I was no great fan of Everybody Loves Raymond, Ray Romano’s wildly successful sit-com (1996-2005). In an era dominated, of course, by Seinfeld and its offspring, Everybody Loves Raymond was old-fashioned, and probably successful because of it. While it had the ethnic, New York tang of Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond was a throwback: a three-camera show with one storyline per episode revolving around a guy’s guy dad, a harassed housewife, kooky kids, and a trying extended family.
Four years after Romano’s retrograde sit-com left us, he returned with Men of a Certain Age, an hour-long comedic-drama that is steeped in a kind of nostalgia but is formally up-to-date. Men of a Certain Age is more than a much better, smarter show than Raymond. It’s one of the first shows to peer intimately and variously into the psyche of The Middle-Aged, American Man.
Of course, nearly every show you can think of has had a middle-aged man at its center, from Ralph Kramden to Larry David, from Mannix to Tony Soprano. The characters played by Romano, Andre Braugher, and Scott Bakula are not oafish dads or police detectives or mafia bosses, however. They are very regular guys, tail-end baby boomers perhaps, but not guys who have been at the center of the culture in any way. Joe (Romano) owns a party store and his marriage has just come undone; Owen (Braugher) works for his dad’s car dealership as a salesman perpetually in pop’s shadow; Terry is washed-up actor with a limited sense of responsibility.
What the show does so well begins with taking these three college friends seriously as characters, but it ends with taking seriously the notion that middle-aged men have no more mastery of life than anyone else: they are profoundly insecure as well as capable of great dignity; clowns one moment and villains the next; they are little boys living inside their progressively rounder bellies.
Most episodes of Men of a Certain Age begin with the guys meeting at a diner for breakfast or taking a weekly hike up a mountain trail near Los Angeles. They’ve known each other for decades, but life has taken them in different directions and given them different strengths. Terry is easy with women, Joe could be if he had any real confidence, and Owen has a solid marriage. Joe’s biggest problem is his gambling, Owen needs to lose some weight and lose his continual hesitance, and Terry needs to stop thinking like he is 23. If you’re a dude between 35 and 55 who doesn’t find himself somewhere in this show, then you’re too perfect a man to be real.
The best thing about Men of a Certain Age is the time it gives its three actors to stretch out. Braugher is best known for his brilliant, fiery Frank Pembleton from Homicide, but Owen is a completely different man. Braugher gives him small flashes of steely assurance, but they are mostly buried beneath years of wise marital compromise and unfortunate filial submission. LisaGay Hamilton (as his wife) and Richard Gant (as his dad) are also terrific, but Braugher is the show’s highlight on most episodes.
Scott Bakula is best know for his starring role in Quantum Leap (1989-93), but has put in time on countless other bad-to-okay TV movies and shows. Terry is the best thing he’s ever done partly because he plays an actor who would have given his left arm to be Scott Bakula but never was. As a past-his-prime handsome guy, Terry seems shallow on the surface but proves to be more like a person who never had to try before. As the canyons in his good looks grow deeper, however, life presents new challenges. Bakula pulls it off with both humor and just enough seriousness.
That mixture is also what makes Ray Romano a revelation in this show. Romano started as a stand-up, like Seinfeld, but his Joe Tranelli is only funny in the way that most of us can be from time to time. He is less likely to crack wise about the absurdities of life than he is to confront them uncomfortably. A transplanted New Yorker with memories of hoping to make it big in golf, Joe is still in love with his wife (nicely played as an occasional guest by Penelope Ann Miller), still horribly stung by her infidelity, and still sees his kids as pre-teens despite their actual ages. Joe is like too many middle-aged guys in that he wishes the world were more like it was 20 years ago, set to a classic rock soundtrack. (The show’s title theme is The Beach Boys’ “When I Grow Up (to be a Man)”). Romano’s performance evokes this sense of time passing too quickly in a million subtle ways, sometimes humorously but often with wistful sadness.
The box set of this first season is modest affair: the ten episodes of the show’s first season plus the usual bit of commentary, behind the scenes stuff, deleted scenes. It’s a minimal batch of stuff, though hearing the stars talk about these nuanced roles is intriguing. Mike Royce, co-producer and writer along with Romano, participates in commentary and brings a thoughtful mind to bear on the project. Season Two is already well underway on TNT, by the way.
A certain kind of TV viewer—the kind who fills the comment boards over at The AV Club with hip references to Deadwood while disparaging the last season of The Wire as “too simplistic”—will find Men of a Certain Age “cheesy” or nostalgic. I don’t imagine that college kids would be inclined to recognize its nuances in any case. Sure, there are moments when the show struggles to pull its weight, but at a time when super-serious, humor-free cable dramas like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire are coming to be as commonplace as they are taxing to follow from week to week, Men of a Certain Age occupies a pleasant and tricky middle ground. This is a serious show with a light touch. The humor is earned by the situations but it’s not a sit-com, and the drama doesn’t involve a gun or a zombie or costumes evoking an earlier period that actually resembles the present.
Rather, Men of a Certain Age is something so old that it’s new again: a show about fairly ordinary people living in our perfectly ordinary present who make you realize our regular lives are a tricky balancing act between happiness and disappointment. Yet it feels to good to see three oldish guys wishing for more. As TV viewers, plenty of us know how that feels.