Posted on August 16, 2021

TV’s White Guys Are in Crisis

Kathryn VanArendonk, Vulture, August 13, 2021

{snip} 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. {snip}

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.