Where are the males of yesteryear? TV’s Day Of The Wimp is at hand

William Casselman October 9 1978

Where are the males of yesteryear? TV’s Day Of The Wimp is at hand

William Casselman October 9 1978

Where are the males of yesteryear? TV’s Day Of The Wimp is at hand

William Casselman

In two new fall TV series, Kaz and Paper Chase, there is a male lead who is physically and sexually a hapless schnook. Both these highly touted programs need a closer look. What we find would—as my old granny used to say— gag a maggot on a gut wagon.

Consider James Hart, the law student hero of Paper Chase. He is an earnest lad, fresh from a Minnesota farm, and might be invited into the front parlor, save for one small habit: he falls on his head a lot.

Paper Chase was a successful movie first, winning an Academy Award for John Houseman as the professor of contract law at what is supposed to be Harvard. Law School. In the film Timothy Bottoms played the student Hart who has such a struggle getting through, particularly with Houseman’s Professor Kingsfield. On TV wimpy newcomer Jim Stephens goes nowhere with the part. Stephens has a blank face: the porch light is on, but there’s nobody home. The script doesn’t help. The first epi_ sode requires Stephens as “

Hart to bump into six diflt; ferent people. He knocks a l~ tray off a cafeteria table. He screws up pizza orders at his after-school job. He rides his 10-speed into the path of a girl’s car and is nearly killed. He flouts a slavering co-ed.

Part of being a wimp is feeling sorry for yourself. Hart’s fellow law students are whining little pukes who moan that the work load is too heavy. Few viewers will have the slightest pity for these embryonic shysters, since nowadays a law degree is a licence to bamboozle and overcharge frightened clients. Every student encounter in this teleplay is sticky with wimps’ self-pity. Strange. The law students I remember were cannibal barracudas ever ready to devour the flesh of their fellows.

John Houseman is a great name in American theatre. As a director he worked with Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre in the late 1930s. When Welles advanced to RKO to film Citizen Kane, he and Houseman quarrelled and separated. Now in his magnificent old age Houseman has become an actor of astounding presence. He glistened like a troll’s ruby as The Leader in Rollerball. While he recreates his movie role of Professor Kingsfield with ease and relish, the writers have made his character a bit of a wimp too.

Just how low pedagogy has sunk in North America is clear from watching Professor Kingsfield in his classroom where he demands excellence and intellectual precision. For this he is held in

startled awe by all. “Geez, he’s really weird,” pouts one mushbrain handed stiff homework. To the mouthbreathers for whom this program was conceived I suppose Kingsfield is an exotic being, as bizarre as a Cylon from Battlestar Galáctica. He is that rare thing, a good teacher or was, in the film version of Paper Chase. On TV the writers feared he might be too stern for a mass audience, so they have sentimentalized his crusty hauteur. Now, towards the end of each episode Kingsfield must perform some humble little act of wimpy goodness. In one episode the professor saw to it that a meddlesome female law student who had caused a riot in a girls’ school was dismissed in court with a suspended sentence. Such a nice man.

Ron Leibman is a proficient character actor who wrote and stars in Kaz. The show has garnered more undeserved praise than a corpse at a wake.

Kaz is an ex-con who got his law degree while doing time for breaking and entering. But is Kaz really baaaaad? As Lenny Bruce used to say: “Killin’ 13 children doesn’t make a man bad. He’s just mixed up.” Well, Kaz dashes through the halls to court, bumps into a guard and spills coffee on a girl wearing an Anne Klein original. What a playful prankster! He hands out business cards so fresh from the printer that ink blackens a receiver’s hands. In court itself, where he has not the least clue how to conduct the defence of his client, Kaz screams at the judge. Wimps are seldom mature.

The frazzled hacks who typed up Paper Chase and Kaz needed amiable protagonists, and it is a cliché of video writing that if you want to make a young male character likable, make him a klutz: make him bang into walls and urinate on the rugs, all in the name of puppy-dog brio, of course. Not since Albert glumly mounted Queen Victoria—“we shall be amused now”—has the human male appeared such a wimp. If the wimp is the only hero a mass audience will accept, then the man-hating daydreams of feminism are floating at last to the surface of our culture like malignant kelp. The night thoughts of Kate Millett and other flacks for Sappho finally make it to TV. Suddenly—ecce schlemiel—we have the new laundered tele-male, just as Kate would prefer him: a mellow booby, funny, incompetent, and devoid of testicles. Perhaps mommie had them removed at puberty, bronzed, and put next to the baby booties on the mantel.

This cauliflower bouquet of milksops means that, except in distanced fantasies like westerns and space operas, the male character can no longer be broadly appealing as a father, a leader, a sage, a forceful lover. No one wants to return to the bad old days when male chauvinist fantasies peppered the tube. But let’s keep a middle course between the brutal gronks of yore and the befuddled pantywaists dithering across our screens this fall as heroes.

William Casselman is a West Coast writer and former CBC producer.