TV’s White Guys Are in Crisis

Steve Zahn in The White Lotus. Photo: Courtesy of HBO

This summer, television became preoccupied with a question: What should happen to men? Not all men — TV has not been inundated with stories about Black men, migrant men, trans men, men who struggle to make ends meet by holding down three gig-economy micro-jobs. One conundrum has kept cropping up in various genres and iterations: The white guys who used to be default protagonists on TV and in American life, all of the beleaguered dads, bad bosses, authoritative leaders, and wild-card mavericks, are no longer the main characters. So what happens to that guy now? Should he be erased? Can he be rehabilitated, his entitlement washed away? Where is he supposed to go?

Series from this summer have found various answers to that question. Perhaps the white guy has a meltdown, or he leans into his right to take up space; maybe the best course of action is to plot his demise. In every case, it’s less a clear answer and more a thought experiment for an awkward cultural snarl — with a vague gesture about how to loosen it slightly. Although many of these shows include people of color on the directing staff or in the writers’ room, they are all created or co-created by white producers, and it’s tempting to see their own plaintive self-concern at work in them. After all, none of the shows simply jettison the white guy. They hold him close. They observe him, mock him, jab at him mercilessly. Even as he becomes a story’s central problem rather than its central character, there he still is in the middle of the narrative.

The first 2021 show to poke at this question was the friendly Peacock comedy Rutherford Falls. Ed Helms plays Nathan Rutherford, a white man with good intentions and a passion for family and local history; his best friend, Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding), belongs to the local (fictional) Minishonka Nation. Nathan runs a beautiful history museum and has plenty of money to maintain the relics of his family’s past: They were the white people who founded the town, and he idolizes their legacy. Reagan has one small Minishonka heritage room in the local casino, even though she has a degree in museum studies and a more nuanced understanding of the centuries of oppression and injustice that led to their small town’s current politics. In another era of TV, Rutherford Falls would have surely been mostly centered on Nathan, his quixotic attempts to get people to care about history, and the shenanigans of his quirky friends. Instead, it is about his hubris — the show’s title is the name of the town, and it’s also a joke about Nathan. But while Reagan is the obvious protagonist (all the storytelling energy is behind her), there’s Nathan, standing next to her. Rutherford Falls is about an American Indian deciding to take back what should belong to her tribe, but it can’t stop wondering what should happen to the guy whose family stole it in the first place.

In June came Kevin Can F**k Himself, an AMC series about a depressed wife, Allison (Annie Murphy), that is notable for how it plays with TV’s genre conventions. Allison lives in a dark, drug-filled prestige drama while her husband, Kevin (Eric Petersen), gets to yuk it up in the chipper, well-lit sanctuary of a multi-cam sitcom. The series excavates the buried assumptions of network sitcoms like The King of Queens, Kevin Can Wait, and According to Jim. What does the more responsible wife have to put up with while the zhlubby husband gets into scrapes and faces no consequences? The show is similar in its setup to Rutherford Falls. The animating energy is with Allison, a woman who has been underestimated and forgotten in the world of this show and in every other sitcom in which a hot wife tut-tuts over her useless husband. And yet Kevin Can F**k Himself is saddled with Kevin, TV’s king doofus. Allison, as the archetypal sitcom wife, has been freed from second-on-the-call-sheet prison and given her own show, her own motives and desires and frustrations. Even then, all she can think to ask is “What the fuck should I do about Kevin?”

The White Lotus, an HBO drama about wealthy white families vacationing at a Hawaiian resort, gets at the problem with a more lacerating edge. The show is a critique of whiteness, not just white men. But it offers the most pointed soliloquies to its male characters — in particular, Mark (Steve Zahn), a classic TV-dad figure who feels emasculated by his wife’s professional success and frustrated by his daughter’s political animus toward her family’s privilege. “How are we going to make it right?” Mark asks when his daughter, Olivia, raises the issue of white oppression of Indigenous Hawaiians. “Should we give away all our money? Would you like that, Liv? Maybe we should just feel shitty about ourselves all the time for the crimes of the past, wear a hair shirt, and not go on vacation.” Mark is exasperated; he is ridiculous. Somewhere not far under the surface, though, The White Lotus is sincerely asking: Should he just shut up? Fade away? In the show’s most positive vision of a possible outcome, white men run away from their lives entirely.

The latest series to take up this question is Netflix’s The Chair, an academic dramedy about English professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), who ascends to the position of department chair — the first woman or person of color to hold the role — full of plans to make it vital again. As she deals with the morass of institutional red tape and protests from older faculty members, Ji-Yoon realizes she is harnessed to a problem she didn’t even see coming: her close friend, the department’s popular modernism professor. Bill (Jay Duplass) is no Nathan or Kevin, and he’s not a Mark, either. He is thoughtful about his privilege — he’s an ally! And then he’s caught out in a mistake: Students film him performing a “Sieg heil!” salute while teaching a class on Fascism. The act is taken out of context, but things escalate as Bill doubles down. He is not a monster, but he behaves like the wronged party in an Aaron Sorkin script. As Bill digs himself into an ever-deeper hole, he becomes the main obstacle to Ji-Yoon’s career ambitions.

The Guy, the Main Guy — the guy whose problems we care about, the guy who used to be a show’s dominant point of view — becomes a hurdle to overcome. He’s not quite an antagonist because he’s too clueless. Nathan and Kevin lack the agency to cause problems on purpose. They are objects of disdain, of lingering, almost nostalgic fondness. We used to love The Guy so much! He was our Beaver Cleaver, our Tim Allen in everything Tim Allen has ever played, our Alex P. Keaton, our Don Draper, our Michael Scott. We can’t just throw him out or relegate him to the status of recurring minor guest star. But he no longer fits. His privilege feels outsize. As a protagonist, he doesn’t spark the same joy he used to.

The comedy Ted Lasso, on Apple TV+, is a glaring exception, a counterpoint so stark it’s as though someone unfurled a banner that reads YES, YOU CAN STILL HAVE A BELOVED WHITE MALE TV PROTAGANIST — ASK ME HOW! Now in its second season, the show’s eponymous Ted (Jason Sudeikis) is an American football coach brought on to coach an English soccer team. He represents the model of an ideal, considerate, unpretentious white man. Why worry about the specter of the Former Main Guy lurking around the joint when you can swap him out for his preternaturally positive twin, Nu Main Guy, who approaches all his peers with unfailing empathy and respect? It is TV comedy as modern-parenting technique, rewarding good behavior and ignoring the bad stuff — the viewers are the children who require wholesome, appropriate models, their wounded psyches longing to be soothed. What is Ted Lasso if not Father Knows Best with contemporary, reformed ideas of what “best” means? (Father knows so much, in fact, that he even knows he is not perfect and is operating in an unfair patriarchal system!)

Shows like The Chair and Kevin Can F**k Himself are messier, and at times didactic, but they capture a friction that feels truer than Ted Lasso’s clean alternative. Ted has skipped ahead. It has ignored the difficulties of how to transform entitlement into humility and instead presented a Fixed Version of the American Man as a fait accompli. The fantasy of emotionally intelligent, empathetic American masculinity arrives fully formed. It’s an easier show to watch. It begins with answers instead of thorny, intractable muddles.

It’s odd because, within the world of TV, there is a simple answer to the puzzle these shows pose. They could just forget the Main Guy altogether, at least for a while (and it’s worth noting that most recent shows led by creators of color do not frame white masculinity as the fundamental obstacle for their characters). It could be a relief to let him rest, to allow Reagan to flourish and make her own mistakes, to let Allison just divorce Kevin and move on with her life, to let Ji-Yoon tell Bill he’s being an idiot instead of standing by and sadly shaking her head. It would be so much more pleasant to erase his history, to eliminate his assumed protagonicity and make him like everyone else, a guy whose moment comes and goes, a team player. Still, there is an honesty in the choice to keep the dethroned Main Guy around as a fictional device. He doesn’t disappear in real life; he is still there, tied to the lives of everyone around him.

TV’s White Guys Are in Crisis