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The Esquire Network's Shallow Idea of Modern Manhood

From the brutal ambition of "Breaking Bad" to the hangdog masculinity of "Louie," the current TV landscape is full of different models of manhood. And now there is an entire network devoted to asserting a suaver kind of manliness: the Esquire Network, launching Monday. The network, which will replace the Style channel, is an attempt to stake out a new brand and a new demographic—men ages 18 to 49 who are “stylish, sexy, and smart” and unlikely to tune into the more "downmarket" programming on Spike. In its own words, the network “champions the pursuit of a well-made life.” "Well-made life” says it all. Esquire Network is a world in which image and composition are everything, down to the filter on your Instagram and the angle of your pageboy cap. It might be the shallowest idea of modern manhood ever advanced on male-oriented TV. 

The network’s starting lineup includes “Knife Fight,” a cooking show hosted by one-time “Top Chef” winner Ilan Hall, “Brew Dogs,” a travel series featuring two U.K. beer experts, and “The Getaway,” produced by Anthony Bourdain, which sends famous people to eat and drink their way through assorted international destinations: Joel McHale to Belfast, Aziz Ansari to Hong Kong, Aisha Tyler to Paris. (Esquire magazine contributed its brand and cross-promotion along with an excellent two-hour special about its history featuring interviews with Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese—but no creative direction.) A show called “Boundless” stars two friends who enter seven endurance events in five months: an Ironman in Thailand, a 142-mile race through Cambodian jungles.

On “Knife Fight,” the dueling chefs wear thick-framed glasses and grungy camo jackets with dog tags. The surprise ingredients include razor clams, live catfish, and kohlrabi. On “Brew Dogs” the hosts drop half-jokey asides such as  “If you want to know every little detail about how beer is made, you can fuckin Google it.” One beer they sample is called “Arrogant Bastard Ale.” On the whole there are many complicated beards and many tattoos snaking out from beneath the cuffs of short-sleeve button-downs. By the end of an episode it’s hard to not to be exhausted from all the postured cool.

These are all shows that feel totally familiar, but papered over with an aesthetic that seems like a somewhat misguided interpretation of the magazine itself, all stylish sheen without the substance. “Knife Fight” is every cooking show you’ve ever seen. “The Getaway” is a standard issue travel series made marginally quirkier depending on the celebrity host (seeing Aziz Ansari get fitted with a custom-made Hong Kong suit is a highlight). The most distinctive feature of the network might be the way signposts of testosterone are clunkily imposed, as if to prevent the show from slipping too far into the metrosexual. (That mission is not accomplished.) On “Knife Fight,” Ilan Hall conducts one interview on a soccer field with no explanation, the two men kicking a ball back and forth as they talk. And for a network designed for cosmopolitan men, Esquire sure likes its battlefield analogies. Hall talks about “turning my kitchen into an after-hours war zone.” “FIGHT!” an audience member screams at one point, as the razor clams simmer. On one episode of “Brew Dogs,” we’re told these men will “risk life and limb to find the right ingredients.”

It's a long way from the original man-centric network, Spike TV, the drunken frat house to Esquire network’s gastropub. When Spike TV launched in 2003 it played "Baywatch" reruns and a lot of shows about wrestling. But from the beginning its core programming was crazily original—it went out on a limb to broadcast shows ("The Joe Schmo Show," "American Digger," "Urban Tarzan") that were so outrageous and macho that they looked like nothing else you’d seen on TV. Now just called “Spike,” the network is celebrating a decade on the air. And perhaps the best male-oriented network currently on the air, FX (home to “Sons of Anarchy,” “The League,” and “Louie”), recently changed its slogan to “Fearless”—not an unfair description of its programming, which is daring and strange.

By comparison, Esquire is dully safe. The whole thing feels like a bunch of old cultural tropes recycled and repurposed, down to the slogan: “You only live once. But if you really live, once is all you need.” Along with branding itself against the “one-dimensional” masculinity of Spike, the network has called itself an “upscale Bravo for men.” Yet Bravo is entertaining because, despite the cartoon opulence, its characters are a mess; it’s not intended to be aspirational so much as reassuring—we end up grateful for our own normal, quieter lives. Esquire, meanwhile, has set out to conjure an image of perfect urban manliness, the actualized dream of a life spent coasting from craft brewery to craft brewery. But it turns out that the "well-made life" is just not that much fun to watch.

Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic. Follow her @lbennett. 

Image courtesy of shutterstock.