Come fall, TV landscape to include quests for manly men--not weenies

July 25, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles--The quest. The campfire. Male bonding. The manly man. The masculine psyche.

Such terms are not what we think of as the language of prime-time television. But we're going to be hearing them a lot this fall, as some of our favorite male characters in hit comedies and dramas explore what it means to be a man in the '90s.

Craig T. Nelson, of "Coach," said Monday his character will be trying to get in touch with his feelings through the works of poet and best-selling author Robert Bly, often called the father of the "men's movement."

Richard Lewis said his character on "Anything But Love" will be doing the same thing to try to deal with his confusion as a male.

Tim Allen, the star of "Home Improvement," a new ABC sitcom about the host of a TV show on do-it-yourself home repairs, said his character is on a "quest for maleness." The show features a mysterious character who serves as a male mentor to Allen and actually quotes Bly.

And the producers of the hit show, "Northern Exposure," also are talking quests and mythic journeys for Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow).

The idea behind much of the men's movement, which all these programs are making reference to, comes from Bly's best-seller, "Iron John." The book argues that during the Industrial Revolution, fathers were taken out of the home to go to work long hours in factories. That resulted in boys being raised almost exclusively by women, which, according to Bly, has resulted in what he terms the "soft male."

Bly, who offers seminars to help men get back in touch with their essential male-ness, borrows heavily from mythologist Joseph Campbell and philosopher Sam Keen -- all three of whom became better known through interviews with Bill Moyers on PBS.

But wait a minute. What's that got to do with these network shows? And doesn't the sitcom formula depend on Dad's being a bit of a knucklehead who everybody in the house humors?

The answer is that Bly-talk is hot right now in Hollywood, where best-selling answers to deep spiritual needs are embraced like nowhere else.

"I had not even heard of Bly," Allen said in a press conference last week, "but I talk about being a male in my comedy act a lot. Then, one day, my minister mentioned to me that he had seen my show and that I should read this book, 'Iron John.' And it was the same male quest -- the quest to be a manly man."

Matt Williams, the show's executive producer, defined the manly man as "a man who is fierce without being aggressive against women. It's a man who is nurturing in the sense of nurturing the Earth as well as nurturing as a father. It's a man who is trying to be an example.

"I think what's happening is that there's a great deal of confusion. Men say, 'Women want us to be macho, but they also want us to cry and do flower arrangements. I'm confused. Who am I?' "

"And that's what we're dealing with in the series," Williams says. Then he adds a caveat that sounds a lot like the old-style man talking: "But it doesn't mean turning Tim into a weenie."

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