The Mind of the Married Man

It would be interesting, wouldn't it, to watch oneself watching TV, to see the muddy mirror that the face offers the screen, the weird and slavish half-reactions flickering across it, the shadows of infant anxiety and sudden, twitchy brightenings--like a dreamer with his eyes open. I'd like to have had a camera trained on my face, for example, as I sat next to my wife and watched the first episode of HBO's new comedy The Mind of the Married Man.

It opens with two guys walking and talking in Chicago. "Donna found porn on your computer?" says one, amused.

"Yeah," says the other, dejected.

"Pornography?" asks the first.

"Yeah!" says the second.

"What kind?"

We laughed, my wife and I, but it was tight and cerebral laughter, high in the chest. (Did your spouse ever find porn on your computer? Mine did. I believe that most marriages with Internet access have, sooner or later, to make their accommodation with pornography.) So anyway, we laughed, and it was the sound not of mirth or joy but of cultural expiation--a grunt here and a quack there--as the offending areas were probed.

Bull's-eye, one supposes, for Mike Binder: creator, executive producer, and occasional writer for The Mind of the Married Man. A married couple wincing on their couch surely signifies a target well struck; and everything about the show, from its stevedore language to its rampant sexuality, proclaims its assault on coziness. Binder, an actor and comedian, also plays Micky Barnes, his Mind's central character.

Micky is a star columnist on a Chicago newspaper, a married father of one, who divides his time between manly badinage with his buddies Jake and Doug (both also married) and complicated spats with his wife Donna. The spats tend to take place in Micky and Donna's apartment, by lamplight, while the badinage is generally conducted in the open air, between mighty midwestern buildings. Wrapped in their luxury coats, raffishly tousled by the big-city winds, Jake, Doug, and Micky stride across Chicago's bridges, the iron ringing under their well-shod feet. Guys, powerful guys, colossi of maleness. They gnaw grandly on street food. They stand with their feet on the gleaming bar-rail, going, "Haw, haw, haw," or round the pool table, passing the cue like a ceremonial rod of speech.

They're not characters so much as ambulant shards of a single character, a single married man, comprising among them a strict Freudian trinity: There's Jake the Id, long-nosed, philandering, and full of wicked suggestion, tawny sideburns gripping his face like a pair of magnificent golden-brown forceps; there's the Superego Doug, monogamous and prescriptive ("You must make your mind into a fortress!"); and then, in constant negotiation with these two, buffeted by desire, there's Micky, the rumpled and fast-talking Ego. As they swagger through the city, little Micky is the one in the middle, bumping along, taking counsel from either side. Into his life comes a troublingly beautiful secretary, Missy. He hires her, then fires her, then rehires her. He thinks he may be in love with her. He is addled and his mind roams. One admires the directness of this setup, its clean lines: Jake will always say, "Fuck her!" (to be precise: "Fuck the shit out of her!"). Doug will always say, "Don't fuck her!" And Micky will never know what to do.

Television is the right medium for all this. Mind uses visions, flashed asides, and dream conversations to make its point; Micky stares at Missy's behind and is immediately assaulted with jump-cut images of her bucking ecstatically in his lap. At night she appears at the end of his bed, bathed in unreal light and offering him many forms of dalliance and surrender. These are tricks too trivial for the cinema; but the small screen, that mob in a box, adores them. Micky's wife Donna, incidentally, is British, although this turns out not to be incidental at all. A lone British voice amid the general mooing and roaring of American conversation always sounds a little flat, somewhat sat-upon and unavailable to excitement, and Mind uses Donna's Britishness as a foil to her husband's volatility. Those sour vowels, those narrow, front-of-the mouth ls and rs are little nails in the coffin of Micky's illusions. While he disappears into his multicolored sex-fugues, she is constant, unfantastic, and full of immediate demands. She wants more quality time with him; she wants more emotional engagement. Slumped on the toilet, she announces that she'd like to have a second baby. They share not a marriage but a metamarriage--an endlessly examined contract full of where-d'you-think-you're-goings and what-are-you-sayings. Utterance is tightly policed ("I shouldn't have said that! I'm sorry!"). Stinky diapers, sexual suffocation.

So Micky rushes into the streets, into the bars, into the bearish embrace of guydom. But what guys these are. The most commercially successful archetype of manhood in recent times has been the version advanced by the British author Nick Hornby in works like the novel (and film) High Fidelity. Hornby's heroes are pale, guilty men in verbally charged flight from "commitment," dreamy and arrested bachelors who flesh out their hollow existences with the shabby detritus of maleness (out-of-print albums, soccer programs, and the like). I have long maintained that Hornby Man is a disastrous evolutionary misstep; but faced with the guys in Mind, with their boorish backchat and the scrotal ugliness of their humor, I actually missed him. I missed Hornby Man, holed up with his worn vinyl, making his lists. In this company, his inadequacies seem hermetic and passionate. Consider the following exchange from Mind (spoken, this time, over the gleaming bar-rail); the topic of the hour is hand jobs, and the opinion has just been noisily advanced that a hand job in a massage parlor does not constitute an act of marital infidelity.

"Oh no?" says Doug (the Superego, as you remember). "Oh no? What would you say if your wife paid someone 50 bucks to make her come?"

"If it was your wife," comes the reply, "I'd tell him to wash his finger."

"If it was your wife," comes the rejoinder, "I'd tell him to cut it off."

This is followed by loud yucks and backslapping and drinks all round. Is it the snot-whine of phobia in those lines that makes them so ugly? Or is it the fact that these tough guys are content to hear their wives so cordially abused? (Hornby Man, bless him, if he had not already fled the bar, would be in tears at this point.)

It doesn't do to lean too hard on a fledgling comedy; these things take time, and the first few episodes will inevitably wear an aspect of slight strain, as if everybody's wearing a touch too much makeup or talking a little too loudly. The problem with Mind--and I've thought hard about this--is that it isn't funny. Slick, certainly, and interesting--one watches in a kind of gnarled fascination--but not funny. Nor is there any prospect of it getting funnier, because being funny, it seems, is no longer the point. The point is splayed libidos and the high gas that escapes from punctured taboos: rough talk and ruthless honesty. The makers of Mind are not out to quake the fundament of our humor; they want us squirming. The point is discomfort, which might lead to betterment, were we not, alas, so in love with our discomfort. Perhaps this is the real problem: the sense that, for all his writhing and plaint--"Sometimes my head just gets full of stupid stuff!" whines Micky--the married man is secretly proud that lust has singled him out, that sex can't leave him alone. The glibness of the writing confirms this, giving even the most confessional moments the limelit glow of narcissism.

To be fair, Mind contains its dissenting voices. Micky's boss at the newspaper--a weary, somewhat priestly presence with a prostate "the size of a Chicago Bears practice ball"--admonishes him to be a "stand-up guy" and commit to his marriage. On the other hand, his Asian masseuse assures him (on the slenderest of evidence, it must be said) that he is a "very nice man" who simply worries too much. Then she offers him a hand job. There is a coarseness about this show that precludes insight, and it's not the coarseness of profanity or flaming horniness, but the coarseness of restricted imagination--an imagination rigid and tumescent, "running 80 channels of porn," as Micky complains at one point, but more important, leaving them all on.

As for me, I'll keep watching. I want to see what happens to these fuckers.