Men Of A Certain Age pulled off a strange contortion during its 10-episode first season: It managed to be both critically acclaimed and pull in 4.2 million viewers on average, ranking in the top five among basic cable’s freshman series. In other words, a pretty big cable hit. And yet the TNT drama was nearly absent from what passes for water-cooler conversation these days. If you mentioned the show to people, they shrugged. Never heard of it.
That rarely seems to happen with Mad Men, a series that gets about half the audience of Men of a Certain Age. Could it be, then, that the latter qualifies as “the best show you’re not watching, but 4.2 million other people are”?
Yes, as a matter of fact.
Men kicks off Season 2 on Dec. 6 and, in the first two episodes, proves emphatically that it is really good, a drama that accurately and astutely details the midlife crises of three disparate men without resorting to the cliches that have hounded and devalued others trying to cover the same material.
That’s no small feat. Movies and television have taught us that men undergoing such a crisis resort to young women and fast cars, becoming at once the butt of jokes and objects of envy among their more settled peers. Until it all ends in embarrassment. Or laughter. And rarely does light ever shine on a conversation that taps into real, honest and difficult emotions. Those are best left for chick flicks and soapy dramas aimed at, yes, women.
Perhaps that’s why Men surprises so greatly. (But now, a full season in, can we still call the results a surprise?) Here’s a show on a channel that has put out mostly solid if unspectacular dramas. TNT is not known for chance-taking so much as cutting the cookies in a familiar way and baking them as they’ve always been baked. And the star (and executive producer/writer) of Men, Ray Romano, is known for comedy, not drama. Given Everybody Loves Raymond and Romano’s many turns on the late-night talk circuit, who would have guessed the man could act in a drama, much less give it gravitas with consistently impressive work?
In short, making one of television’s best dramas wasn’t the expected outcome when the announcement was made that Romano was teaming with TNT for a new show. But there’s more than enough proof that Romano and co-executive producer/co-creator/writer Mike Royce, who won an Emmy for his work on Raymond, have churned out one of the least appreciated dramas on television.
Romano is part of an acting trifecta that includes Andre Braugher — who was nominated for an Emmy, so there’s at least a particle of appreciation — and Scott Bakula.
These are modern men. They are flawed. They are not, for the better, their fathers. They are in that first wave of enlightenment that brings perplexing quandaries that their walled-off, emotionally distant and boorish fathers never faced.
Romano plays Joe, a guy who loves his two teenage kids but missed the signs that his wife wasn’t happy. In Season 1, they were separated, with Joe living in one of those depressing extended-stay hotels. Now, with the divorce nearly final and Joe in a place of his own, he’s looking to move on and settle his life. He owns a party-supply store, is barely over a gambling addiction and, on the eve of his 50th birthday, wants to try out for the PGA’s senior golf tour. It’s a dream deferred and looks for all the world like a fantasy, but at least he’s grasping at meaning.
Braugher plays Owen, the epitome of the put-upon aging husband and father. He worked at his father’s car dealership but wasn’t good enough to take it over. He has a weight problem, too. (Braugher’s fearlessness in this role is what got him Emmy-nominated.) But Owen has a wife and three kids who love him and a fine house, and he’s living the upper-middle-class suburban “dream.” In Season 2, he has ascended in his father’s business, but nothing comes easy.
Last, there’s Bakula as Terry, a moderately successful actor on the downside of whatever career he has left in the cruel, ageist town of Los Angeles. He has some embarrassing commercials lingering on YouTube and has had to settle for even more embarrassing temp work (he’s now at Owen’s dealership suffering more indignities, another constant of the series). Terry, a perpetual bachelor, still has the looks to get laid, but Men keenly portrays this as empty and vaguely sad.
The stories of these men, these friends, are always compelling, mature and spot-on. What happens when you wake up and your situation isn’t what you thought it would be? That’s the theme of this under-the-radar gem — and a lot of viewers’ lives.
Airdate: Monday, Dec. 6 (TNT)
Cast: Ray Romano, Scott Bakula, Andre Braugher
Producer: Victor Hsu
Executive producers: Ray Romano, Mike Royce, Cary Hoffman, Rory Rosegarten
Creators: Ray Romano, Mike Royce