TV Review: TNT's 'Men of a Certain Age'
Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher usher in MiddleAgedManSploitation
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Here's how Hollywood works:
When an actress reaches 40-ish and producers stop thinking of her as a sex object, she becomes nearly unemployable in movies, especially if she isn't prepared to transition immediately into "mother" and "grandmother" roles, she's referred to as a "woman of a certain age" and she either stops working, or she comes to TV. [This is industry logic, mind you. Not necessarily reality, since the top movie in America stars a 45-year-old woman.]
When an actor reaches 40-ish, he continues to work and nobody really notices or cares or thinks twice about pairing him with a 20-something actress, regardless of romantic chemistry or the actor's recent box office track record. You know what Hollywood calls an actor who's a "man of a certain age"? An actor.
That's why there's something unavoidably disingenuous about TNT's new dramedy "Men of a Certain Age," from creators Mike Royce and Ray Romano. It's not exactly a pity party for its stars, Romano, Andrew Braugher and Scott Bakula, but amidst the frequently clever dialogue and likable performances, there's still a lot of "Woe Is Us" MiddleAgedManSploitation.
[Full review of "Men of a Certain Age" after the break...]
"Men of a Certain Age" has a good home in TNT, which has capitalized on the industry's double standard for years. Kyra Sedgwick isn't a movie star, you say? OK. She's certainly a TV star. Holly Hunter's too old for the big screen, you say? OK. She's a TV star, too.
Like I said: It's disingenuous. Ray Romano remains a TV star and if he'd pitched "Men of a Certain Age" as a half-hour comedy (more on that later), some network would have given him a home happily. Braugher works steadily, most recently popping up on the "House" premiere in a role almost certain to earn him an Emmy nomination. And Bakula seems to work as much as he wants to, popping up in the spring in a pivotal role on NBC's "Chuck." They aren't beloved by The CW demo anymore, but CBS would be happy with any of 'em.
But in "Men of a Certain Again," the focus is on their imperfections. Romano, Braugher and Bakula play three men on the cusp of 50 (generous for Bakula and Romano, but a bit older than Braugher in real life). At least with Romano and Braugher, the show embraces their wrinkles and paunches and celebrates the ointments and unguents that keep them in even this level of repair. The joke here is that these men of a certain age are allowed to celebrate how "normal" and "average" they look, while Sedgwick and Hunter are both still stunning women (assuming Hunter's biceps don't scare you off) and would become TV character actresses in a second if they ever started to truly show their age. I could rant all day about the double standards playing out between "Men of a Certain Age" and "The Closer" and "Saving Grace." And I probably will a bit more later.
In Romano and Royce's pilot script, the three men are given easy-to-assimilate archetypes that offer reassurance that nothing in the episodes to follow will surprise you, but all of their strengths will be played to. Romano's Joe owns a party store, which is ironic because with a perpetual hangdog expression, Joe is a gambling addict coping with his recent separation from his wife and living at a hotel that serves as a semi-permanent residence for other people in transition. Braugher's Owen works at his father's car dealership and although he's in a loving marriage (Lisa Gay Hamilton plays his wife), he's being emasculated at every turn for his weak demeanor and his pudgy physique. Bakula's Terry is a New Age-y actor working a soulless temp job while he waits for a career resurgence, keeping young with yoga and a string of younger women.
These three men get together regularly to hike or eat at Norms and apparently, having reached this certain age, they're no long constrained by TV's traditional limits that men be stoic and never talk about their feelings or insecurities. These dudes gab like the "Sex and and the City" women, discussing every aspect of their sex lives, their feelings and their physical well-being.
This is not a demographic that has been marginalized in Hollywood. They've just been marginalized from writing about themselves as men. Middle-aged men have been projecting these exact same insecurities on the big and small screen for decades. That "Men of a Certain Age" may be the first show to hyper-literalize every insecurity and turn it into a slightly more masculine "Sisters" will just be gravy for a certain subset of viewers.
I'm already overusing joke that "Men of a Certain Age" is like ABC's "Cougar Town" if it were written by men. [And yes, I know. "Cougar Town" is mostly written by men.] The two shows feature the same neuroses, returning to the same underlying joke that Courteney Cox is a decade younger and her neuroses is forced upon her by society rather than any reality regarding her belly or her crow's feet.
A lot of the humor in "Men of a Certain Age" is all about over-articulating that these characters are old and uncomfortable with their changing place in the world, whether it comes from lamentations about their failing bodies or very literally expressed fears that one's son is following in your own eccentric footsteps. Almost everything in "Men of a Certain Age" is very literally expressed. Illustrating these concerns and depicting them would be one thing, but the characters are stuck in a mode where they can't feel anything without saying it out loud. Like might we possibly get that Bakula's character has a Peter Pan syndrome without his "Peter Pan thing" being mentioned twice in the first four episodes?
Romano and Royce come from sitcom backgrounds and "Men of a Certain Age" is stuck in an in-between state between being a sitcom and being a full-on quirky drama. It's too serious to be a sitcom. There's too much carping and to many thousand yard stares as characters face their own mortality. But they don't know how to pace a drama. All five of the episodes I've seen it a dead spot at the 30 minute mark and then vamp and spin their wheels for 10 minutes before the sentimental conclusion. In an ideal world, "Men of a Certain Age" would be one of those only-occasionally-funny half-hour "comedies" that HBO and Showtime both love programming. It's got more laughs than "Hung" or "Nurse Jackie" and probably less drama or pathos than either show. And there's no reason why any of these episodes need to be 44 minutes.
Stuck in amidst the filler, though, are genuine and honest moments. In one episode, Bakula has great scenes where he goes to his boss' open house to pretend to show interest in the property and becomes involved in an improvised fake relationship with an actress (Cynthia Watros) also trying to help sell the place. Braugher has a good arc where he decides he wants the customers at his job to like him, only to learn the price of that happiness. And Joe's friendship with his equally adrift bookie is good for both chuckles and unexpected humanity.
Actually, Romano is fantastic here. He's not just a stand-up doing shtick or even a sitcom guy pretending to do drama. He's a man who uses self-deprecating humor to mask his own -- I hate to keep using this word -- insecurities. He's beleaguered and a beaten down by aging, but he's capable of brightening up, as in a later episode with guest star Sarah Clarke.
The show feels like a breakthrough for Romano, but Braugher and Bakula are good as well. You sense Braugher going against type as a man who's used to being pushed around and who has pretty much let himself go, but his finest scenes come when he stands up for himself and you see a bit of that "Homicide"/"Thief" Braugher. Bakula's got the easy part and the predictable arc -- Terry's about to learn that his life is hollow and this is gonna make his reevaluate some things -- but he does it well.
TNT has sent out five "MoaCA" episodes and I went through all five. I'm not hooked, but I can also admit that the show isn't aimed at me. I can also acknowledge that the later episodes are better than the earlier ones, perhaps owing to the writing team's greater comfort level with the hour-long format.
For me, I'm not convinced the show will ever work, but I get the sense that "Men of a Certain Age" is going to really resonate with some people and I'm not exclusively talking about men of a certain age. Women of a certain age will also probably respond to what is essentially a female bonding show that happens to be about men.
Are men of a certain age in such dire need of empowerment in 2009? Perhaps, though I'm not buying that this is an age group that has been somehow neglected or disenfranchised by the popular culture. Others, though, may not feel my discomfort.
Yup. "Men of a Certain Age" is a show that brings out the wishy-washy in me. I know that someday I'll be of a certain age myself.
"Men of a Certain Age" premieres on Monday, Dec. 7 at 10 p.m. on TNT.