Romance novels need a canon
"Bet Me" by Jennifer Crusie
A contemporary romantic comedy set to Elvis Costello and lots of luxurious and sinful sugary treats. Read the whole essay.
It’s rare for a television season to be as thoroughly dominated by one theme, one trend, as last year’s was by gender. 2011-12 was memorably, unceasingly the season of the single lady sitcom, with series like “New Girl,” “2 Broke Girls,” “Whitney” and “Girls” exploring the humor of being 20-something and frisky. 2011-12 was also less triumphantly, but not unrelatedly, the year of the sad man sitcom: Series like “Man Up,” “How to Be a Gentleman,” “Work It” and “Last Man Standing” focused on men lost in a new world order, out of touch with their machismo and regularly schooled by the much more confident women around them, exactly the sort of females popping up in all those single lady shows.
The new fall season does not have nearly the same volume of comedies with explicitly gender-oriented setups, but it does a have a few. There’s one single-lady sitcom, the pretty good “Mindy Project” (more on that when it premieres in two weeks), and one sad-man sitcom, NBC’s pretty bad Jimmy Fallon-produced “Guys With Kids,” which premieres tonight, and is the only representative of its genre I hope to see this year. The accurately titled show is a shameless bid on NBC’s part to go broad, and maybe co-opt the slightly younger, slightly more p.c. portion of the “Two and a Half Men” audience. It’s a toothless junkball of a show, the sort of uninspired, reliable series a person is meant to turn on after a long day of work, so they can turn off.
Unlike the disastrous cross-dressing series “Work It,” “Guys With Kids” is calibrated not to cause offense. It’s far too mediocre to be truly provocative even if the premise is a carefully camouflaged bit of retrograde — oh look, it’s guys dealing with their babies! How crazy. It’s not ruthlessly misogynistic, but it is set in a universe where men and women, even married ones, are at odds, and men are constantly being forced to emasculate themselves to please the women and children they love.
“Guys With Kids” stars a trio of dudes with children. Chris (Jesse Bradford) is a newly divorced, sensitive, single dad with an uptight harpie of an ex-wife. Gary (Anthony Anderson) is an exhausted, besieged stay-at-home father with four kids and Vanessa Huxtable for a wife (the character’s name is actually Marny, but one knows Vanessa when one sees her). The relatively cool, lanky Nick (Zach Cregger) is a happily married man with two kids and a stay-at-home wife (Jamie-Lynn Sigler).
The two married guys love their spouses and Chris refrains from shit-talking his wretched ex, but the pilot’s plots are all about contending with the whims of women, nonetheless. Chris’ uptight, unreasonable ex-wife walks all over him until he grows a pair and stands up to her; Gary gets abandoned with the kids by a wife with limited sympathy for his circumstance; and Nick winds up in the marital doghouse because he doesn’t grasp his wife’s need to go to a “Titanic”-themed nursery school dance. The men vs. women showdown stays polite, but the only real partners these guys have are their bros.
More damningly, “Guys With Kids” isn’t very funny, the primary joke being, again and again, Guys! With kids! How hilarious. They bring them to the bar! They bring them to the store! They make them fist-bump! Kids are such humorous props! The show is a multi-camera comedy that, like “Whitney,” announces it is taped in front of a live studio audience, lest the people watching from home think the laughter they are hearing throughout is all canned. It’s not — it was just elicited from a captive audience instructed to react to every lame joke.
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.More Willa Paskin.
"Bet Me" by Jennifer Crusie
"Welcome to Temptation" by Jennifer Crusie
Another of Crusie's romantic comedies, this one in the shadow of an ostentatiously phallic water tower. Read the whole essay.
"A Gentleman Undone" by Cecilia Grant
A Regency romance with beautifully broken people and some seriously steamy sex. Read the whole essay.
"Black Silk" by Judith Ivory
A beautifully written, exquisitely slow-building Regency; the plot is centered on a box with some very curious images, as Edward Gorey might say. Read the whole essay.
"For My Lady's Heart" by Laura Kinsale
A medieval romance, the period piece functions much like a dystopia, with the courageous lady and noble knight struggling to find happiness despite the authoritarian society. Read the whole essay.
"Sweet Disorder" by Rose Lerner
A Regency that uses the limitations on women of the time to good effect; the main character is poor and needs to sell her vote ... or rather her husband's vote. But to sell it, she needs to get a husband first ... Read the whole essay.
"Frenemy of the People" by Nora Olsen
Clarissa is sitting at an awards banquet when she suddenly realizes she likes pictures of Kimye for both Kim and Kanye and she is totally bi. So she texts to all her friends, "I am totally bi!" Drama and romance ensue ... but not quite with who she expects. I got an advanced copy of this YA lesbian romance, and I’d urge folks to reserve a copy; it’s a delight. Read the whole essay.
"The Slightest Provocation" by Pam Rosenthal
A separated couple works to reconcile against a background of political intrigue; sort of "His Gal Friday" as a spy novel set in the Regency. Read the whole essay.
"Again" by Kathleen Gilles Seidel
Set among workers on a period soap opera, it manages to be contemporary and historical both at the same time. Read the whole essay.