A review of tonight's "Men of a Certain Age" coming up just as soon as I get a little time in the bounce house...
The first time Fienberg and I discussed "Men" on the podcast, he said the show felt like the wrong length to him - that, just as its tone is somewhere between sitcom and drama, episodes generally had more story than a 21-minute (without commercials) sitcom timeslot, and not enough for the 40 or so minutes of a drama. And, indeed, the show was originally pitched to pay cable, where Mike Royce, Ray Romano and company would have been able to tell 28 or 29 minutes of story, which - even as a fan of the show in its current format - would probably be ideal.
But every now and then, "Men" will do an episode like "A League of Their Owen" - which just might be my favorite installment of the series to date - where the added time turns out to be a huge bonus.
Simply put, a 20 or even 30-minute version of this show doesn't have nearly the amount of time to devote to the softball sequence and its many permutations. That, or it doesn't have enough time to properly set up all the conflicts - the feud service and sales, Joe trying to deal with his father and his gambling addiction and Michelle all in the same afternoon, Terry having just blown off his young girlfriend and her parents after finally recognizing that he's too old for this, etc. But at this length, there's time to set everything up, and to let the game (and sidelines like Joe monitoring the Cubs game and both Erin and Stella arriving with very different messages for Terry) play out fully, and effectively.
The game sequence is the culmination of everything that makes "Men" one of my favorite shows. I can't always capture what it is, but at least now I have an obvious sample episode.
Things start off in that mortifying place the show often goes to, with the team sucking wind and Maria accidentally outing Owen's arrangement with the service guys. But then Owen falls down on his way to first base, and all that frustration that Owen Thoreau Jr. carries inside him comes flooding out in a torrent of self-loathing profanity, and it's funny, and it's sad, and it's something that all the people at the dealership can empathize with and rally behind. Owen may be their ineffective daddy's boy of a boss, but he's also THEIR boss, and a human being, and we either all hang together or we all hang separately, you know?
And so by accident, Owen provides the motivation and glue to the dealership that Senior hoped he would by giving him the softball job, and things get inspiring in that classic underdog sports movie(*) way, and they also get silly (Lawrence and Dale both banging on Lawrence's cup while talking trash to Marcus), and then surprisingly romantic(**) with the arrival of Erin.
(*) I should note that Brian White, who plays Marcus, is a former pro football player, and as such has a few sporting roles on his resume already. I've always been a sucker for "Mr. 3000," with White as the selfish modern-day superstar who learns a predictable but effective lesson about teamwork and leadership from Bernie Mac. Very underrated movie. That, or my usual underdog sports movie addiction blinds it to any flaws.
(**) I swear, the last time I reacted that way to a surprise appearance by one half of a potential couple was when Dawn comes back to the Christmas party in "The Office" UK's finale. I hadn't expected Erin to turn up again (and was lucky enough no to notice Melinda McGraw's name in the guest credits), and certainly not giving Terry another shot. But these last few episodes had illustrated just how much the relationship had come to matter to him, and therefore it mattered to me. I haven't watched the season's final three episodes yet, so I don't know whether they'll be happily ever after, but the fact that Erin stayed after Stella's appearance and seemed mostly amused by it has to be a good sign, no?
Because of the kind of show this is, and the kind of men it's about, it's rare we get an hour that ends as positively as this one. The dealership beats Scarpulla (and Owen finally gets cheers in a sales meeting), Terry gets Erin back, Michelle and Artie's combined visit doesn't end in disaster, Joe wins his bet (though the fact that he's still fake-gambling is pretty bad), etc.
You don't want every episode to be like this, because then it doesn't matter if events are always 90% positive. But when they try something like this on occasion, it can work like gangbusters, which "A League of Their Owen" absolutely did.
What did everybody else think?