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No more sports cars: How TV and film are taking a more realistic view of the male midlife crisis

TV and film have long depicted man troubles as funny sports-car-buying capers... until now. Ed Power looks at how modern shows are ditching the macho stereotypes for a more sensitive and realistic view


Unhappy campers: Tom Hollander plays a man whose wife wants to leave him in the BBC drama Us

Unhappy campers: Tom Hollander plays a man whose wife wants to leave him in the BBC drama Us

Martin Freeman in Breeders

Martin Freeman in Breeders

Us creator David Nicholls lays bare the male midlife crisis

Us creator David Nicholls lays bare the male midlife crisis


Unhappy campers: Tom Hollander plays a man whose wife wants to leave him in the BBC drama Us

If you're middle-aged and vaguely dissatisfied with life, you might want to think twice before bingeing Us. The new BBC drama from David Nicholls chronicles the quietly unravelling marriage of a couple in their 50s. It is, in that mild English way, unflinching.

It isn't that the subject matter is thunderingly original. Whether it was Ken Barlow cheating on Deirdre in Coronation Street or Alan Partridge fetching up at the Linton Travel Tavern, midlife ennui - the male variety in particular - has long been grist for popular entertainment.

But what distinguishes Us and a number of other recent shows is how sharply drawn their portrayals of midlife malaise feel. The crisis, when it comes, isn't milked for laughs. It's soaked in sadness.

This is signalled early in Us as well-meaning, but tightly wound, biochemist Douglas (Tom Hollander) is woken by wife Connie (Saskia Reeves). She wants to move out and on to something new, she explains. Connie has been a mother so long - their son is 18 and about to set off for college - that she has forgotten who she is or used to be. She needs change in her life.

Douglas is stunned. He hasn't seen it coming: her dissatisfaction with her sense of self, her disillusionment with their marriage. It's like a great big blow-up hammer descending from the heavens to thunk him over the head.

This is how your world falls apart in real life, suggests Nicholls (adapting his 2014 bestseller). Not with fanfare, but with a quiet conversation at 4am. And then that's it - everything has changed forever.

"Her confidence has grown during their relationship," is how Reeves diagnosed Connie's frame of mind in a recent interview with the The I newspaper in Britain. "She was an emotional wreck when they met, having too many late nights and bouncing from one drama to another, with too many boyfriends. Now she feels strong and brave enough to go out and live the life that she's always dreamed for herself."

Telly, as pointed out above, has been getting serious about the warts-and-all reality of midlife for a while now. In March's Breeders, Martin Freeman played a stressed dad fighting losing battles on all fronts.

At work, he was being eclipsed by glib, cut-throat millennials. He and his wife (Daisy Haggard) struggled to keep calm with their kids. His parents were turning doddery and it is clear it wouldn't be long before their health began to fail. No wonder he was so perpetually frazzled. Day by day, hour by hour, second by second, the roof was falling in.

Midlife crises have tended in the past to be depicted as a male phenomenon. That has, at last, started to change. In Us, it's Connie who wants to rip it up and start over. Sharon Horgan's Motherland, meanwhile, is frank about how the school run and competitive alpha-mums can corrode your soul. Finally, the story of women in a rut is being told with the same attention as that historically afforded to men.

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Still, the takeaway from dramas such as Us and Breeders is that the stereotypical male midlife crisis isn't the hilarious, idiot-buys-a-Porsche caper at which we've been giggling for years. Though they are largely oblivious, a deep sadness underpins the day-to-day existence of Douglas and Freeman's Paul. This is all they'll ever be and they are not at all equipped to cope with the realisation.

"The sources of midlife unhappiness can vary," says Cork-based psychotherapist Tom Evans, who runs online therapy service SelfCare.ie.

"People will often find themselves in mismatched relationships, unfulfilling careers, financial distress or struggling generally. The grumpy middle-aged man phenomenon is fair game for TV 'haymaking'. It's not a demographic that sees many run to its defence. Nor one that defends itself much either. Unfortunately, the 'lost' middle-aged man is often portrayed in an unflattering and unsympathetic light.

"The grumpy older man stereotype is portrayed so well by Martin Freeman as he exclaims angrily in Breeders: 'Nobody understands me.' In the therapy room, when anger is around, we'll describe it as a secondary emotion," says Evans.

"We'll look for the primary emotion that lies beneath. Imagine an iceberg and anger is that part above water. What lies beneath the waterline - beneath the anger are the real reasons for what's happening. It might be sadness, despair, loneliness, stress, grief, worry, regret, trauma, rejection, guilt, shame, hurt and many more possibilities. Anger has to be understood in the context of what lies beneath.

"So yes, the person whose anger is not understood in that context will feel misunderstood…[but] it is important that anger is always expressed in a way that is safe and appropriate for oneself and those around us."

There are lots of over-the-top set-pieces in Us - starting with an early sequence in which a shoeless Douglas sprints down the road after Connie. Yet it strikes at a deep-seated truth in having the dissatisfied Connie end the marriage rather than, for instance, resorting to the cliche of Douglas running off with his secretary.

"While the research shows men fall in love more easily, women are more likely to fall out of love," says Evans. "Women are generally more 'relationship sensitive' - more aware of what's happening in the relationship.

"Women are also more likely to end long-term relationships. In the US at this point, over 65pc of people have ended a long-term relationship, so the numbers who stay together 'for life' have reduced considerably.

"It's more accepted that long-term relationships are finite. Marriage has been a gender-based institution, and the traditional view is that it has favoured men. As gender constraints have fallen away economically and women are no longer as vulnerable, they are choosing to leave unsatisfying relationships."

There is no simple answer to any of the issues raised by these shows - just as there is no quick solution to growing older (and yes, sometimes grumpier). Still Us and Breeders do offer a beacon in so far as they are a reminder that middle-aged discontent is not rare. Indeed, it might be said to be part of the human condition.

"Bringing focus to the plight of the middle-aged man is a healthy and constructive thing on the whole. And it's not just helpful to middle-aged men being understood. The TV show is such a good medium to engage our consciousness and help to expand awareness. Any process that brings awareness will help the community at large.

"It's invariably helpful to understand what might be happening in another's life," says Evans. "Awareness, as always, is key."

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