As Season Two of Men of a Certain Age opens, a new day is dawning. Literally. An immaculate golf course, the central image of Joe’s (Ray Romano) future hope, is watered and mowed at sunrise; Terry (Scott Bakula) arrives, rumple-suited and riding a bicycle, at the car dealership where he’s working; and Owen (Andre Braugher) wakes up, still wearing his oxygen mask, but no longer needing daily insulin injections. The men are moving forward, after spending so much of the first season struggling with mid-life and its attendant reality checks. The stasis of Season One’s multiple identity crises seems finally to have given way to action.
And yet, for those familiar with the series’ complexity, this shift can only be taken with some skepticism, and some anticipation of a step or two back.
When Joe breaks out his bifocals to read the dessert menu at the guys’ usual lunch spot, Owen and Terry are relentless. Joe takes it in stride: “Hey, it’s your future too, A-holes.” Like in Season One, though, such joking thinly covers other problems. Terry’s suggestion that Joe follow his lead and sleep around is laughed off to a point, until Joe cuts to the core of what’s different about them when it comes to women: “I don’t like to hurt them and you do.” Typically, Joe fails to recognize the insight, suggesting instead that women are incapable of emotional detachment in a sexual encounter and further — and maybe even less believably — that he is.
Sex, respect, and power are inseparable in the first two episodes of this season, but not always in a straightforward way. Terry’s coworkers ridicule him for his lack of selling power, but he earns their esteem with an unexpected sexual conquest. Conversations about who gets laid more often afford Owen respect among his friends, while Terry’s promiscuity only garners disdain from Joe, even as he tries, briefly, to follow his lead.
Occasionally, the show approaches a similar balance and complexity in how it portrays women, mainly in Owen’s wife, Melissa (Lisa Gay Hamilton). When he complains that her version of a hard day is lunch, shopping, and party planning, she is hurt and angry, and he is scared of how he’ll pay for the offense. But, Melissa surprises him the next day by agreeing: because her days are so unfulfilling, it’s time for her to go back to work. This is not a solution as far as Owen is concerned, those concerns hinging on the fact that her absence from the home will mean more domestic responsibilities for him.
But a lunch meeting with Melissa’s former boss turns out to be just lunch and not the job offer she was hoping for. She smoothes the tablecloth edge in automatic response to cover her disappointment and embarrassment at the misunderstanding, a fleeting, but beautifully truthful image. Again, the show doesn’t settle into an easy solution here. Her complaint that “while I was off having babies, the rest of the world went to crap” reflects her isolation and sense that she has become obsolete except inside the walls of her home. This doesn’t mitigate her love for her family, but stands as a stark result of the choice she made to stay home. Neither does Owen take comfort in things going the way he wanted. Rather, he comforts and encourages Melissa that she’ll find the right job, while still reaffirming her value to her family.
This is not to say that Men of a Certain Age creates some post-gender-bias utopia. The first episode of the season especially hammers on an “us vs. them” dynamic: when some women from his kids’ school flirt with him, Joe wonders to his buddies how word got out he is separated from his wife, while Owen and Terry claim, “It’s like a radar they have” when it comes to single men. And again, Owen Sr. (Richard Gant) tries to motivate Terry as a salesman by getting him to capitalize on the success of his sexual prowess: “You have to think of customers as women, not as people.” Terry’s attempt to do this is offered as comedic relief, but it’s more of a relief when he dismisses it.
Its layered and nuanced analysis of male identity makes Men of a Certain Age worth watching. It’s an intelligent and thoughtful departure from the glorified perpetual adolescence that has plagued characterizations of men in movies over the last few years and in television for the last few decades. While Joe, Terry, and Owen suffer the same sorts of anxieties as these counterparts, the difference here is resistance. Though Men surely is not absent of men’s infantile behavior, they are markedly troubled by it.