Premiering tonight on TNT is the new dramedy series, Men of a Certain Age, which comes from Emmy winners Ray Romano and Mike Royce, one of the executive producers and writers on Romano’s hit sitcom, Everybody Love Raymond. Those of you expecting material similar to what you saw on that beloved CBS comedy series are in for a surprise. Men of a Certain is a sincere, heartfelt show that isn’t all about laughs but instead is a thoughtful look at three men, friends from college, living in southern California and dealing with their lives as they rapidly approach fifty. It’s one of those rare television series in which there are no doctors or cops or lawyers or gangsters or supernatural elements. Men of a Certain Age deals with regular people living regular lives dealing with the same struggles we all do. With characters that are relatable, likable, and layered, the show may be one of the best series to air this fall.
Romano plays Joe, a slightly neurotic, recently separated father of two who runs a party supply store. Joe struggles with a gambling problem that was the root of his failed marriage. As the series begins he’s living in a hotel and still pines for his wife Sonia (Penelope Ann Miller), but considers dipping his toes into the dating pool. Romano is quite good at showing his dramatic side. In Joe we see someone who desperately wants to be a good man and does his best to be a good role model to his two adolescent kids. But he harbors an addiction that eats away at him. In the second episode, when Joe bets heavy on a basketball game, all of his anger and self loathing is taken out on an inflatable Hulk doll. That scene begins in a half joking tone, then quickly turns dark as Joe slips into a rage. It’s a stark performance, and Romano quickly makes you forget about his old sitcom.
Scott Bakula, who became a star on Quantum Leap and Star Trek: Enterprise, is Terry, a laid-back, good looking actor whose prime years of work have passed him by. He spends more time working as a temp than attending auditions. Terry is single, scoffing at domesticity, but is coming to the realization that being a bachelor may not be what he wants anymore. Bakula is perfectly cast as Terry, the aging actor whose career may be dried up. With creases around his eyes and on his face, and a hair that isn’t as full as it used to be, Bakula manages to make Terry deeper than his stock character description. Beneath his handsome face is a sadness that draws you in.
Finally there’s the great Andre Braugher, who for years dazzled television viewers as Frank Pembleton on Homicide: Life on the Streets. Braugher plays Owen, a married father of three who labors as a car salesman for his own father (a gruff Richard Gant). Owen is overstressed, overweight, and over having to endure the criticism of his dad. Owen would love nothing more than to quit his job, but that’s impossible with all of the people who rely on him. Braugher is the biggest surprise here. An actor who has always portrayed strong, proud men, on Men of a Certain Age he plays a regular schlep who is getting worn down. In the show Braugher is much looser and funnier than I’ve ever seen him, and the scenes with his wife, Melissa (wonderfully played by Lisa Gay Hamilton of The Practice) are intimate and brave. Indeed, while many actors would be hesitant to put their out of shape physiques on display for the world to see, Braugher is unafraid to strip to his whitey tighties to make these private moments with his wife more realistic.
I have always felt that there are certain actors who excel on television, as opposed to motion pictures. Through the television medium there exists the opportunity to build a character from scratch over at least, 13 episodes, but hopefully over the course of years. On Men of a Certain Age you have three of the finest television actors of the past 20 years. As this is an ensemble series, the show is generally divided between scenes with the three friends, which have the playful feel of Barry Levinsons’s classic, Diner (the three men have an ease with each other that makes their relationships wholly believable) and then storylines of the three men going about their daily lives. Thus, each episode turns out to be a showcase for Bakula, Braugher and Romano. This keeps the showing moving at a nice pace, and allows each actor an opportunity to shine.
Of course the show could not succeed if it was just on the shoulders of these three talented men. Behind the scenes, Men of a Certain Age has a deep talent pool of writers and directors. In addition to Scott Winant (Huff, Californication and My So-Called Life) directing the first two episodes, other television veterans like Ed Bianchi (The Wire, Deadwood) and David Paymer (Brothers & Sisters, Everwood) directed episodes soon to air. The talents behind and in front of the camera give the show the feel of a drama that’s been on the air for a year, not just beginning its first season.
With so many good things about Men of a Certain Age, I sincerely worry about its prospects in the TV landscape. As I stated, this is not a high concept show. Nobody blacks out for two minutes; there is no ticking clock or murderer to be found; no one has to save a life or rush to the operating room. The characters in Men of a Certain Age are like the men and women I know in my everyday life. Thus, will the core audience this show is intended for, men, actually sit down to watch it? Is the reputation of Romano enough to draw people in after the initial interest in the pilot? I hope so. I give credit to TNT for promoting the hell out of the show’s premiere and for airing it after a brand new episode of their smash hit, The Closer. I have seen the first four episodes of Men of a Certain Age and the quality is consistent. In fact, I felt that the second and third episodes really built on the pilot instead of dropping off, as generally happens in television.
If you are a fan of good television, not just escapist fare, but entertainment that moves you and makes you reflect on life — as any art form should — then you should watch Men of a Certain Age. We need more shows like this one, and the only way it’s going to last is if you’re tuning in.
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