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The year of living Brainlessly

Date: 28/09/1996
Words: 1000
          Publication: Sun Herald
Section: Television
Page: 4
When was the last time you saw a TV bloke behave with intelligence and sensitivity? MATT CONDON finds macho man has been replaced by moron man

You can see it straight away in Billy's eyes. Billy, the boofhead, in Melrose Place. His face has the same intellectual range as a cow being milked, or a dog waiting for a Meaty Bite, or a buffalo with all four legs stuck in a swamp.

You just know, in an instant, that there is nothing behind Billy's irises. They are as full of life and knowledge as two glace cherries stuck on the top of a grapefruit.

His actions, too, say it all. In the great tradition of dumb males, Billy spends 99 per cent of his waking hours scheming his way around the bleeding obvious. There's his endless pursuit of ex-girlfriend Alison (now he's finally realised he loves her after all), his daily attempts to outwit his bitchy boss Amanda in the piranha pool of the advertising world, the void that is his emotional intelligence. You can almost hear his few brain cogs turning around beneath the bouffant hair.

Startlingly, Billy is not alone. TV in the mid-90s is awash with brainless blokes. There are male fools, buffoons and laughing stocks everywhere you look, from soaps and sitcoms to commercials.

While the idiot is a long-time staple of soaps and sitcoms, the dumb man has finally become a fixture on our TV sets.

There are the commercials: in the ads for Yellow Pages, one particularly thick bloke uses the current phone book to pack crockery while moving house, while another stands on the books to plug a leak. How is he going to find the plumber's number?

And what about the guy who sits down to watch the footy, only to find written instructions on how to do the laundry and make a sandwich with cream cheese?

Then there are the characters: Seinfeld's hapless George Costanza, Mad About You's Paul Buchmann, Roseanne's Dan Connor, Friends' Joey Tribbiani and Ross Geller, Murphy Brown's paranoid producer Miles Silverberg - and let's face it, Home Improvement's Tim Taylor can barely find his way around the toolshed, let alone the kitchen.

Invariably, these male goons are seen in a familiar pattern of behaviour. Firstly, there is the assumption on the part of the goon that he knows everything and is in complete control of his life. This, naturally, establishes the framework for the gags.

Miles in Murphy Brown, for example, is one of those neurotic, highly strung individuals. He is under a delusion regarding his own competence as a TV producer. He believes he can produce Murphy's show with sharp sophistication. It takes nothing more than a sarcastic jab from Murphy to burst the balloon of his self-perception.

Likewise with George from Seinfeld, yet another high-wired character who is dumb enough to believe his view of the world is absolutely correct. Problem is, the rest of the world sees George as a splinter under the skin. When his illusion meets reality, chaos ensues.

Home Improvement's Tim may wield an electric drill with style, but he needs his wife to tie his shoelaces.

But which remedial school has produced this posse of brain-dead blokes? And why are we seeing the concurrent rise of powerful female characters, in both drama and comedy programs, such as Cybill, Ellen, Melrose Place, Halifax f.p. and Central Park West. Check out those shoulder pads!

Head of drama at the Seven Network, John Holmes, said the emergence of the dumb man/smart woman combo reflected changing attitudes to sexual equality.

"I guess female actors would suggest that this is an equalising situation, rather than just the rise of the powerful female character," he chuckled. "Until recently there just weren't very many meaty roles for females.

"I'm currently working on a drama with a female homicide detective in the lead. There's no question that the increase in strong female roles is great for drama."

Judith John-Story, head of drama development at Beyond International, co-producer of Fire and Medivac, suggests the emergence of the guileless guy is part of a politically motivated female backlash and will pass like any social trend.

So, whatever happened to the days when father knew best and Mike Brady's word was law on The Brady Bunch? Would his eyelid-batting blonde wife, Carol, dare challenge him? No way.

Over the years dumb women have not only become politically incorrect, they've also become like the corny old joke endlessly repeated at Christmas parties. Everyone's heard it before and it's passe.

And, according to screenwriter and director Morris Murphy, dumb men are funnier than their female counterparts.

"It's basically easier to construct a dumb male character than a dumb female character," he said. "Usually, the dumb girls are attractive - you rarely have an unattractive dumb girl. But the history of dumb women on TV has not been great for a very long time. You can't pull enough laughs with them. It's not about gender in the end, it's about how many gags you can pull."

As with the brainless bimbo, the dumb but endearingly cute kid has also been shown the studio door.

"American TV has finally pulled away from dumb kids ... you know, the shows featuring 28-year-old dwarves playing kids," Murphy said. "Dumb men are now filling that role."

Politically motivated or not, the dumb man is having a renaissance which will probably go unabated for some time. In essence, the shows and advertisements deliberately target the so-called traditional male areas of expertise. Look at Friends' Joey. He may be a super-studly gym devotee with abdominals you could bounce a $1 coin on, but all his looks have got him so far is a poster advertising the dangers of venereal disease and a role in a movie playing Robert De Niro's nude body double.

The boofy blokes from The Footy Show send up the sport's lack of intellectual giants. This is the age of the imperfect male. Male myths are being studied and dismantled in the guise of comedy half-hours and 30-second advertisements for anything from motor cars to food stuffs.

What we need now is an indentification symbol for these programs, in case the really dumb blokes out there don't recognise the social change beneath the satire.

Perhaps a small dunce's cap beside the ratings for sex, violence and nudity in the listing of these programs would suffice.


Male characters aren't always just fools, sometimes they're fools for love.Jake Hanson - Melrose Place.

He started out dating the whipsmart Jo, who quickly realised there wasn't a lot going on behind those baby blues. Then he fell for Amanda, who walked all over him. He had a good thing going with Jane until he did the ultimate dumb man thing - slept with her personal assistant, who blabbed.

Travis Nash - Home And Away

A drifter who arrived in Summer Bay and promptly shacked up with feisty young intern Kelly, Travis' rampant stupidity keeps upsetting the balance. He loves Kelly, but can't understand why she has to work such long hours. Hello? She's a doctor, right?

Ross Geller - Friends

The ultimate love sap, Ross married a woman who became pregnant then proclaimed her love for another ... woman. Yes, Ross married a lesbian. And just when he's getting over his marital woes, he falls for flighty waitress Rachel. He loves her, everyone knows he loves her, but she has absolutely no idea.

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