‘The Letdown’ and the End of Australian Men
The Australian sitcom ‘The Letdown‘, whose second season is now streaming on Netflix, presents a world where men don’t matter very much. As a male viewer, I find this pretty disturbing. My wife said, “well, now you know how women have felt for thousands of years.” But do I? At least male-run TV shows sometimes glamorize women. The men on The Letdown are about as sexy as homemade gluten-free cookies.
One male character in The Letdown, whose wife brings substantial corporate bacon, has some utility. He seems to enjoy being the main caretaker for the kids. We all know dudes like that, and goodonthem, mate. But in the world of The Letdown, this is the manly ideal. He also has a side Taskrabbit-like business where harried parents, mostly moms, hire him to put together IKEA shelves. He is thin and pale and rarely horny while his wife pals around with a hot female intern who wants a world where men no longer “whip their dicks out in the boardroom.” While that is an admirable goal, and one that appears to be achievable within the context of the show, the men of The Letdown don’t even whip out their dicks in the bathroom.
The Letdown’s creators conceived of the show as a realistic cringe comedy about the disappointments and small humiliations of early motherhood. Our heroine, Audrey, played by co-creator Alison Bell, is a befuddled and kind-of mean pseudo-intellectual who clearly thinks she’s too good for nappy-changing. In the first season, she stumbles around Sydney with her stroller, saying and doing mildly inappropriate things. It played as an authentic, and at times authentically-moving, evocation of the chaos of new parenthood.
As the second season dawns, Audrey’s sweet, doughy husband Jeremy is “on probation” for a hot new corporate job in Adelaide, and Audrey finds herself shacking with her mother, a 60-something hipster who’s starting a new business providing couples counseling for lesbians. Meanwhile, Audrey has a terrible job assessing the potential for gender-neutral toilets in public-park facilities.
At the end of Season 1, we learn that Audrey is pregnant again. As Season 2 begins, we learn that she had an abortion because her traumatic first birthing experience had left her uterus at risk of rupture. The show handles Audrey’s trauma, and denial of trauma, about her abortion with a great deal of sensitivity and subtlety. Jeremy couldn’t be sweeter or more supportive of her. Which is why I find it so strange that the show treats him badly.
Mid-season, Audrey jets out to Adelaide, leaving her baby with grandma. At a “champagne breakfast” in Southern Australian wine country, Jeremy gives her a beautiful opal ring and asks her to marry him. Apparently, they weren’t married before, which I’d forgotten. She rejects the proposal and tells him she hates opals. Then she gets hammered, breaks down sobbing, and vomits in a vineyard. Instead of telling her to piss off, Jeremy declares his undying love and says it’s OK that they don’t get married, even though that’s what he clearly wants. He continues to send her pathetic dick picks, which she continues to mock.
Then he gets mugged by three teenage girls, handing over his phone and his wallet without a hint of conflict. When his “probation” ends and his boss offers him a ballin’ six-figure job promotion, Jeremy chucks it without even a thought and returns to Sydney. He takes a much more low-paying job so Audrey can pursue a master’s degree researching representations of shame about motherhood in the media.
Am I joking? I am not.
All the mothers in Audrey’s post-natal bonding group get full plot lines and characters that have at least two and a half dimensions. As they should; this is a show about the emotional, physical, and financial burdens of motherhood. But the men in their lives, if they even have men in their lives, are ghosts. The show portrays men as weak and afraid, barely even present. A lesbian mom’s sperm donor is so desperate to be a dad that he offers up free child care so the mom can go on unlimited dates. The husband to the cutest and neediest mom in the show desperately tries to slink away at any opportunity to do God knows what. His only character detail is that he likes “authentic” French cheese. He is a skinny weenie. And Jeremy, the show’s male lead, is a weak and useless sack of potatoes.
The only male character who has any agency in The Letdown is Scott, a former meth dealer who now operates a business where he promises to get people clean by running through the 12-step program “in six steps,” for only 50 bucks. He wears wing-tips with a bad tracksuit, holds his meetings in public toilets. He’s definitely the funniest part of the show, and also fully confident and self-assertive in an old-school man sort of way. Scott even steps in and helps one of the moms who’s a little too fond of the pinot grigio. It’s no accident that he’s not a dad.
The Letdown resembles the British sitcom Catastrophe in many ways. Both feature somewhat reluctant, mostly-unlikable moms, and upper-middle-class townhomes festooned with baby shit, both virtual and literal. But Catastrophe, for all its flaws, at least featured a strong male protagonist who fought back in The Battle Of The Sexes. Rob Delaney’s character is as big an asshole as Sharon Horgan’s. This is a game where no one wins.
In The Letdown, the husband just rolls over, begging his wife to rub his belly. It’s like a reverse Handmaid’s Tale that happened organically, except the men didn’t fight back, don’t want to, and don’t think it’s necessary. They just surrendered, and, like the ghosts in The Sixth Sense, they don’t know they’re dead. In this modern telling of parenthood, Father Knows Fuck-All, and you’d better Leave It To Beaver.