Kenan Thompson, Regé-Jean Page, Martin Freeman Weigh in on Showcasing New Shades of Masculinity on TV

·5-min read

With allegations of abuse and inappropriate behavior against men emerging on a seemingly weekly basis in the news, men’s actions both at home and in the workplace are coming under much-needed scrutiny. Amid this increased attention, TV viewers were perhaps shocked by the arrival of a show like Apple TV Plus’ “Ted Lasso,” which places a man who is as good as 24 karat gold at the center of the narrative.

Jason Sudeikis plays the soccer (or football if you’re across the pond) coach with an earnestness that has won over audiences around the globe and propelled him into serious contention for a lead comedy actor prize at the Emmys. And while perhaps not as saintly as Lasso, several of this year’s other top contenders also play characters that people look to as role models — men who are examples of a healthier version of masculinity.

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One such performance comes from “Bridgerton” break-out Regé-Jean Page, who plays Simon Bassett, the dashing duke of Hastings in the Netflix hit. Simon is at the very center of the show’s fictional high society, and is coveted by every young lady around, as well as their mothers. But his good looks and roguishness belies an inside wounded by a traumatic childhood.

Page describes Simon’s arc throughout the series as one of “finding strength in vulnerability,” which presents a much-needed “redefining of what manhood can be.”

“At first, it’s defined by nothing more than hating himself enough to get through a day, and by the end, it’s defined by trusting the wholeness of himself enough that he can offer it to another human being, and that’s huge,” Page says. “I would say that’s at the center of masculinity in the 21st century: How do you become comfortable enough that you can feel stronger by opening up to another human being, rather than the instinct, which is, the more closed off you are, the stronger you are because you’re not vulnerable?”

And then there’s Kenan Thompson’s character in his self-titled NBC show, for whom the pressure of being a role model is twofold: firstly, as a widowed father to two young daughters, and secondly as the public-facing host of a morning TV show.

Thompson says he wanted the character to showcase that balancing act of being a young professional while maintaining the “warm embrace of a family unit.”

“I definitely wanted to put a shine on young, affluent, Black brothers who are doing their thing as far as parenting, as well as their professional careers,” Thompson says. “As far as preparing lunches and meals and checking in with the kids, it makes it look easier when I’m doing it on TV because I’ve been in those shoes and I was probably in those shoes that day when we were shooting.”

A common theme of these characters is men’s struggles to express their emotions and deal with them, and Thompson specifically notes a desire to use the character and show to say, “it’s OK to talk about your feelings.”

“We’re trying to relieve that overall misconception that talking about or embracing your emotions might make you weak or something like that,” he explains.

In Season 2 of “Breeders,” Martin Freeman’s character Paul rattles his way through several therapists, unable to open up and get what he wants out of their sessions. He also has to come to terms with the fact his son Luke (Alex Eastwood) is suffering from anxiety and spending long afternoons in the park by himself. Although Paul used to be a bit of a bird-photographing loner himself, he is still ill-equipped to handle his son’s revelation.

“It’s a big shock when Paul and Ally (played by Daisy Haggard) find out that Luke is finding comfort completely on his own. He’s not doing the things they imagined he’s doing: he’s not going off with girls or drinking alcohol. It’s different and that’s a surprise for Paul because he doesn’t know how to deal with it,” Freeman says.

Paul is far from perfect; he struggles to understand and is often quick to anger. But some of that can be attributed to the fact that parenting is an “act of making it up as you go along,” as Freeman puts it. Additionally each generation can only do a little better than the one before it, with that one as an example. And Paul’s father, Jim (Alun Armstrong), certainly was far from perfect, as well.

“Jim is a very decent, good bloke, but he is able to say to Paul, ‘This stuff wasn’t even an issue when I was trying to bring you up.’ To be fair, he wasn’t doing much of the bringing up — he wasn’t tying himself up in knots worrying about the sort of stuff Paul is worrying about now,” Freeman says. “It’s safe to say that if Paul had had anxiety as a teenager, he wouldn’t have gotten a lot of change from Jim.”

The important thing for these fictional characters, and the reallife men who portray them, is to listen, says Page. Then, they can pave a better way forward for themselves and others.

By the end of the first season of “Bridgerton,” Page notes, Simon has “learned to listen to Daphne and realize there might be things in the world [he doesn’t] already know. He thinks, ‘Maybe I can change and through that, grow.’ If you’re defensive, you defend what you have, but you get nothing more. You don’t get bigger. If you’re open, you’re vulnerable — but vulnerable to being changed and to being a better man.”

Angelique Jackson and Danielle Turchiano contributed to this report.

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