News flash: masculinity is in crisis. And now that the sensitive-but-jerky-no-wait-profound-but-misunderstood Nate of "Six Feet Under" has uttered his last "Narm," FX is pulling ahead of HBO in the race to expose, dissect and exploit every embarrassing crevice of contemporary manhood. With the melodramatic, narcissistic slicksters of "Nip/Tuck" waiting in the wings for their season premiere, the newbies at "Starved" are leading the pack in cringeworthy male dysfunction. In this black comedy about eating disorders, the lead character (and the show's creator and writer) has already humiliated himself by eating cake from the garbage, propositioning his colonic technician, and nipping and tucking his own testicles in an unfortunate self-grooming incident. The other characters in the show are in similar straits, puking and binging, avoiding sex or inventing imaginary partners. In case the message isn't clear, in the pilot episode, the show's three guys use their female companion's food scale to measure the weight of their penises. To invoke the show's own tough-love catchphrase: "it's not OK." Aggravated eating disorder groups couldn't agree more. Dennis Leary brings a bit more heft and anger to the lineup in his unpredictable and frankly disturbing post-9/11 fireman drama, "Rescue Me." A cornucopia of men on the edge, the drama showcases the pain that Leary and his fellow workers experienced after the terrorist attacks, and all of the fucked-up glory of their responses: drinking, womanizing, divorce, bad practical jokes, bar fights, stalking, and in Leary's case, all of the above plus hallucinations of Jesus. Even more disturbing, however, is the latest episode, in which Leary starts taking some prescription "goofballs," and suddenly becomes sensitive, cheerful, loving and pious. And he buys lattes! It's more than the other firemen can take, and is both touching and painful to watch, as he's briefly happy to be reunited with his wife, kids and church, but clearly heading for a fall. Foreshadowed by an actual fall, this storyline isn't exactly subtle, but effectively reveals the queasy tension between conventional maleness and our pill-popping therapeutic public culture. Steven Bocho's controversial but hackneyed new war series, "Over There," rounds out FX's conflicted-dude lineup. Replete with soldier stereotypes and cheesy tearjerk moments, the show has been roundly criticized by real soldiers for its unrealistic action sequences and sympathetic portrayals of enemy combatants. The central character, "Dim," is practically calculated to offend and disgust red-state viewers--a henpecked Cornell graduate, he brings the liberal arts values and overwrought philosophical musings of his education to the battlefield in a portrayal that panders to the sentiments of the civilian viewer. What does all of this mean, popping up on a station owned by much-maligned conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch? It certainly shatters any simple theory that conservative owners force through conservative programming. Keep your eye on the guys of FX; their angst is a guide to emerging fronts in the culture wars.
Jessica Clark is a writer, editor and researcher, with more than 15 years of experience spanning commercial, educational, independent and public media production. Currently she is the Research Director for American University’s Center for Social Media. She also writes a monthly column for PBS’ MediaShift on new directions in public media. She is the author, with Tracy Van Slyke, of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (2010, New Press).