More often than not, TV sitcoms perpetuate stereotypes and rely on tropes for convenient laughs. With few exceptions, men are shown as being childish, self-centered, and emotionally detached. So I wasn’t optimistic when I saw a preview for CBS’s new sitcom, “Man With a Plan.”
The premise is that Adam, played by Matt LeBlanc, agrees to take over childcare when his wife Andi (Liza Snyder) goes back to work. The couple has three children, aged Petulant, Troublesome, and Impish. Impish is starting Kindergarten, so Andi’s daytime services are no longer needed, hence the transition. Adam is a contractor, which in television land means that he can work whenever he feels the urge.
The preview made it look as if this was an opportunity to show fathers as incapable and unwilling. And, indeed, the pilot episode is full of tired, predictable jokes at the expense of manhood, while tossing in a few about women, children, and education.
The first scene of the pilot takes two minutes to establish the tone of the humor for the show. In those two minutes, we learn:
- Kate, a teenage girl, has mood swings because of her hormones. Adam makes a comment about Andi’s mother also having hormone-related mood swings, as if he’s never realized this about women before.
- Teddy, a tween boy, likes to play with himself. A lot.
- Andi works in the medical field. When the children ask if she’s a doctor, Adam laughs dismissively.
- The children really want a puppy. Adam tells them to “Ask your mother. Not now, when I’m not around.”
- Adam knows he will be successful in this new role because their children see him as “Daddy Fun Times.”
The second scene involves Adam dropping Emme, the Kindergartener, off at school. When his daughter expresses concern, Adam offers this fatherly advice: “You should be worried. Kids are mean. … A punch in the nose can be a real problem-solver.”
He learns that Andi had volunteered to be a “room parent,” a role he’s now inheriting. During a parent meet-and-greet, he meets Mrs. Rodriguez, Emme’s teacher, and Lowell, a stay-at-home dad whose daughter is in Emme’s class.
The contrast between Lowell and Adam shows how men are to be seen in the world of “Man with a Plan.” While Adam is clueless and macho, Lowell is fawning. He calls Adam a personal role model and an alpha male. He’s excited at the prospect of sharing a beer: “So nice to connect on a masculine level again.” He tries to wipe a smear off Adam’s cheek.
Real men, goes the message, only check in on their children’s lives out of necessity. Stay-at-home dads are some lesser form of man. This explains why the premise couldn’t have been something more logical, such as “Mom goes back to work while Dad gets laid off.” That would have been an opportunity to explore matters of gender identity. Instead, we get a much easier tableau in which the alpha male gets to continue being the main breadwinner.
There are also several unfunny digs at public education. When Lowell frets that the school’s program might not prepare his daughters for college, Adam says public education is free and “free stuff is not that great.” When Adam balks at fulfilling the “room parent” duties, Mrs. Rodriguez threatens, “It would also be a shame if I didn’t teach your daughter to read.”
There’s also a repeated message that primary caregivers, regardless of gender, are suckers. When Andi finds out that Adam is now the room parent, she laughs and calls him a “poor bastard.” The wraparound joke shows Mom ending in the role Dad started in, getting love from the children by promising a puppy. Lowell’s simpering depicts a man in a “mother” role.
Children, in turn, are depicted as nuisances. At one point, while Adam and Andi are discussing how to proceed, he tells them to get into the pantry so they can’t hear the conversation. He then forgets them multiple times.
Throughout the pilot episode, the father is shown as brutish. He tells a mother that her son is a jackass. He suggests that Lowell’s daughters will grow up to be strippers. He suggests that his wife having a full-time job while doing all the childcare “sounds like a plan that makes everybody happy!”
He is also proud of having been a minimalist father. He compares himself to Johnny Cash, coming in when needed but otherwise staying uninvolved. He blames his wife for messing up the children, as if he’s had no role in their upbringing until now.
There were a few spots that showed potential, but I hesitate to call them high points. For instance, because his children plug into their electronics immediately when they get home instead of doing their chores, he sets the home wi-fi up with a rolling password. “I’m not your friend, I’m your father,” he says. If he’d stopped there, that would have been wonderful. But he continues: “I’m the warden. It’s my job to rehabilitate you.” The show’s writers don’t ever quit while they’re ahead.
In the end, the father is shown as simultaneously dim-witted and more competent than his wife. When he resists being the “room mother,” Andi manipulates his machismo by suggesting he just isn’t cut out for the task. He later starts to realize that he was tricked, but can’t quite figure it out.
At the same time, though, he’s able to do more to bring the children into compliance in a few days than his wife could in more than a decade: “All I know is, I can take care of our kids.” He may be outsmarted by his wife, but he can outsmart the children, who had been outsmarting their mother.
This contradiction is hardly new to “Man with a Plan.” The biggest problem with the show, in fact, is that there’s little new about it. It continues to perpetuate several harmful, persistent stereotypes about the role of men and the role of fathers.
It is not surprising, but it is disappointing, that we have not made more progress in our entertainment than this. Lowell is wrong-minded in wanting Adam as a role model: He is not a role model, he is an artifact of an era of manhood that is hopefully fading.
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