I don’t want to rehash what I wrote earlier this year about why Men Of A Certain Age is worth the time of any television fan—even those not inclined to like Ray Romano, Scott Bakula, or shows about middle-class dudes suffering through midlife crises. Just follow the link above and heed my plea.
And now, if you’re still around, let’s talk about the first episode of Season Two, “If I Could, I Surely Would.” The title comes from Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa,” a song which takes an existing Peruvian song and adds Paul Simon’s aphoristic lyrics about how he’d “rather be a sparrow than a snail” and “rather be a hammer than a nail.” Those choices pretty well sum up what Men Of A Certain Age is about. These three friends—gambling addict/small business owner Joe Tranelli (Ray Romano), family man/car dealership manager Owen Thoreau, Jr. (Andre Braugher), and womanizing, free-spirited actor Terry Elliot (Scott Bakula)—all came to grips last season with the realization that they’re not the vital players they once were. A half-century of compromises and mistakes, both professionally and in their personal lives, have left Joe, Owen, and Terry in the habit of hesitating, doubting, saying, “No.”
At the end of the first season though, all three men experienced a little bit of a turnaround. Joe quit gambling and pledged to recommit himself to making it as a pro golfer on the senior tour; Owen wrangled control of his father’s dealership from Marcus, the hotshot young salesman that Owen, Sr., had put in charge after his retirement; and Terry gave up on acting and took a job working for Owen, planning to put his personal charm into play on the sales floor. So season two opens with all three facing a new day: Joe’s up early, hitting balls at the practice range (but not making the targets he set for himself), Owen’s grabbing breakfast with his kids before heading out (though he’s cut off by a sports car on the way to work), and Terry’s icing his coffee and putting on a suit and tie (plus bike helmet). So what’s it going to be for these guys? Sparrow or snail? Hammer or nail?
“If I Could, I Surely Would” marks an amiable return for MOACA. It’s not as gripping or funny as some of last season’s best episodes, but it catches us up with the characters fleetly and establishes what they’re going to be facing in the weeks to come.
The one coping with the biggest change is Terry, who’s taken on plenty of “real” jobs before but now has the added pressure of not wanting to disappoint his friend. He is trying to make it work. Sure, he sneaks away on his lunch hour to have sex with a diner waitress, but he leaves without finishing so that he’ll be on time for the sales meeting, and he turns the waitress down when she offers him a joint. The main problem with Terry is that he still thinks of himself as a mellow, live-and-let-live kind of guy, which makes him ill-suited for the high-pressure world of auto-sales. “I wish I could manipulate people into deals and not feel shitty about it,” he says to Owen, apparently not realizing how insulting that comment is to his buddy. To make matters worse, at one point Terry has an old lady at his desk who’s ready to buy, and he lets her walk off the lot, so she can check with her son about trunk space. Terry insists to Owen that the old lady will come back. He says, “I know people.” Owen’s reply: “Then you know how pissed off I am right now.”
Owen, meanwhile, is having trouble settling into the job of boss. His employees—formerly his co-workers—don’t take his hand-wringing over low sales seriously. During his pep-talks, they check their cell phones. When Owen walks up to some idle salesmen and says, “I don’t want to be a dick, but how about some cold-calling,” they laugh him off. Owen, Sr., suggests that Owen hire Marcus back as a salesman, and though Owen hates the idea, he swallows his pride and takes Marcus out for dinner, where Marcus agrees to come back to the dealership, but not without making Owen sweat a little (and not without demanding that he get a day off before starting back to work).
As for Joe, now that his anxieties over money and gambling are behind him (at least for now), he’s being encouraged by Owen and Terry to relax his chivalrousness and take advantage of bachelorhood. He already has sexy single moms hitting on him at the golf course, and as Owen points out, extra-suggestively, “You don’t have to marry them; just get in, get out.” (“That’s creepy,” Joe says to Owen. “With the lean and inflection.”) So when he stops by his old hotel to pick up the nine-iron he left there, and when he sees a woman, Michelle, that he’d previously flopped with, Joe walks up to her by the pool and they have a meal together, while she’s still in her bikini. He tells her that he moved out and got his own place. (“With real furniture. I sound like a 16-year-old.”) And after they eat, when he asks, “When can I see you again?” she answers, “How about now?” He hesitates, because he doesn’t see himself as a one-night-stand/heartbreaker kind of guy. But then she takes charge and makes sure he doesn’t flop again.
The episode ends with a few moments of triumph for the boys, albeit with caveats as always. Owen blows past the jerk who cut him off earlier in the episode and impresses Marcus, but Marcus immediately disregards Owen’s no-cell-phones-at-sales-meetings rules. Owen Sr. encourages Terry to rely on his chick-picking-up skills to succeed as a salesman, and even sets him up with a customer who’s already planning to buy, but Terry fumbles his way through the close of a no-doubt sale. And while Joe finally gets to be what Owen, Sr. would call “a cocksman,” in the process he blows off a hang-out date with his old bookie (and new neighbor) Manfro, who responds by knocking over Joe’s garbage can and leaving dog shit on the driveway.
And we’re off again for season two. With Terriers gone—and now gone for good—it’s nice to have Men Of A Certain Age to turn to for a weekly dose of subtle drama and comedy, built around the common quirks of human interaction. MOACA isn’t in Terriers’ league in terms of ambition or plotting, but it scratches a similar itch for me in the way it explores character. It’s the little touches that I love about the show: like the moment in this episode when Joe notices that his son is learning about mythology and comments on what a noble character Sisyphus is. That’s a very Joe-like perspective, to look at some dope who’s doomed to roll a rock up a hill every day and say, “Nice job."
- My main wish for season two would be for Owen to get a juicy plotline or two. Braugher’s such a terrific actor, and he worked wonders with the minor trials that Owen had to go through last season, but Romano and co-creator Mike Royce saved most of the nail-biting stuff for Joe, and while I don’t want to see Owen get tormented the way Joe was last year, I do think the character and the actor could handle something heavier than just a fight with city hall or an argument with his father.
- Lisa Gay Hamilton barely shows up in this episode as Owen’s wife Melissa, though I’ve no doubt we’ll see her again this season. Low-budget cable shows frequently have to limit the supporting players they use in any given episode to save some salary.
- Joe’s wearing glasses now that make him look a little like Dustin Hoffman in Papillon. So Owen’s calling Joe “Papillon” now, even though Papillon was actually played by Steve McQueen.
- Terry has an epiphany while he’s sitting in the can at the dealership, reading the graffiti, which mixes sex talk with existential pleas like, “I feel like this is the only mark I’ll make in this world.” He decides he has to quit, and by way of running himself down, Terry inadvertently insults Owen again, saying of salesmanship, “There’s your way, there’s the right way, and then there’s me.”
- Manfro gets his coffee at the same place every day, even though the proprietor makes eye contact but refuses to say hello. So I’m sure he’ll make up with Joe eventually.
- Something to keep in mind for later: Joe can’t eat sweets for a week because he made a bet with himself, tied to his ability to hit a 100-yard marker on the driving range. It’s benign, sure, but it can’t be healthy for a gambling addict to be wagering, even in his head—especially since Joe’s biggest problem with gambling was how closely he tied his self-worth to winning and losing.