TV UK, 1 June

'Men Only depends on cartoon cliches of emasculation: impotence, a low sperm count, a female boss, an unfaithful wife, a disapproving father.'

Dolan Cummings

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Last week I mentioned a new series called Tales of Uplift and Moral Improvement on BBC Choice.

As an exercise in misanthropic moralising, this has nothing on Men Only, a new two-part drama on Channel 4 (Sunday 3 June at 10pm and Monday 4 at 10.30pm).

Men Only’s writer, Rick Cottan, has said that the drama shows laddishness taken to its logical conclusion. To this end, he takes us from five-a-side football to gang rape in less than 90 minutes. He does this by showing us the vulnerabilities and insecurities of his five characters, and then establishing a nihilistic dynamic in the group.

The message (and a message it is, in letters 10-feet high) is that relationships between men, especially where these exclude women, are toxic.

The initial impression that these are ordinary, harmless men is reinforced by the fact that two of them, Des and Jamie, are played by the chubby dad from the pensions ad with the talking babies and the gormless dad from the Supernoodles ad respectively. Nota bene, then: this could happen to anybody – or, to rehearse an old prejudice, all men are potential rapists.

As a drama, Men Only is not without merit. The central relationship between Jason (the dominant male) and Mac (the sensitive one) has a ring of truth about it. Mac is played by Marc Warren (Dougie from The Vice), who skilfully avoids dividing his character into Jekyll and Hyde. Mac’s descent at least has an internal logic. He commits rape in a sulk, not a rage.

Overall though, the story is just not convincing. It depends on cartoon clichés of emasculation: impotence, a low sperm count, a female boss, an unfaithful wife, a disapproving father. The rape itself is never shown graphically, and ultimately the imaginative leap required of the viewer is too great. You just don’t go from having a few pints with the lads, even at a strip club, to brutalising a human being. It doesn’t make sense.

That is the crux of the matter. Men Only sets out to explore ‘the dark side of masculinity’ and therefore sheds no light on its subject. Instead, it manipulates murky prejudices about men and masculinity to present a misanthropic fable: it doesn’t make sense because men don’t make sense. The moral is that women should be afraid of men and men should be afraid of their own shadows.

Ironically, BBC1 is now repeating Men Behaving Badly (Saturdays at 9.40pm), the dire sitcom charging with glorifying lad culture in the early 1990s. In fact, this was always about ridiculing laddishness rather than celebrating it. But perhaps the implication that these lager-swilling, porn-poring oafs were ultimately harmless seems old-fashioned now.

As if to show that men can still be objects of affectionate ridicule, though, BBC1 offers us Score, another two-part drama (Monday 4 and Tuesday 5 June at 9pm). This concerns a Sunday League football team in South Wales (ie, noble but tragic working-class blokes a la Full Monty) that wins the National Lottery.

There is a conflict between the men, who want to spend the money on pursuing their dream of playing football professionally, and their wives, who want to spend it on sensible things like fridges and family holidays. Men! Just big kids really, but you’ve got to love them, haven’t you?

Come back John Wayne – all is forgiven.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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