I don’t want to say that Men Of A Certain Age snuck up on me, because I had a pretty good feeling about the potential for the series before it even debuted. I'd grown tired of Everybody Loves Raymond after about four seasons, but not because of Ray Romano, a sharp comic whose work I’d enjoyed since his stand-up days (and since his animated appearances on Dr. Katz). And Andre Braugher… well, he’s Andre Braugher. He’s been misused in movies, but Braugher’s in his element on television. His star turn on FX’s Thief is one of the great unsung performances of the ‘00s (even though he won an Emmy). So I expected Men Of A Certain Age would be a good show. But I didn't expect it to become one of my favorite shows.
What does Men have going for it? Three things in particular:
1. The Characters. On the surface, Men Of A Certain Age doesn’t seem like much: just a vague hourlong dramedy about the well-worn woes of three middle-class, middle-aged pals. Y’know, just dudes kvetching about marriage, divorce, sex, jobs, kids, health… nothing you couldn’t see on any given commercial for beer and/or Flomax. But Men co-creators Romano and Mike Royce flesh out their leads in unexpected ways, making them into people, not types. Romano plays recent divorcé Joe Tranelli, a former pro golfer and gambling addict who owns a party supply store. Braugher plays Owen Thoreau, Jr., a tubby family man who sells cars at a dealership owned by his stern, judgmental dad (himself a former Los Angeles Laker). And Scott Bakula plays Terry Elliott, a barely working actor who does part-time jobs to pay the bills and support his pot-smoking, girl-chasing lifestyle. Terry aside, these aren’t the sorts of characters who show up on TV that often, but Men Of A Certain Age doesn’t make a big deal about the details of their lives. Joe and Owen’s respective jobs drive the occasional plot—as do their respective troubles—but nothing about either is meant to be seen as exotic, or even defining. In other words, this isn’t a show about a degenerate gambler seeking redemption, or a single dad’s wacky adventures at a store that sells helium balloons. These are just aspects of who Joe is. Ditto Owen’s daddy issues, et cetera.
2. The Tone. Men Of A Certain Age can push the melodrama too far sometimes, and sometimes it paints a supporting character or two too broadly to amp up the comedy. Plus, it's a comedy often built on awkwardness, which can be a tough beat to hit on the mark. But by and large, Men finesses its blend of pathos and observational humor superbly, finding moments that ring true but aren’t routine. I’m thinking of moments like the one in “Go With The Flow” (the series’ best episode) where Joe describes his first date with a woman he really likes, and how he panics and flees the room during sex because he’s afraid he’s going to prematurely ejaculate. It’s not just the wince-inducing-but-funny moment of fleeing that’s remarkable; it’s the scene that follows, as Joe talks to his date through a closed door, crushed with embarrassment, that pushes “Go With The Flow” beyond what a safer, blander show would attempt.
3. The Performances. Romano has been stellar throughout this 10-episode first season, playing notes of shame and pride and fear and anger that he’d hit from time to time before on Raymond, but only comedically. He’s had several “give that kid an Emmy” scenes this year, and none of them especially splashy. I think of Joe getting drunk by a hotel pool with his bookie, or the scene last week where Joe haltingly confesses to his would-be girlfriend that he won the downpayment for his new house by betting on basketball game. Wonderfully nuanced stuff. Bakula was the weak link in Men’s earliest episodes, but only because he wasn’t really given enough to do besides act like an irresponsible horndog. Terry’s subplots began to resonate when the writers started contrasting the character with people even more irresponsible than he, to show that Terry was at least trying to grow up. Bakula had another one of my favorite acting moments of the season, when Terry was out a party with his loutish boss and tried to disassociate himself from the jerk’s behavior without pissing him off too much (and losing his job). As for Braugher… well, he’s Braugher. He plays the midlife melancholy of Owen well (as any Braugher fan would expect), but I’ve also appreciated his flashes of joy and wit. In the episode where Owen resolves to make his customers happy for a week by cutting them deals he can’t really afford, Braugher has a funny fleeting moment where he flashes a grin and owns his new jolly persona, telling a customer, “I’m The Fat Man!” I’ve been quoting that for weeks.
Now, having said all that, I have to acknowledge that the finale episode “Back In The Shit” isn’t Men Of A Certain Age’s finest. For one thing, it is the kind of “everything comes to a head” episode—heavy on the heavy, light on the light—that the show has mostly avoided over the last nine hours.
The title refers to actual shit (“the kind that comes out of your ass, Joe”), which sprays all over Terry when he tries to fix the plumbing problems at his apartment complex. Terry’s coming off a promising few days as a bit player on an action movie starring an old friend, and is looking forward to the prospect of becoming a full-time member of his buddy’s entourage. But the new gig has already cost him his girlfriend, and as the owner of his complex puts it, “If you’re a movie star, then I need a new building manager.” While Terry’s trying to figure out his new cell phone—and enduring a visit from a young actress who smokes his pot, sleeps with him, and then won’t leave—he places a call to his movie star friend, and finds out that his future might not be as secure as he’d hoped. Seconds later, the shit literally comes raining down.
Meanwhile Owen—who last episode quit his dad’s dealership when the old man named another employee sales manager—has risen to the top of the board at his new dealership, and claims to his wife and his parents that if he has to be stuck selling cars, this is where he wants to be. Except that Owen really doesn’t want to be stuck selling cars, especially at a place that makes him work long hours for a boss who takes potshots at his dad’s legacy. And the semi-retired Owen Sr. quickly realizes that he feels no sense of pride in watching a non-family-member take over his business.
And in the episode’s anchor story, Joe finds that his elation over last week’s big win is fleeting. His gambling losses mount again, he has to fire an employee (through a translator, no less), and the frequent visits by his bookie/companion-in-misery Manfro (played by Joe Manfrellotti) are bothering his ex-wife, who worries about what Joe’s instability is doing to their anxiety-plagued teenage son. Joe finally realizes that he has to quit gambling for good when he takes his son to a movie and leaves him alone in the theater for too long while he calls Manfro to lay some action.
So again: a bit too much conflict and a bit too much resolution for this show, really. Apparently, Royce and Romano weren’t sure if TNT would renew Men for a second season—which they have, by the way—so they brought the story to a conclusion of a kind. Owen gets to take over his dad’s dealership, and hires Terry to apply his thespian charm as a salesman, while Joe bids Manfro adieu, re-hires the employee he fired, and tells his kid that he’s going to try out for the PGA Senior Tour. Put a bow on it; this season’s done.
Still, while “Back In The Shit” was often pat, the more subtle show that I’ve come to love showed through more than once. Bakula packs everything we need to know about Terry in a single reaction shot, as he watches in silent disgust as the bedmate he doesn’t want walks her fingers slowly, inexorably up his chest after sex. And the scene between Bakula and Carla Gallo—playing Terry’s new ex-girlfriend Annie—is a prime example of how Men Of A Certain Age strives to dramatize real situations without turning them phony. Here’s Terry, accidentally running into the woman who silently dumped him while he was out of town—even though they’d never expressly stated that they were a committed couple—and though he really wants her back, he’s trying to play it cool, giving a little speech that both formalizes their break-up and leaves an opening for him to see her again someday. And all this while that other girl waits in his bed for him to come back with coffee. That’s just a magnificently conceived, written and performed scene.
Even Joe’s big epiphany doesn’t play out in a typical “hitting rock bottom” kind of way. He leaves his kid to get popcorn, then has to step outside the theater to call his bookie because the cell reception is bad, then has to stand back in line to buy another ticket because he lost his stub, then has to get into another line to buy the popcorn. We’re even teased briefly with the idea that Joe will forget the popcorn, which will tip off his son to what he’s really been doing, but one of Joe’s most consistent traits is his ability to cover his tracks. Yet even with a good excuse at the ready, his son still freaks out.
Really, the biggest problem with “Back In The Shit” is that it keeps our three protagonists apart for far too long. They finally come together at the end for one of their jogging/bull sessions, and the interplay sends the season out on a high. Between Joe making a lame joke about Terry calling Planned Parenthood about a bulk rate, and Owen teasing Joe for using “Lovin’ those balloons, huh?” as a pick-up line on a sexy customer—“She thinks you’re yelling at her tits,” Owen explains—the last big scene between Men’s men is snappy, funny, revealing, and all the things that make this show special. Even the would-be poignant moment where Joe says that he Googled the word “happy”—and Owen asks, “Were you lookin’ for porn?”—includes a good gag. Joe says that he learned that to be happy you need “something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” And after a beat, Owen says, “How do you whack off to that?”
I’m looking forward to hanging out with these guys again next year.
Episode Grade: B
Season Grade: A-
-I didn’t want to fail to mention the stinger to Terry’s scene with Annie, where he orders coffee from her, she writes his name on the cup, and then at the end of his big speech, he hears the barista yell, “Large black coffee for Dick!”
-I also didn’t want to fail to mention a couple of supporting players who weren’t given enough to do this season but made the most with what they got: Lisa Gay Hamilton, playing Owen’s supportive but oft-frustrated wife, and Penelope Ann Miller, playing Joe’s ex. When Joe tries to lie to her about Manfro and she calls him on it, you can read the whole history of their relationship on her reddening face.
-A great Braugher moment: Joe all but forcing Owen to sing the big line in The Ides Of March’s “Vehicle.”
-The quality of Men Of A Certain Age shouldn’t be that big of a surprise. In addition to Royce and Romano, the show’s creative team includes Victor Hsu (a producer on Freaks & Geeks, Undeclared and Arrested Development), and Warren Hutcherson (a top-flight stand-up comic of Romano’s generation, and former writer on The Bernie Mac Show and Everybody Hates Chris).
-I recommend Alan Sepinwall’s interview with Mike Royce, about the origins of the series and how he feels this season went. Among the interesting tidbits: Braugher wasn’t the first choice for Owen—Royce and Romano wanted The Wire’s Wendell Pierce, who went with David Simon’s Treme instead—and when Braugher expressed interest in the part, Royce and Romano were skeptical that he could play a shlub. Like I said, a good read for fans of the show.