If the 1960s sitcom "Leave It to Beaver" was suddenly transported into the 2011 fall schedule, Ward Cleaver would still clock in at the office, play golf on weekends and dote on his children.
He'd also be a nincompoop.
Watch Ward almost burn down the house while browning a pot roast. Watch Ward screw up his love life. Watch Ward lie awake all night worrying about the evil influences of Eddie Haskell.
Father no longer knows best. He knows nothing.
Of the new sitcoms launching this season, more than half a dozen feature male characters questioning their masculinity and their place in a "woman's world." On NBC's "Free Agents," a recently divorced sad sack (Hank Azaria) bawls every time he has sex. On NBC's "Up All Night," it's the new mother who goes to work while dad stays home to change the diapers. On ABC's midseason replacement "Work It," two unemployed guys drown their sorrows by complaining about how women are snagging all the good jobs.
"When women take over, they'll make pride illegal," says one character. "Along with eating on the toilet."
And while "Two and a Half Men" isn't exactly new, consider this: Charlie Sheen's smug ladies' man is being replaced by Ashton Kutcher's heartbroken nerd.
Some of these guys seem almost embarrassed to be part of the trend. "Last Man Standing" star Tim Allen swears his follow-up to "Home Improvement" is different, despite the show's premise: A world traveler loses his job and must spend more time at home with his four daughters.
"It's buffoonery," he said. "I'm going to go out on a limb and say we're not going to do that kind of show. The tide keeps going that way, but we're not going to do it."
How much do you want to bet that by December his character will be baking cookies and braiding hair?
Other actors applaud the rise in supersensitive male roles, if only because it accurately reflects their own conflicted lives.
"I think it might be reflecting society -- men are being allowed to show their vulnerability and admit that they have no idea what they're doing," said "Free Agents" crybaby Azaria. "I mean, when I was divorced [from Helen Hunt], I was doing worse than my character."
ABC's "Man Up!" may be this season's most obvious example. It features three male leads in different stages of relationships. The one thing they have in common? A sneaky suspicion that they're all on the verge of getting neutered.
Teri Polo, a regular on the series (and best known as Ben Stiller's wife in the "Meet the Parents" movies), said the story line reminds her of Susan Faludi's book "Backlash."
"Her theory," Polo said, "is that things went so extreme with the women's movement that there was this severe backlash and there were several generations of men who lost what it was to be men. 'What the heck are we doing? Who are we supposed to be? Are we supposed to open doors? Are we not supposed to open doors? Who should be treated like who?'"
Polo may end up benefiting from the trend. As males fret and fuss, females get to flex their muscle.
Of the 25 scripted shows debuting over the next few weeks, 15 of them showcase women, from Rachel Bilson's plucky country doctor in CW's "Hart of Dixie" to Maria Bello's tough-talking detective in NBC's "Prime Suspect."
Comedian Whitney Cummings, who created two new shows -- NBC's "Whitney" (which she stars in) and CBS's "2 Broke Girls" -- said Hollywood is finally allowing women to break out of stereotypical roles both in front of and behind the camera.
"I was a writer on the 'Comedy Central Roasts' for a while and I always wrote the jokes that people assumed the men would write," said Cummings. "Men don't always write like men and women don't always write what you would expect from women."
Strength in numbers
The industry may be giving women more power simply because the female audience is attractive to advertisers.
Fact is, prime-time TV is a woman's world. Of the viewing audience, 60 to 65 percent is female, estimates FX president John Landgraf.
Cambridge Marketing, a consulting firm recently acquired by Nielsen, has identified a demographic it calls "program passionates." These viewers are the most likely to record their favorite shows. They boast the highest median income of any audience segment -- and are twice as likely to be women.
After rebounding from the cellar years ago with "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy," ABC now openly sells itself as the network for "empowered women."
"Advertisers know that we can deliver affluent women with shows that are aspirational, with great storytelling," said ABC president Paul Lee.
The industry still has a long way to go. According to a San Diego State University study, women accounted for just 15 percent of the writing staffs on prime-time dramas, comedies and reality shows last season and only 11 percent of the directing jobs. That's actually lower than the previous season.
But there's reason for optimism. Six of the 10 new fall sitcoms were created by women. And the creators of ABC's "Revenge," a contemporary take on "The Count of Monte Cristo," got the green light only after they agreed to change the lead character to a woman.
This could be the season for significant progress in creating deeper, more complex characters for both genders, news that will have everyone smiling. Even male crybabies.
- Follow Justin on Twitter: @nealjustin