The descent of man

Festive jeer … Cora (Jane Harbour) with the males from <i>A Moody Christmas</i>.
Festive jeer … Cora (Jane Harbour) with the males from A Moody Christmas.

Men on television. Can anyone explain why they are either self-indulgent pig-babies (Homer Simpson) or horribly damaged, charismatic psychopaths (Don Draper, Tony Soprano - actually, every leading HBO man for the past decade)? Is there nothing in between but David Koch?

Female leads are often stereotypes, but we have a wider array with which to identify. All those forensic women, the Law & Order women and Alicia Florrick, they represent some new, cool species a little like our own, except that Mary Tyler Moore would never be cast in any of these roles. The overly competent ball-busting professional who no longer even has the perfunctory best friend or nagging mother is a welcome development, but perhaps she has metaphorically eaten her mates.

In the post-feminist world, women have no real need for men, so they exist in entertainment for our amusement or perverse fantasy. Overworked housewives, bored with whining about their hopeless husband's incompetent antics, are reassured they are not alone when they turn on the television. Phil Dunphy, Homer Simpson, Ray Romano, Tim Allen are loveable, helpless buffoons. Let's watch the world spin off its axis the minute the little woman leaves the house.

House Husbands seems to have been a sincere attempt to portray modern families in which men take on non-traditional roles. The show has had its following. The casting is more interesting than the usual Rafters-esque fare. The premise is flimsy: a bunch of ill-qualified fathers are forced to rely on each other to raise their kids in peace and sanity. They seem to have no other friends. The wives have very low expectations of the men's parenting skills. Every time I tune in, one of these well-meaning doofuses seems to have lost somebody's kids.

The house husbands are like naughty teenage boys. You can't take your eye off them for a minute. All the women are terrific but, frankly, Julia Morris should be given reason to do something more interesting than rolling her eyes. Is Gary Sweet channelling Ray Meagher? I'm not sure whether he has said ''Stone the flamin' crows'', but he has come close. Rhys Muldoon's character has been given the most opportunity. Kissing his kid's kindy teacher is a poor choice, at best, and one that seems to be a reaction to his superbitch boss and busy, unsupportive wife. That's probably OK, if you make up for it by playing midwife in a car with your three idiot mates.

Can it be possible that every woman on the planet unknowingly falls in love with spoilt, indolent, impotent oafs, or do we start with good material and then just eye-roll it into submission?

Romano enjoyed huge success as a man who functioned only because his wife made the coffee and his parents lived across the road. His latest venture has been less successful than Everybody Loves Raymond; nobody much loved Men of a Certain Age (SoHo, Tuesday, 9.30pm). In this Big Chill without the funeral, we mope around with Romano's character and his two best, mostly depressed, middle-aged, friends. They are lonely, joyless, disappointed, unfulfilled navel-gazers. I can't imagine why this thing isn't a huge hit. The friendships resonate with more veracity than the house husbands.

In the real world, women never hear men speak to each other. We can't imagine they utter anything more complex than ''Your shout?'' Sadly, if this is what men talk about, we're better off at book club. Dour stuff.

Where are we to see Australian men who are not Underbelly criminals or pussy-whipped cuckolds? A Moody Christmas (ABC1, Wednesday, 8.30pm) is supposed to be a comedy, and it is funny, but this plays like the best Australian drama. The characters are recognisable, the situations plausible and the relationships intriguing.

Great performances from Tina Bursill, Helen Dallimore, Rob Carlton, Jane Harber and the hilarious Patrick Brammall deserve note in an amazingly consistent large ensemble. In spite of its Christmas orientation (holly is usually the kiss of death for telly), A Moody Christmas may be the best locally produced series this year. And it's chock-full of strange and unusual men.

Don't miss

56 Up

SBS, Tuesday, 7.30pm

Now those seven-year-olds are nearly pensioners, it's quite possible participation in the series has been the highlight of their lives.

The Good Wife

Ten, Wednesday, 8.30pm

If Alicia Florrick ever took off her incredibly tight suits, she'd fall to bits. It's worth watching, just in case.

Animal Hoarding

Gem, Thursday, 7.30pm

More of a warning than a recommendation. These people should be beaten, not filmed.

This story The descent of man first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.