Men of a Certain Age debuts tonight at 10 p.m. on TNT.
For a time, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick seemed like they were aiming to painstakingly document every decade of the American life. Their thirtysomething was about the compromises and changes inherent in having to settle down and make a living. My So-Called Life sang with the possibility of adolescence. Relativity was a bit overly cutesy and enamored of idealism, just like most people's 20s. And then there was their last big show, Once and Again, an attempt to portray the simultaneously sad and exciting slow-down of the 40s. This kind of storytelling has mostly left television, in favor of crime procedurals and crazy soaps. Even on cable, where more adventurous or small-scale storytelling is possible, the Herskovitz/Zwick model is largely absent.
So, naturally, just the guys to bring it back to television are two of the people most responsible for Everybody Loves Raymond.
Actually, if you think about it, that makes a certain perverse amount of sense. Like the series of Herskovitz and Zwick, Everybody Loves Raymond was deeply dedicated to tiny stories, to conflicts that got all blown out of proportion. This was mostly because the show had its roots in shows like The Honeymooners or even Roseanne, but that dedication to small-scale storytelling makes the fact that when series star and creator Ray Romano moved on to create his next series (with Raymond producer Mike Royce), it would be a small-scale drama, about tiny stories that aim more to be universal in their specificity than in their universality. Men of a Certain Age isn't perfect, and it often gets trapped in the sense that it should be a half hour long - the third episode, in particular, feels like it could end at the halfway point without much being missed - but it's appealingly microcosmic. It's about real, recognizable people and how they face the fact that there's no way to walk back a life.
Romano and Royce are helped enormously by the cast they've assembled. Romano plays Joe, a party store owner who's trying to break a bad gambling addiction and figure out how to move on after his divorce. Scott Bakula turns up as Terry, an actor who hasn't quite realized that the time to hang it up was ages ago, even if he can still get girls almost half his age in the sack. And Andre Braugher makes the most against-type move, playing the sad sack Owen, who's trying to find a way to assert himself in the face of a father who pretty much runs his life. Braugher's usually such a powder keg that you keep waiting for Owen to explode, yet he never does. At the same time, you can see every bit of the anger that could come spurting out at any moment seething beneath his skin.
It's not just the main trio that works here either. Penelope Ann Miller turns up as Joe's ex-wife, someone he clearly still pines for, and Miller makes you see just why he's pining. Richard Gant is wonderfully passive-aggressive as Owen's dad. And Carla Gallo, who's apparently everywhere these days, makes a good object of flirtation for Bakula. All of the players on the show are well-chosen, and Royce, Romano and their writers give them interesting things to play. What's most impressive here is how Romano has matured into a remarkably natural actor. He's probably not capable of the kind of restrained anger Braugher carries with him everywhere, but he makes Joe a surprisingly volatile character, someone who could beat the hell out of an inflatable Hulk figurine for seemingly no reason at any given moment.
There's a certain sense that Men of a Certain Age is going to play best for, well, men of a certain age. Since I'm not in my late 40s (and am, indeed, still 20-some years away), I often got a sense that the series was holding me at arm's length, that it was more of a document that would resonate most firmly for the people it portrays. In that way, it rather reminded me of Sideways, the movie every movie critic in America fell in love with in 2004 because it expressed so well what it was like to be a curmudgeon entering midlife. Both works are visceral and alive for the people who are the target audience, but both still contain riches for people who may not be as attached to the subject matter. Men of a Certain Age isn't quite as good as Sideways, but you can see where it would get there after a while. There's an appealing sense of lost nostalgia in every choice made on the show, from the Beach Boys infused title sequence to the way all three main characters have big dreams they've had to essentially give up on.
Weirdly, Men of a Certain Age turns up on TNT, a network known for its crime procedurals and action shows. As much as I enjoy a good episode of Leverage and as much as America enjoys The Closer, this show feels like as poor of a fit here as last year's quickly canceled Trust Me, a show that wasn't as good as this but one that I rather enjoyed for the weird sense of instant period piece it gave off. It's entirely possible that TNT wanted to be in business with Romano and Royce, then realized what they were getting and shunted it to a time when few people are watching TV (the network is airing a new episode in the week between Christmas and New Year's, something that is rarely done). I hope people find the show anyway.
Because what's here isn't essential, but it is rather fascinating in its own right. Romano's small-scale sitcom storytelling translates remarkably well to an hour long show, and while the rhythms of any given episode end up making that episode feel like it should be much shorter than it is, that shaggy dog rhythm also makes the show somewhat compulsively watchable, one of those shows you keep DVRing, even though you're not quite sure why. The nice thing about the show is the way its victories come in small moments, like victories come in real life. There are some patently unbelievable things here, but there are also unexpectedly moving stories, like Terry getting a taste of the life he could have led when he gets an acting gig or Joe trying to keep up his relationship with his kids. These are the sorts of things that rumble along underneath the surface of real life, and for every bizarre thing Men of a Certain Age does, there are at least two nicely detailed, realistic moments like these. This isn't a must-see, especially if you're not a man in your late 40s, but it's a show that grows on you, nonetheless.
- The grade's a composite of the three episodes sent out by TNT. Tonight's pilot is probably the worst episode, earning only a B, while next week's episode is really quite good, earning an A-. The Dec. 28 episode is worth a B+.
- This just furthers my belief that Herskovitz and Zwick should reunite with the thirtysomething cast to do fiftysomething. I'm sure it would be a tremendous bomb, but I would watch it.