“Man at His Best” Moves to TV

Esquire launches a network for non-meathead-y dudes with cash to spare.


Courtesy of Esquire Network

On the occasion of its 80th birthday, Esquire has unwrapped a gift to itself: a new cable channel. The men’s monthly flickers to televisual life today, reaching some 75 million homes with the launch of the Esquire Network. What pleasures await the modern man as he peruses its programs?

Pretty much the same pleasures he can find elsewhere on the dial. The Esquire Network is not exactly pickaxing into virgin ground as it debuts a travel show, a cooking show, a style show, and a show about real estate. Yet this stale array is revealing in itself. Which channels already offer blanket coverage of these themes? In large part, the ones targeted at women—Bravo, Oxygen, and HGTV. It seems our aspirational lifestyle-grasping has gone unisex.

Still, this ad-friendly fare is filtered through a manly lens, yes? Surely these shows will address the nuanced concerns unique to the 21st-century dude? His hopes, his fears, his insecurities regarding silk foulard pocket squares?

I’ve now watched several pilots from the Esquire Network’s slate of fall programming. I’ve attended the glitzy Manhattan launch party. And I have emerged from a miasma of chukkas and trilbys to tell you: The dudes are all right. Modern masculinity—as portrayed by the network—is fairly non-meathead-y.

Esquire’s longtime tagline is “Man at His Best.” The prototypical Esquire guy is no callow lad. He takes his vintage cocktails spiked with a dash of introspection. The magazine’s 80th anniversary issue includes odes to smartypants icons like Steven Chu, Cornel West, Jonathan Franzen, and Ezra Klein. The Esquire man eschews the touchy-feely drumming circle mawkishness that sometimes creeps into newer dude-oriented undertakings like the Good Men Project. The magazine, and now the network, view erudition as a worthy goal and for the most part treat women as intellectual counterparts—not mere objects of lust.

Consider the first episode of The Getaway, the network’s travel show, in which various celebrities let you tag along on journeys to far-flung locales. Yes, The Soup host Joel McHale’s visit to Belfast, Ireland, is replete with very manly pursuits. He golfs, test-drives a rare DeLorean, and is emotionally transported by a whiskey shot that costs 75 pounds. The limits of McHale’s abilities as a historical interpreter become immediately apparent when, in his opening monologue, he sums up his take on Northern Ireland’s Troubles with a sarcastic “Good times.” (Later, having learned and grown, he amends his analysis of the subject by soberly concluding, “Not good times.”)

But while we might have expected an Esquire travel show to feature a squad of eligible bros popping bottles at swanky nightclubs, McHale is accompanied only by 1) his artfully mussed hair and 2) his lovely, sophisticated wife. The couple eat meals together at quiet restaurants. They tease each other affectionately over coffee. In a later episode, thinking-man’s crush Aisha Tyler tours Paris with a dose of highbrow culture and frequent mentions of her absent husband. Maxim this ain’t.

Knife Fight, the network’s cooking show, pits two chefs against each other in a culinary faceoff. In the episode I viewed, these chefs were both men, and the show connived to have them stab live catfish in the head. Dominance, violence, competition, blah blah masculine tropes blah. Yet host Ilan Hall brings a self-deprecating goofiness to the proceedings, undercutting the potential for alpha-male baloney. We’re all buddies here, jovially murdering catfish together.

While these two programs might easily nestle into the prime-time lineups of other, more gender-neutral cable networks, White Collar Brawlers seems explicitly aimed at men. It suffers as such. Each episode encourages a pair of office rivals to hash out their differences in a boxing ring. They taunt, they train, and then they bludgeon each other with flurries of punches—thrown, if not in anger, certainly in a profound state of pique. It’s nigh impossible to imagine female executives donning gloves and mouth guards to attack each other, far as we’ve come. The notion that colleagues might resort to physical intimidation to resolve disputes seems a rather male-hued conception of workplace dynamics.

What won’t you see on the Esquire Network? T-and-A. Surprisingly, the magazine that brought you Vargas Girl pinups has, at least so far, refrained from filling its airwaves with cheesecake. Flip over to Spike and its Hooters Swimsuit Pageant if that’s your cup of flesh. Even the rerun shows that Esquire pads out its schedule with—Parks and Recreation, Party Down—tend to feature strong, three-dimensional, self-respecting women.

Also notably absent: reality-show fireworks. Programs that invite us to marvel at deplorable behavior have long been a staple of female- and gay-skewing networks (and all the other networks, too). Here, you’ll find no outlandish divas, petty housewives, or terrifying stage moms. I don’t know if that’s because Esquire has determined that men just don’t dig that kind of drama or because that kind of drama is inconsistent with the Esquire brand.

My favorite of the new network’s shows is easily Boundless—the channel’s take on extreme sports. Again, the tone is restrained. No dirt bikes, skateboards, or jet-powered wingsuits. Instead, we meet a pair of mellow Canadian endurance athletes. One’s a geology Ph.D. in his mid-30s, the other a carpenter and dad in his mid-40s. They warm up by conquering a 155-mile Icelandic ultramarathon, in a show that’s less about the physical challenges and more about the camaraderie and mutual bro support. In the second episode, they attempt to paddleboard 32 miles on open ocean. They barely make it, requiring nine hours to splash their way across Hawaii’s Ka’iwi Channel. It’s a humbling experience for these down-to-earth dudes, devoid of the puffed-up invulnerability that tends to reign on other extreme sports shows.

Boundless is full of expensive destinations and high-end tactical gear. The other shows are heavy on the luxury products, too—watches, cars, sunglasses. The Esquire Network is not a place of want, or suffering, or quotidian working-class struggles. Frankly, the unifying element that knits together the network’s lineup is less testosterone and more extreme socio-economic comfort. There is a moneyed, educated, middle-aged vibe that flows through the whole enterprise. You feel it even in the stately directorial choices: the lack of anxious jump cuts and ear-assaulting music cues.

Maybe this is why NBC Universal is placing its bet on an Esquire partnership. Though we keep hearing about “cord-nevers” and the impending death of the bundled cable package, new channels remain a holy grail for entertainment execs. There are profits to be made from subscriber fees and also from demographically bull’s-eyed advertising. Niche-targeted networks continue to blossom: Fusion for Latinos, Revolt for music fans, Pivot for culturally aware millennials. Esquire hopes to deliver a platter of dudes with disposable income.

Thus all the positive takes on commerce within these shows. In Esquire’s world, men are competent, refined, but, above all, avid consumers. We never miss a chance to visit specialty clothiers or sample expensive brown liquors. We stay in boutique hotels and eat in gourmet trendstaurants. If there’s anything the Esquire Network has taught me about the meaning of modern manhood, it’s that I should probably be wearing a custom-tailored blazer. Man at his best is also man at his most acquisitive.