Why TNT Should Man Up on 'Men of a Certain Age'

Men of a Certain Age

This TNT drama is arguably the least clichéd and most accurate depiction of a man's midlife crises ever put on television.


With no word coming Friday -- nor, thankfully, over the weekend -- about the fate of TNT's excellent dramatic series, Men Of A Certain Age, it seems clear that the channel is on the fence about it and looking, perhaps optimistically, at Thursday's Emmy nominations before making a move. 

Which could mean a few things. 1. Perhaps a gentle reminder about its value might help - hence, the rest of this column. 2. Something other than just an Andre Braugher acting nomination might mean a slam-dunk renewal. 3. Something less or nothing at all might mean that the following day, a Friday, will bring the late-day take-out-the-trash announcement that Men hasn't been renewed and a hope that everybody's anger gets negated by the weekend and is out of the news cycle by Monday.

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But TNT shouldn't feel the fate of Men rests with the Emmys. That's like trusting your kid with a crazy person. (Besides, the Emmys never figured out The Wire, so it's not all about quality.) Instead, this is a time to go with your gut. And I've got to believe that TNT knows already that Men is a gem. Under-appreciated? Absolutely. A lot of under-appreciated but high-quality series end up holding that Peabody trophy, just as Men did this year. It's a distinctive and important award that comes with a subtle suggestion. And that is -- please don't kill this show even though it's not a hit. Please think beyond the numbers and, if you can, beyond the money.

Again, Peabody Award or no, I think TNT knows what it has in Men. It's certainly the channel's most acclaimed series. But TNT has also evolved recently to a very interesting point in its development as a purveyor of original programming. TNT is no longer  competing directly with USA, sister channel TBS, Syfy, A&E, Lifetime or any other niche channel in the "blue sky" category of upbeat happy shows. Neither is it all edge like FX or all low-rated acclaim like AMC. In many ways, TNT is on the precipice of defining itself more like a broadcast network than a cable channel (especially if, when looking at the brand as a whole, you factor in TBS to include the comedies). TNT's biggest hit, The Closer, proved that it could make a network quality drama and attract a huge audience. Southland -- reclaimed and restored lovingly from NBC grubby paws -- proved that there was room for a heavier drama that was seeking the acclaim of, say, series that aired on FX. Falling Skies definitively stated that it could launch a genre hit (and make it high-quality and entertaining as well). In the middle, the channel has a bunch of "blue sky" dramas, no doubt. The difference is in TNT's complete slate -- you can't define it one simple way. It's trying, for lack of a better description, to be a broadcaster on cable. 

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And here's where Men Of A Certain Age fits in and matters: It's the one drama that's as good as anything else in the upper tier of cable dramas. Men is TNT's premiere series, despite low ratings. It's the show that TNT can use to bring in more talent when seeking an additional high-end, possibly marquee series. Look, TNT can already make shows in its wheelhouse that are, on some level, not that indistinguishable from USA or A&E. That's not a criticism, it's a fact. To go beyond those channels, it needs not only the grit of Southland and the quality entertainment of Falling Skies, but something like the gravitas of Men that tells series creators out there that they don't have to go to FX or AMC first.

Is Men Of A Certain Age really that good?

Absolutely.  I already put Season 1 into my Top 18 Shows of 2010 (No. 8, by the way); included that season as well in my praise for Slow TV, then favorably reviewed Season 2 in The Hollywood Reporter, mocked the Golden Globes for snubbing it, and regularly featured Men in the upper ranks of the best shows on television in  The Power Rankings! on The Hollywood Reporter website, while periodically writing online and on Twitter that TNT would be insane not to renew the series.

Plenty of love from me.

That's why this is less of a plea, less about begging and more about what might not seem so obvious inside the Turner gates. I know there is pressure to get ratings. Nobody wants to keep funding a money-loser. I get that. But Men is your prestige show. It's not your Nielsen champ. It's not Spielberg backed. But it has value not only in being able to attract series creators who might want to move in that high-end direction (which could result in Emmy wins, critical acclaim and -- don't rule it out -- a bonafide sensational hit), but also in positively reflecting what you're willing to back from pitch meeting to pilot. If nothing else, it's the bait for bigger fish. It's very unlikely that TNT keeps a foot in the high-end programming niche if it gives up on Men.

Beyond that, it's actually too soon to tell if Men ends up as some kind of Emmy-bait loss-leader. Season 1 was a real shock for everybody. No doubt some of the people who initially tuned in to a show featuring Ray Romano wanted more comedy -- because, you know, they loved Ray. What they found was this really smart, hard-to-describe, wonderfully nuanced series that -- probably for the first time in memory -- took the midlife crises of men seriously, as a jumping off point for storytelling (both dramatic and funny). Romano and Mike Royce certainly startled critics, who -- in all honesty -- probably weren't expecting what they ended up getting. No offense intended.

But if funny-Ray fans were turned off and bailed, what about all those people who didn't want Everybody Loves Raymond -- and therefore didn't watch because that's what they thought they'd get? What about all the women who thought it was only about men? Or people who didn't think they'd really care about three guys ready to fall out of the prime TV demo? Those people needed to be tapped into. So many cable series only begin to find their audience in the second season. Viewers completely miss Season 1 in the glut of new arrivals or wait to hear what the buzz was -- and if it was sustained. Here's where TNT needs to take some of the ratings blame. You can't launch Season 2 and then cut it in half, separated by six months, and expect to get a definitive read on the audience's desire. It doesn't work that way. So let's just say Season 2 wasn't handled all that well.

Make the commitment for Season 3. Get your marketing people in a room and find a way to better sell the premise. Hell, maybe you start an advertising campaign featuring Men and Southland - tout your upscale stuff. Patience is the key here. And faith. You've really got something special in Men. Yes, it might be easy to scold you into some kind of largesse -- the kind of guilt that makes rich people give to charity. But Men is not yet a charity case. It's a series that can further build the brand, broaden the programming reach of TNT. Men may never be the series that breaks out, like The Sopranos, and gives you acclaim, ratings and some affluence in your viewer's index. But it could be -- the data to date is arguably flawed, given Season 2. More important, Men could lead you eventually to that next show, the one that does deliver the plus peripherals of glory, ratings and profit. But take away the building block, the stepping stone that Men could be, and you're playing in a lesser league.

Don't wait on the Emmys. Go with your gut.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine