Topless men may feel like today's TV trend, but the concept is nothing new. Whether part of a marketing plan to grow female audiences, or a writer's technique for building a character's story line, torso sightings began decades ago.
"Growing up, I remember watching TV with my mom and there were shirtless men," says Cosmopolitan magazine's editor-at-large John Searles. "Lorenzo Lamas on Falcon Crest, Patrick Duffy in the famous shower scene on (the original) Dallas, and Lee Majors running shirtless as The Six Million Dollar Man."
And men, it seems, are learning what it feels like to be female. "It's often said that men are the new women. Well by extension, that means 'himbos' are the new bimbos," says Men's Health editor-in-chief David Zinczenko. "Matt LeBlanc pioneered the field in Friends, but a new crowd of younger guys is taking up, and taking it off, where he left off."
It may look like eye candy, but that's not the raison d'etre for going half-bare, actors and producers say. "People are thinking, maybe it's supposed to fill up the demographic for the CW with female viewers," says Stephen Amell, who stars, often shirtless, on the network's new Arrow. "There's an element of that that's true," he adds, although his torso shots will highlight scars and tattoos that advance the story line.
Dramas aren't the only shows showing skin. The endearingly repugnant Schmidt (Max Greenfield), on Fox comedy New Girl, is often shirtless, but "it's part of the fabric of who Schmidt is," says executive producer Dave Finkel. "a bit of a narcissist. He's also a guy who has dealt with weight issues over the course of his life, so he's now gotten his body where he wants it to be (and) he's going to flaunt it," Finkel says. "It's a way of putting himself out there and seeing what he can do with it."
New Girl, Finkel says, has a large female fan base, and the "ladies love Schmidt. Most everyone loves Schmidt, but we have a very large, core female audience. It's never been a thing of 'let's pander to the masses.' ... by letting him take his shirt off.' We only do it when it's funny or character motivated. Max has a great physique but we don't want it to be a thing where we're trying to, like, prod female viewers.
And while it may not be crucial to the story line on CW's Beauty and the Beast, it is what audiences want, says native New Zealander Jay Ryan, who stars as the attractive if occasionally beastly Vincent Keller.
When the show's pilot was tested, Ryan says viewers asked, "How come the lead male actor doesn't have his shirt off in the first episode?' I knew that eventually that would be coming, so I wanted to make it very specific to the writers that the shirt comes off when there's a need for it to come off. And basically not to put all our cards on the table in the first episode."
On the premiere episode of CBS' well-regarded Sherlock Holmes re-invention Elementary, our first glimpse of the quirky detective is a shirtless one, displaying not only star Jonny Lee Miller's bare chest but also his array of real-life tattoos. "I don't really have many regrets in my life," he told reporters last summer, "but some of my choices in the '90s made for some rather time-consuming makeup calls." That's no longer the case, he says, as the tattoos fit the character, which is a "huge relief."
And seeing fit physiques on TV could inspire more men to work out, Searles notes. "If I turn on the TV and see Jesse Metcalfe (Dallas) with his shirt off, it inspires me to do 20 extra push-ups at the gym."
Tattoos or no, it isn't always easy for these guys to look that good. Most work hard for their six-pack; for others, it's nature's gift. "To be honest, it's pretty much genetics," says Chicago Fire's Taylor Kinney. "I'll do some cardio stuff to sweat and get my blood going, and then just some high-rep/low-weight dumbbell stuff. I don't have a certain regimen. If I can stay busy and put headphones on and hit it hard for 45 minutes, that's all I'm looking to do."
"From a Cosmo perspective, I think the world's caught on to what we've known all along, that there's nothing better than looking at a half-naked man," Searles says. "We were pioneers in this field. People are just catching up to our way of thinking, and we're glad."
Contributing: Andrea Mandell and Brian Truitt