(Author’s Note: I started writing this review of Man Up a week ago when the show debuted. However there were some things from the pilot that I was unable to remember. And believe me when I say that this in itself is an indictment of the show since I normally remember just about all the details from a TV show that I watch. As I’ve said, I didn’t remember details of the episode and so was forced to try to locate and watch the show online. I eventually found it on the CTV Two section of the CTV website. However I kept finding reasons not to watch it and relive the agony I felt when watching the show the first time. I eventually watched it and that is what I am reviewing. I am not going to willingly watch this show again.)
I have, for the most part, attempted to avoid reviewing the pilot episodes of series this year. I am breaking this self-imposed restriction in order to review Man Up, the new ABC Tuesday night comedy, and I am doing this for one reason: I would do anything short of ripping my own testicles off with my bare hands in order not to have to watch a second episode of this abomination. And under the right – err, wrong – circumstances I’d think about the testicle thing.
Man Up is a comedy (allegedly) that centers around three friends, Will Keen (Mather Zickel), Kenny Hayden (Dan Fogler) and Craig Griffith (Christopher Moynihan). Will is married to Kenny’s sister Theresa (Terri Polo) while Kenny was married to Theresa’s friend Brenda (Amanda Detmer). Rounding out the adult cast is Bridgette’s new boyfriend Grant (Henry Simmons).
The pilot opens with Will, Kenny and Craig playing Call Of Duty online together while talking in their headsets (sorry I don’t own a game console so I have know idea of the exact terminology). Will was able to get permission to play by suggesting to Theresa that they have sex while she was folding laundry, a suggestion that provoked an eye roll from Theresa. The game chat isn’t entirely game related. Will’s son Nathan’s thirteenth birthday is later that week and Will doesn’t know what to get his son that says “I’m a man.” Craig (who has never been married) is obsesses with Lisa, a former girlfriend who he had lunch with earlier in the day. She’s getting married on the same day as Nathan’s birthday party but from their conversation and she talked about a song he used to play for her on his guitar. This he took as “a cry for help.” Kenny says that this woman is crazy and he should know because he used to be married to a crazy woman. Will then has to tell Kenny that Brenda will be at the party. Kenny calls Theresa on her cell phone to tell her to uninvite Brenda, while Craig calls Lisa, which breaks up the game because the only one playing is Will.
The next day Will and Theresa are in their kitchen. Theresa gets a package which she has Will open. He uses his pocket knife. It turns out to be a video game which Will initially thinks is for him because it is violent and scary and rated for 17 year-old and older. In fact it’s her gift for Nathan. He himself is searching for the right gift for his son to usher him into manhood and he thinks that this would have been a perfect gift to usher him into manhood. His point is undercut somewhat by his use of Hazelnut coffee creamer. Theresa further undercuts him by telling him that his grandfather fought in World War II and his father fought in Vietnam but he plays video games and uses pomegranate body wash. He’s “man…ish.” Just then Kenny arrives to tell his sister that Brenda has to be uninvited, that she can’t come to the “fluffin’” party (the kids are present and he has to use a substitute word). Just then Brenda arrives with some party hats and tells Kenny that there is no way that she isn’t going to be at the party They argue about her coming to the party. Eventually Will pulls Kenny out of the argument and tells Kenny that he has to deal with it and he should try to act like the “coolest guy he can think of .” For Kenny that’s Toby McGuire (?!). Kenny tries to act cool like Toby McGuire but then Brenda informs him that she’s bringing a date to the party, and Kenny loses it.
Will’s at work but still looking for a “manly” gift for Nathan’s birthday.when Kenny comes in. He’s a pharmaceutical salesman with a product that has side effects worse than what it treats. Will lists some of the options that Will has found for Nathan’s gift when Craig, who works at the same insurance company, comes in to tell him that not only aren’t they paying a particular claim but that not claims would be paid that day; it’s in a memo. Kenny notices that Craig is growing a beard to which Kenny objects, because a beard is “my thing.” Will remembers that Lisa liked him with a beard and this is how it’s revealed that Craig called Lisa six times the previous night. Kenny and Craig still want to go out for lunch in spite of the fact that it’s only 10:15 but Will does go out because all the talk of beards gives him a great idea for a gift for Nathan.
At the party, Craig is telling Brenda and Theresa about Lisa, and while everybody is telling Craig that Lisa is just feeling a bit nostalgic for what they had, Brenda totally agrees with him that it is a call for help and that he needs to make some sort of a gesture, that when you realise that someone is your soul mate it is forever. Kenny says that Brenda used to say that he was her soul mate she tells him that her soul mate is coming soon and he is bringing lemon bars. There’s a first meeting between Kenny and Grant that really shows a certain amount of perfect pomposity on Grants part, and which is hard to explain in words. Later, when Grant is shooting hoops with some of the kids, Kenny decides to challenge him to a game of one on one. It does not go well for Kenny. every time he tries to make a shot Grant blocks him (not surprisingly since Grant is tall and perfectly muscled, while Kenny is short and not muscled at all.
The crisis suddenly erupts when Nathan unwraps Grant’s gift. It’s a shaving kit. Will’s gift for his son, something that only a father would get his son (he thought) was a shaving kit. So he has to make a mad dash to the mall to get a replacement gift, and he takes Craig and Kenny with him, with Craig driving. Suddenly Craig announces that he needs closure with Lisa. Coincidentally (not really) they’re right in front of the church where Lisa is getting married. Will needs to be back for the cutting of the cake so he gives in and let’s Craig go in the church. Lisa is in the middle of her vows when Craig bursts in singing “Brown Eyed Girl”. Soon after he, Will and Kenny are rushing for the car, with an angry mob of groomsmen following them, yelling “You’re dead.”
Back at the house Will gets everybody in the house just as the angry wedding party shows up and demolishes his mail box. They want “the brown-eyed girl,” meaning Craig. Kenny wants him to give himself up while Craig is about to call the police. Then Nathan says “Dad” and Will decides that the three of them will go out to confront them, because that’s what their fathers would have done, because “they were real men, not the over evolved generation of pantywaists we’ve become.” Craig will stay on the porch while Kenny will go through the garage and get Nathan’s hockey stick to cover Will’s flank. Then Grant wants a job. Kenny doesn’t want him involved but Will tells him to stay on the porch with Craig. Grant says he’ll do something cool. Kenny can’t find the hockey stick; the best he can come up with is a pink pogo stick. The two groups stare each other down when suddenly Grant charges off the porch and tackles the groom and two of the other men. Later as Craig, Kenny and Will are congratulating themselves, we find out that he’s the only one who actually got into a fight, which was why he was the only one actually arrested. Brenda then tells Kenny that they are leaving; they have to go bail out Grant…and Kenny had better have his ATM card because they’re going to need bail money. Finally, after everyone leaves, Will has some time with Nathan. Turns out that between the party and the fight (and kissing a girl named Samantha in the “bounce house”) it has been the best day of his life. Will is about to apologise for not getting Nathan a gift when the boy reveals that Theresa said that the game was from Will. He can’t get it unwrapped so Will takes out his pocket knife and suddenly he realises what the perfect gift would be. He passes down “the old Mohaska” to his son just as his father passed it down to him.
I can’t fault the cast of Man Up. This is a Grade A cast in a Grade F series. Dan Fogler is a Tony Award winning Broadway actor, while both Mather Zickel and Christopher Moynihan have extensive experience both in series and in film roles, as has Amanda Detmer. And I’ve always been impressed by Terri Polo in just about anything that she’s done, either comedies like Sports Night and dramas, including the last season and a half of of The West Wing where she played Helen Santos. She has a nearly chameleon-like quality that allows her believably take on a variety of roles an not only be believable in them but to sometimes make me fail to recognise her in a role until I look at the credits. And while Henry Simmons will always be Detective Baldwin Jones (from NYPD Blue) to me he was almost ideally suited to play the all too perfect (if not necessarily too bright) Grant. Part of the problem is that he has to play that role, just as all of the other actors have to play their characters they way they do.
A big problem that the pilot had was that it was simply not funny. In fact there were places where it was catastrophically unfunny. The scene where Craig went into the church was cringe worthy, as was the scene where Grant charges into the weeding party. The scene where Kenny “played” basketball with Grant didn’t make me feel any sympathy for Kenny at the same time that it didn’t make me feel anything at all about Grant. I don’t really know how to feel about that scene. It’s sort of like watching someone goading a peaceful animal into charging and then feeling ill-served that it attacked. And yet, in watching that scene play out the way that it did, I don’t feel any sympathy for Grant because of the way that he was introduced.
But the biggest problem in the writing is with the characters. I don’t feel any emotional attachment to any of them. There's nothing about any of them that I fell that I can relate to, and they are too self-centered and self-aware. In their own ways, Will, Kenny and Craig are all doofuses. No sane man would take a lunch with a former girlfriend who is about to get married as a “cry for help” or an effort to rekindle an old relationship the way that Craig does. And Kenny, who plays the angry divorced guy, is still so “whipped” by his ex-wife that despite seemingly trying to “lay down the law” he ends up paying the bail for her new boyfriend. Grant is basically “The Old Spice Guy” brought into the everyday world, and even then it is a caricature rather than a character with any real dimension. And while Henry Simmons has the ideal look to portray him, and he did a good job with it, it’s not exactly a character that you can deal with in large doses.
And the two female characters don’t come off very well either. Brenda is a bitch, and not in the pro-feminist badge of pride sense that the word can have if said in the right way. She delights in treating Kenny like dirt and humiliating him at every opportunity. In fact that’s the reason – maybe the only reason – why she’s dating Grant. She treats Craig just as badly by encouraging his delusion that Lisa wants to reconcile with him. The only reason I can see for her taking that action is to see the “fun” when Craig takes the advice of the only person who agreed with him. And Theresa is only slightly better. Her best friend is Brenda, someone who takes pleasure in messing with Theresa’s brother. She’s the one who undercuts Will when she says that his grandfather fought in World War II and his father fought in Vietnam but he just plays video games on a console and uses pomegranate body wash. Theresa calls Will and his friends “man…ish” And the thing is that the qualities that she presumably finds unmanly are undoubtedly the qualities that she found attractive in the first place.
It is the concept that is probably the worst part of Man Up. The basic notion, that modern man are “an over-evolved generation of pantywaists,” is a running theme through a number of series. It was the basis of the late and unlamented How To Be A Gentleman, and of the ABC series which precedes Man Up, Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing. I think that the idea that men in general are becoming less masculine, or “man…ish” as Theresa puts it, is a fallacy. Maybe it’s a by-product of the feminist movement and the or maybe it’s just a result of a misguided view of what being a man entails. When Will tells his friends that their Vietnam War vintage fathers (and presumably their grandfathers, the World War II fighters) wouldn’t have called the police when there was a mob of angry groomsmen on their lawn threatening to beat Craig to a pulp, he was wrong. They would absolutely call the police. (Of course if they had met Craig, they might well have thrown him out to the mob, but that’s a different story.)
Man Up fails in some of the most important ways. The characters are poorly drawn and in several cases are unlikable. At best they are only mildly engaging, and the leading male characters were people that you didn’t really want to know (and hope that other people don’t thing you’re like). The humour was at best weak and at worst depressingly unfunny, and median edged closer to the latter than to the former. In a year which has produced a number of good comedies (several of which have featured strong female characters) this is particularly bad show. If you’ve watched the first episode – or worse the first two episodes – do yourself a favour and don’t watch any more. If enough people do that maybe this abomination will go away.