With the demise of the metrosexual bible Cargo and the eroded clout of most other women’s and men’s magazines, media gender niches now seem like a quaint Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus hangover from the waning years of the 20th century. None of my female friends would be caught dead watching the manipulative mush that passes for women’s programming on Lifetime or the self-realizing uplift of Oxygen, and no penis-bearing individual of my acquaintance has much time for the Grizzly Adams–damaged Outdoor Life Network or swaggering Spike TV. Instead of veering toward the middle ground, though, Oxygen and Spike have opted to up their respective doses of estrogen and testosterone, hoping to revitalize their ailing brands via strategic extremism.
Spike debuted three years ago, mutating from the little-known TNN into a supposedly macho channel—just check the heavy-handed way the name layers phallic symbolism, violence, and edge. In reality, Spike was the clichéd male equivalent of Lifetime, a place for loser guys who dreamed of watching Star Trek all day and WWE all night. This spring, Spike decided it needed bigger balls. Network honchos announced another rebranding, complete with a manly block-letter logo to replace the wimpy old cursive lettering and a new slogan, “Get More Action.” In a press release, general manager Kevin Kay elaborated on the theme: “Be it action in its conventional meaning, to action on the tables in Las Vegas, to action in the Octagon for a mixed martial arts fight, guys can expect a constant stream of action programming on Spike TV.”
Forget those poor, jilted Cargo subscribers—Spike is gunning for the Maxim crowd. It’s all about extreme pleasure, extreme carnage, and extreme hijinks. A few series recall old-school men’s mags: The Playbook, described as “the guy’s guide to being a man,” provides helpful hints on everything from barbecuing like a pro to buying a car (as in: Don’t bring your girlfriend car shopping or she will screw with your bargaining mojo). But this suave, Hefner-esque vibe has become the exception on Spike, whose spotlight shows revel in macho thrills, like the demolition derby mash-ups of Carpocalypse. Their newest series, Pros vs. Joes, pits would-be sportsmen against aging champions like Herschel Walker. However, it is Spike’s dedication to Ultimate Fighting—a vicious, grimly strenuous blend of martial arts, wrestling, and boxing—that has amped up the network’s cred. Even I found myself gripped by The Ultimate Fighter III, a reality competition entering its third season. Thick-necked wannabe pugilists train with two rival champions turned coaches. One looks for fighters with heart. The other’s self-professed style is “beating guys down” so that only the strongest survive. It’s like a roid-ragin’ version of America’s Next Top Model: The contestants bludgeon each other by day and bond by night in their communal house, each nursing the dream of becoming the next Ultimate Fighting Champion.
Spike calls itself “the first network for men,” while Oxygen similarly boasts that it’s “the only cable network owned and operated by women.” I had high hopes for the channel when it launched back in 1998. Co-founder Geraldine Laybourne promised to treat her female viewers with intelligence, giving stars such as Candace Bergen, Tracey Ullman, and Carrie Fisher their own shows. But the cheery feminism-lite belly flopped, and Oxygen became barely distinguishable from Lifetime, an endless swamp of girlish goo. Only the repeats of once groundbreaking shows like Roseanne and Absolutely Fabulous reminded us of the station’s lost potential. Over the last year, however, Oxygen has been struggling to redefine itself as the naughty women’s network—not the scantily clad sort of naughty, though; more like rebellious and mischievous. It started with Girls Behaving Badly, the network’s successful hidden-camera series in which an all-woman cast plays pranks on the public, often tweaking female foibles and taboo subjects (e.g., convincing a male mark to pick up a tampon). Soon a trickle of oddball comedies followed, like the short-lived Good Girls Don’t (originally titled My Best Friend Is a Big Fat Slut) and the partly improvised current series Campus Ladies. Co-executive-produced by Curb Your Enthusiasm star Cheryl Hines, Campus Ladies runs loopy circles around two middle-aged gals who enroll in college to experience the party-animal youth they missed out on, wielding their newly found sexual freedom like awkward, overenthusiastic adolescents.
The new watchword at Oxygen this spring is bitch. Picking up where AbFab left off, the network has just launched an evening featuring two twisted British series—Suburban Shootout and Nighty Night —packaged under the slogan “Wednesdays Are a Bitch.” One of the best and blackest comedies of last year, Nighty Night enters its second season with sociopathic hairdresser Jill Tyrell (Julia Davis) still torturing the hapless souls who cross her path, leaving one and all speechless with her virtuoso mixture of brazen cruelty and manipulative guilt-tripping. Having offed her husband at the end of last season, Jill goes on the road in lustful pursuit of Don, an almost cosmically uncharismatic doctor who is reluctantly undergoing couples therapy at a New Age retreat, ostensibly to salvage his marriage to the painfully prim and mousy Cath (Jill’s favorite victim). The resulting comedy is almost too excruciating to watch, like Curb Your Enthusiasm stripped of every last scruple.
Nighty Night finds an ideal companion in Suburban Shootout, another English series that wrings laughter out of women behaving in radically unexpected ways. The English village of Little Stempington has the lowest crime levels in the country, leaving local policemen starved for action. But beneath the town’s placid surface seethes an underworld of warring female gangsters. One housewife syndicate is knee-deep in extortion and illegal hormone peddling; the other tries to stop them while also keeping the village tidy. This is the kind of show that should run out of steam as soon as you’ve grasped the premise, but Suburban Shootout keeps on sparkling thanks to the flawless acting and clever scripts, squeezing endless laughs out of these women’s double lives. One mom turned mobster is late for a stakeout because she has to pump milk for her baby; another uses a tea tray as an impromptu shield against gunfire. And when a DJ makes the mistake of picking Little Stempington as the site for his next sound-system party, he is ambushed, robbed, and scared shitless by three faceless furies disguised beneath colorful, hand-knit wool masks. “If we hear so much as a sound of a disco rave within the parish boundary, you and your kinsfolk will be executed,” warns one of the ladies in her upper-class accent. Oxygen’s wickedly daring programming makes me think there might be some televisual life in vive la différence after all.
If you’re searching for another kind of masculinity on TV, look no further than Ed vs. Spencer (Thursdays at 11 on BBC America). Machismo is stretched to hilarious extremes in this British semi-reality show, a remake of the equally funny Canadian cult series Kenny vs. Spenny (which airs here at various times on the Game Show Network). Ed vs. Spencer features two pals fully aware of their own patheticness, forever locked in humiliating, absurd pissing wars: Two ex-snowboarders, sweet Spencer Claridge and his more piggish pal Ed Leigh, compete each week to prove who can get fattest or most famous. The two take opposite approaches: In the grueling “who can get sickest” challenge, Spencer methodically attempts to destroy his body—wearing rubber pants to encourage crotch rot, for instance—while Ed exudes a much more free-spirited, Jackass-ian attitude, hurling himself> down stairs.