In two decades of TV acting, Courtney Thorne-Smith has never stopped looking like a cheerleader. She has the kind of large, startled eyes that suggest school spirit (this look of bug-eyed alacrity grew to almost supernatural intensity during her starvation years on Ally McBeal) and a sturdy jaw that appears custom-tooled for the cheerleader’s main task of spelling out inspirational words very, very loudly. But for Cheryl, Smith’s character in the ABC series According to Jim (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET), it’s as if her cheerleaderly aspirations have suffered a perverse cosmic scramble and she ended up married not to the equally simple and beautiful quarterback everyone expected her to marry, but to the boorish, buffalo-faced center who puts his hands between his expansive ass cheeks on every play. Cheryl is married to Jim, and Jim is played by Jim Belushi.
It’s a family sitcom tradition that spouses are ill-matched looks-wise, but until recently, the mismatch has usually consisted of a beautiful actress, whose glamour is partly obscured behind the clutter of everyday life, and a comparatively plain actor. Think golden-haired Meredith Baxter Birney and undistinguished Michael Gross on Family Ties or dishy Suzanne Pleshette and the comically featureless Bob Newhart in the original Bob Newhart Show. In these sitcom marriages, the husband was at least shown to compensate for his obvious lack of studliness by being what Tony Soprano would call a good earner—or at the very least a mensch.
In the current sitcom lineup, by contrast, several shows pair extremely attractive women, who are often clad in plunging tops and tight jeans suitable for a Maxim photo spread, with TV husbands who are not only not studly, but downright fat, and a couple who are not only not mensches, but are ugly on the inside, too. On The King of Queens (CBS, Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET), smoldering working-class babe Carrie (Leah Remini) is paired with beer-gutted Doug (Kevin James). On Grounded for Life (WB, Fridays, 8:30 p.m. ET), the lovely, voluptuous Claudia (Megyn Price—my favorite), is paired with the dumpy and scraggly-bearded Sean (Donal Logue). Perhaps the most jarringly incongruous couple appears on Still Standing (CBS, Mondays, 8 p.m. ET), in which Judy (legendary ‘80s hottie Jamie Gertz) is married to the surly Bill (rotund, high-voiced English actor Mark Addy, whose character sounds just a little too English to be from Chicago). Bill is a scurrilous (and not terribly funny) creation, unpleasant even to listen to.
In addition to their girth, a signal characteristic of these men is immaturity. Most of them are unable to master the simplest daily tasks. A recent episode of Grounded for Life was propelled by Sean’s inability to take a phone message while a typical King of Queens knee-slapper was fueled by Doug’s inability to keep his hands off a co-worker’s Koosh ball, which he, of course, loses. And virtually every episode of According to Jim is sparked by Jim’s selfishness and impulsiveness—he fights with Santa and the next-door neighbor; he pouts about having to give up his vices so Cheryl can get pregnant. Indeed, the promixity of these men to their childhood selves is often directly invoked. In a recent episode of King of Queens, for example, Doug’s dad visits for a model train convention, which dredges up bitter memories about how as a child, Doug was not allowed—I am not making this up—to play with his dad’s train. When Dad is called away from the convention and Doug offers to fill in for him, Dad is still reluctant to let his dumb-ass son work the controls. (And when he does, Doug promptly destroys the train set, along with its fake mountain landscape setting. See what happens when you play with Daddy’s train?) Perhaps, then, actors like Mark Addy and Kevin James are best suited for these roles not only because they portray a fantasy life for couch potato male viewers—for a half-hour a week, you can be 300 pounds and still imagine yourself married to Jamie Gertz!—but also because their proportions, with their ample torsos and short and apparently useless limbs, approximate those of babies.
It’s not that there aren’t handsome or sexually desirable men on sitcoms, but these men are typically marked as terminal bachelors, like Ted Danson on Cheers. To the extent they have anything to do with family life, they tend to skulk around its outer margins like coyotes. On Two and Half Men (CBS, Mondays, 9:30 p.m. ET), Charlie (Charlie Sheen) is handsome, successful, and wedded to promiscuous bachelorhood, but he gets to enjoy some nourishing familial scraps since his loser brother (Jon Cryer) and scampy nephew moved themselves into his pad. (In keeping with the Maxim ethos of these shows, the brother was abandoned by a woman who thinks she might be a lesbian. It would be emasculating for male viewers to see a man dumped for being completely undesirable, and, besides, lesbians are so hot.) Likewise, on Grounded for Life the schlumpy husband has a smoother bachelor brother, Eddie (Kevin Corrigan), who lurks around the house and functions as a Casanova alter ego. This really works in Grounded for Life, thanks to the slithery Corrigan, who is probably the best thing about any of these shows. (On According to Jim and Still Standing, the single sibling is an attractive but romantically hopeless sister of the wife. That’s the choice: fat guy vs. spinsterhood.)
Since these pairings could not conceivably reflect the sexual or romantic desires of the female protagonists, they look a bit like arranged marriages. Yet in arranged marriages the pairing generally springs from a glut of intention—the long-term planning of parents, future in-laws, and other relatives. The sitcom pairing, by contrast, reflects the absence of intention, some past moment in which fate seems to have arbitrarily asserted itself. It’s not the merciless fate of tragedy, but a kind of blind and stupid fate, a fate that a person can—with enough forbearance and, yes, laughter—live with. The back story in Grounded for Life is that Sean got Claudia pregnant when they were teenagers and they decided to get married and have the baby. In Still Standing, the greater unfathomableness of the marriage requires an even more perverse set of circumstances to explain it. This explanation arrives at the beginning of one episode when Bill, after directing a morning greeting to his wife and children, turns his malevolence on his sister-in-law. “Hello, loved ones … and tolerated one,” he says, and she retorts, “Hello, lifelong consequence of my sister’s attempt to make another man jealous.” The best-laid plans … end up with Jamie Gertz married to Mark Addy.
It’s tempting to register a feminist complaint about the message these shows convey—that they perpetuate the view that women shouldn’t expect autonomy or fulfillment in romance and marriage. They do, after all, play to a certain male fantasy: living the gluttonous, irresponsible, self-absorbed life of an infant and basking in the unconditional love of a good-looking woman.
But it’s not just men watching these shows, and, as Alessandra Stanley suggested in a review of the country western sitcom Rodney, it’s not just a male id they express. As the bitter, recent book The Bitch in the House and the extreme popularity of the delightful, tendentious Desperate Housewives seem to indicate, the war of the sexes has shifted from the workplace back to the household and the bedroom. In portraying husbands as lousy parents, marginal breadwinners, and repellant sexual partners, the fat-husband sitcoms convey a persecution fantasy that rises from the same swamp of resentments as these books do: “Yes, I’m supercompetent and I even look great, despite all the crap I have to deal with, and, yes, that’s my husband over there, the fat, useless one scratching his nuts.”
If family sitcoms really are a Rorschach blot for their male and female viewers, then we’re either in really bad shape or coping surprisingly well—in the same scenarios in which women perhaps identify their own desperation and martyrdom, men seem to find sweet, elemental fulfillment.