They are male. But they are not -- in comparison to their fathers and grandfathers, and according to the standards imposed by the current generation of TV-sitcom writers -- men.
And that -- the oft-visited notion that the world just ain't makin' manly men like it used to -- is the sole jumping-off point for the jokes in the new ABC comedy Man Up!, which premières tonight at 7:30 in the slot behind Tim Allen's critically panned but ratings-rich sitcom return, Last Man Standing.
Early critical reaction to this one-two punch at modern-day muted masculinity was consistent -- a safe quinella bet in the 2011-12 TV season's first-shows-cancelled derby.
But after Allen's new comedy -- which is basically an uninspired rewrite of Home Improvement with three daughters substituted for that hit show's three sons -- attracted a solid 13 million U.S. viewers its debut last week, one can't help wondering if Man Up! might also defy the odds and provide the second half of an unexpected rookie-hit comedy block for ABC.
If it does, it'll be like Allen's show -- a success in spite of, not because of, the quality of its scripts.
Man Up! follows the not-so-manly misadventures of three male friends -- married dad Will (Mather Zickel), bitter divorcé Kenny (Dan Fogler) and too-sensitive single guy Craig (series creator/producer Christopher Moynihan) -- who are struggling to figure out what it means to be a man in 21st-century society.
Their fathers, one of whom fought in Vietnam, were secure in their masculinity, and their grandfathers, the Second World War generation, knew exactly what being a man meant. But as members of the carpooling, latte-drinking, dual-income/working-wives chapter in male history, these three are at a complete loss.
The closest they come to combat or confrontation is their regular late-night battles in an online version of the Call of Duty video game. And when Will declares his manliness while insisting that his 13-year-old son should receive a suitably dangerous guy-toy birthday present, he's quick to follow up by telling his clearly superior wife, Theresa (Teri Polo), "We need more hazelnut creamer, and the next time, can you get the non-dairy stuff?"
Which, of course -- and here's the joke that is reframed and retold throughout the series pilot -- is not a very manly thing to say.
While Will wrestles with the birthday-gift conundrum, bearded pal Kenny (sort of a TV-sitcom version of whatever Zach Galifianakis is doing in big-screen comedies these days) is seething at the discovery that ex-wife Brenda (Amanda Detmer) has taken up with a guy (Henry Simmons) who is, if you can believe it, an even more perfect male specimen than that Old Spice commercial guy.
Meanwhile, bruised-hearted buddy Craig is still pining for his college ex, and decides that her wedding day is the perfect time to try to win her back.
It all sets up a chaotic chain of events that unfolds on the front lawn of Will's house during his son's birthday party, forcing the three masculinity-challenged mates to step up and either man up or shut up.
It's completely predictable and not really all that amusing -- though it must be said that the actors in Man Up! seem like they'd be capable of turning in much more amusing performances if they were given better material to work with.
Man Up! should be headed for an early shut-down. Of course, folks like me said the same thing about Last Man Standing before more than a dozen million Americans voted otherwise with their flipper fingers.
So I could be wrong ... and darn it, I'm man enough to admit it.
Starring Christopher Moynihan, Mather Zickel, Dan Fogler and Teri Polo
Tonight at 7:30
21..2 stars out of five