No Easy Answer
The illusion of a bountiful US economy and the promise of upward mobility dissipate for good as Series Two of Men of a Certain Age returns.
Joe (Ray Romano) pretty much embodies the problem. Both “the sweetest guy” his ex-wife knows and a sucker for the get-rich-quick schemes that flourish on the underside of the American dream, he’s pouring money he can ill afford into professional coaching to win a long-shot place on the senior PGA tour. At the same time, when he provides reluctant TLC to his former bookie, Manfro (Jon Manfrellotti) who’s in chemo for colon cancer, Joe “accidentally” slides beyond his old vice of placing bets to running the book himself. His store is falling apart, with outdated New Year’s hats and Halloween tridents still waiting for customers. Hiding from friends and family at a Sunday softball game and glued to the sports results on his cell phone, Joe has been seduced by the fantasy of one sure score—much like anyone who’s bet on a Cubs game, a lottery ticket, a ponzi scheme or a mortgage.
The financial apocalypse of the noughties has affected Joe’s longtime buddies too. Instead of stepping into the top office in a thriving car dealership, Owen (Andre Braugher) finds himself struggling with public humiliation over the crippling debt his father ran up before retiring. And his good turn in hiring a chastened Terry (Scott Bakula), who has finally decided that he needs a regular job, threatens further disaster. The Thoreau dealership is now immersed in a rivalry between perennial sales-board leader Marcus (Brian J White) and Terry, nicknamed “Hollywood.”
At this point, all three friends know they are playing for high stakes: they risk losing not only their everyday nexus of friends, family, and money. They risk losing their very last chance for self-respect.
That such a topical, serious premise also produce in Men of a Certain Age a witty, tender, and thought-provoking drama attests to its subtle writing and exceptional performances, exposing both the intimacy and broad themes in any given moment. As a toked-up Terry, back on weed after a 20-week stretch on the wagon, slowly circles and seduces the student waitress at his 50th birthday party, Joe, Owen, and his wife Melissa (Lisa Gay Hamilton) watch from the sidelines. Their relaxed stance, their telegraphic comments to each other, and, above all, their absorption in Terry’s moves their combined envy and presentiment of disaster, as well as the fact that they’ve seen this too many times over decades of friendship.
Penelope Ann Miller, who plays Joe’s ex-wife Sonia, and Romano have always generated heat as a couple who seem almost to have fallen into separation and divorce without meaning to do so. In the new episodes, their relationship deepens. When a tearful Sonia asks Joe to come over as she’s mourning the boyfriend who cheated on her, just as she cheated on Joe, the show seems dead on course for the old chestnut of temporary make-up sex, regretful and sweet. Instead, the onetime couple senses that familiarity is a chimera: they’ve moved further apart than they knew. A series of close-ups and two-shots reveals their mutual but also separate understanding of their loss.
As before, Joe seems the least aggressive and ambitious of the guys, but is also the least in control, and most likely to snap. It’s a tremendous acting feat by the apparently amiable Romano that he can convey both the gentleness of a devoted father and former husband, as well as the deeply repressed anger of someone who has dutifully played by all the rules but still finds himself with nothing he really wants. After hours and days on the driving range, after talking up his chances for the senior tour despite his lack of improvement in practice, Joe finally hurls his club out into the rain, frustrated beyond bearing by his own limitations.
As writers, Romano and Mike Royce cleverly balance Joe’s tighter-wound introversion with the exuberance of Owen’s hubris and Terry’s verbal dexterity and fading physical charm. In this summer’s storylines, both Terry and Owen see hints of redemption, however temporary, emerging out of chaos. Owen mimics his father’s management tactics more and more desperately, while also courting a humiliation so inevitable that, when it finally strikes at the softball season opener, his exhausted wife sends the kids away from the scene. As Owen limps from the field, his sullen, hostile employees, who would rather be home drinking than engaged in this company outing, tentatively stretch out and console him. For the first time, they see Owen as a person no different from themselves, trapped in the same routines his father established, unable to break free of the same fear of the unknown they all face.
As the scripts counterpoint light with dark, threat with the elusive promise of contentment, Men of a Certain Age peers ever deeper into the men’s psyches. And just as they’re unsure of their roles, their feelings, and the futures ahead of them, so, too, are viewers who join them on the journey. While the show clearly targets boomers and near-boomers as its audience, younger viewers might also want to tune in, and find out just how hard they will need to work to live in a world without certainty and short on optimism.