’. Meant goin’ to war and leavin’ the ladies at home and overseas sad for the loss of your chiseled jawline and stoic spirit. Meant standin’ back and doin’ what needed to be done, even when it was hard to do. And it certainly didn’t include no pomegranate body wash.

The folks behind Man Up!—folks that include some genuinely talented people—seem to believe that the greatest crisis facing American men today is that they look at the portraits of their fathers and grandfathers and weep for just how unmanly they are. Their grandfathers fought in World War II, and their fathers fought in Vietnam. But menfolk today? Well, menfolk are pansies who get their combat jollies out on a video game playing field. Modern society has reduced men to a bunch of lily-livered cowards, so dependent on their women that they can barely exist without them. And when you take them out of their zone of comfort, they break down, maybe even start weeping. All they want to do is talk about their feelings. Worse: All they want to do is talk about how wanting to talk about their feelings makes them feel unmasculine.

It’s this sort of circular logic that drives Man Up! round and round until it finally winds up in a place where the paltry laughs the pilot have are largely driven away by the show’s refusal to do anything new or different with all of this. The biggest flaw in Last Man Standing, the Tim Allen-starring show that precedes this, is that the central character there is never allowed to be the butt of a joke. The laughs all derive from just how much the world has let him down and just how much he can’t believe the effeminate dudes around him. But Man Up! has exactly the opposite problem: We’re meant to laugh here at just how little these guys match up to whatever masculine ideals they have or how few masculine idols they have at all (one character lists Tobey Maguire as the coolest guy he can think of). But the show never once figures out whether being a man’s man is something worth aspiring to or something to make fun of.

The central threesome in Man Up! share a number of things in common. They like to play video games. They work together in an insurance sales office (there’s a manly job). They all feel emasculated by the women in their lives—when they have women in their lives—and the task of raising a family, while important to them, also seems to carry with it a slight touch of toxicity, as if they’re afraid that if they do anything domestic, they might immediately start to turn into women and regret that they ever agreed to have a heart-to-heart with one of the kids. There was an awful commercial that aired earlier this year where two people were on a date, and the woman was wondering how the date was going and whether things would progress from here, while the man could only think about sex. It was all regressive stereotypes, with no thought to anything beyond the cheapest possible gag. In many ways, Man Up! feels like That Commercial: The TV Series.

Now, granted, this type of advertising has a tendency to work, and this type of sitcom humor does too. We’ve been basing gags on the idea that men are unfeeling dolts and women are the smart ones who roll up their sleeves and get the job done for decades now, so it’s clear that this kind of humor resonates with someone. But this particular well is so dried up that any show approaching this kind of material is going to need something vastly different to tackle these sorts of gags. Think, for instance, of how Ty Burrell’s Phil on Modern Family has become both a twist on the traditional doltish dad and a kind of hyper-dweeb, allowing the show to put new spins on jokes that grow out of both types. There’s nothing like that here, just guys who seem really insecure about having to smell nice.

There’s not really a premise to speak of here, which suggests that all of this could fall away and reveal a better show somewhere down the line. Involved behind the scenes is Better Off Ted creator Victor Fresco, though it’s not immediately clear how involved he is in the day-to-day operations of the show, as he's only listed as one of the show's many, many producers. (The series was actually created by Christopher Moynihan, who plays Craig, the least developed of the three guys at the show’s center. Moynihan’s last effort? The much less beloved 100 Questions.) Mather Zickel of Delocated plays lead character Will, which could be promising, but he’s saddled with most of the terrible monologues about how men today just have nothing on their prior generations (and lots of material about how he fears for his own son, who may well be even more emasculated from having to be around women or something). The monologues are bad, and Zickel seems to know it, just bearing down and getting through them. Only Dan Fogler as Kenny—Will’s brother-in-law, who seems like he was purchased at a Hangover spare parts consignment auction—seems to be having any fun. This means yelling. Lots of yelling.

Teri Polo and Amanda Detmer, solid, funny actresses both, turn up as Will’s wife, Beth, and Kenny’s ex, Brenda, respectively, but they’re mostly stuck off to the side and forced to click their tongues and roll their eyes, which is a real shame, particularly in the case of Detmer, who’s a brassy, funny actress Hollywood’s never known how to use. The best performer here is Henry Simmons as Grant, Brenda’s new boyfriend, who has a lot of fun with the whole “most perfect man ever” type, even if it seems like the part was specifically written for Isaiah Mustafa and then only tossed at Simmons when the producers couldn’t land the Old Spice pitchman. Simmons gets the only genuine laughs in the pilot, and they almost all stem from delivery.

The pilot’s problems don’t stop at bored, poorly used actors and muddled thematics, though. The story told doesn’t make a lot of sense and leans too heavily on Will’s fears for his son, fears that don’t make much sense in the moment, since his son seems pretty well adjusted, all things considered. (Like on Last Man Standing, there’s an ill-considered gay panic joke in the early going here, a gay panic joke that’s gone ahead with, even though Will’s son is obviously straight.) The filmmaking is inert, the actors often seem to be waiting for a studio audience that never enters, and what laughter there is mostly arrives from weird stuff around the edges, like a balloon blowing across the lawn in front of a kids’ party like a tumbleweed as two groups of men have a standoff. There are enough talented and funny people involved with Man Up! to suggest it could start getting much better, very quickly, similar to how Raising Hope did last season, but the pilot is dreadful, and ABC didn’t provide any further episodes to bolster opinion. Man Up! isn’t just one of the worst new shows of the fall; it’s the most confused.

Phil:  Most of the reviews this show has gotten  have been just brutal, but I rather like it. I may be giving it too much credit for not being Last Man Standing, the Tim Allen vehicle that the network is actively trying to connect it to in the public's mind, the way that Tony Soprano used to try to connect business associates he suspected of being too chatty with the feds to a pair of cement galoshes. Allen's show, which aside from being unfunny, lazily performed, and obnoxious, is just sad, because it takes this goofy drivel about the importance of "male identity" seriously, as if Allen wants to be the new Robert Bly. Man Up! raises this non- issue in order to make fun of it. At its core, it's really just another show about mismatched friends who are different stages in their lives hanging out together and giving each other bad advice, but it made me laugh.

Whether it will make you laugh probably has less to do with the manly-man thing than with your taste for comic broadness. It often verges on being a live-action cartoon, but a good one, slightly reminiscent of Better Off Ted, but more similar to Happy Endings, another show that was first taken (by me, for one) as a rehash of overfamiliar sitcom trends but that has managed to distance itself from the pack. Now that the central male relationships are established, its long-term potential depends on how they bring the other characters into the mix, and maybe whether Zickel and Moynihan can shake it up a little. Neither is bad, but they both seem like the same kind of glib joker, leaving Dan Fogler (who must be the most valuable Tony-winning-Broadway-musical-star-turned-sitcom-dude since Jason Alexander) and Henry Simmons (who pulls off the difficult trick of making inhuman perfection seem both funny and likable) to walk off with the show. Man Up! isn't perfect--and the explanation point in the title is almost as much of a death sentence as being seen in public with Tim Allen--but it's one of the few new comedies this fall that's more fun than the smell of ripe garbage in your nostrils.

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