One of the key themes of “Men of a Certain Age” is the idea of having to make the best out of a disappointing situation. So it feels appropriate that I have to approach my review of the show’s second season (which premieres tonight at 10 on TNT) from a similar place.
To make a long and not very interesting story short, TNT sent me the first six episodes of the season to review (and to prep me for an interview with star Ray Romano), but only the first two played properly, and I didn’t notice until it was too late to get replacements for the others in time to write this review. This was frustrating, not only because the show was one of last season’s most unexpected treats and I wanted to see as much as I could as quickly as I could, but because I always prefer to write reviews based on as much material as is available for me to see in advance. (I’ve been sent full seasons of shows ahead of time, and unless I absolutely hate the early ones or simply run out of time, I’ll watch ‘em all before writing.) I like to see where big storylines are going, whether there are notable emotional or comic or suspense moments down the road I would appreciate, and all the other ebbs and flows that come with a season of television.
But as I stewed over the damaged disc, how if I’d tried watching even a day earlier, things would have been okay, etc., etc., I realized that not only was I living out something very much like what the characters on the show go through - tweak a few of the job-specific details, and it could easily apply to Andre Braugher’s overweight, overstressed car dealer Owen - but that “Men of a Certain Age” simply isn’t the kind of show where I need to be worried about plot twists or big emotional swings or the rest. And that’s one of its strengths.
As created by Romano and fellow “Everybody Loves Raymond” alum Mike Royce, “Men” is a deliberately small show. The problems that anxiety-ridden party store owner Joe (Romano), Owen and their actor buddy Terry (Scott Bakula) deal with are never particularly epic in scope: Owen can’t get a permit to get some needed construction work on his house finished, or newly-separated Joe negotiates his first date in a long time, or Terry’s girlfriend gets frustrated that he’s never on time for anything. Nothing earth-shattering. The first season’s most dramatic moment revolved around gambling addict Joe leaving his equally-anxious teenage son alone in a movie theater for too long because he had to step outside and place a bet.
And yet it’s by sweating the small stuff and only the small stuff that makes the show so smart and funny and moving.
As we move into season two, the guys are all trying to implement bold new plans. Joe has quit gambling and is preparing himself for a shot at golf’s senior tour. Owen has finally been put in charge of the family car dealership after years of waiting for his father (Richard Gant) to step aside, and in turn he’s given Terry a job after Terry realized that the acting thing was never going to happen.
These all seem like big steps - maybe too big for this show - but the season’s early episodes make clear that we’re keeping things small and less-than-simple. Though he no longer wagers money, Joe tries to remain friends with his weird bookie Manfro (John Manfrellotti) and starts making “mind bets” with himself (“If I don’t sink ten putts in a row, I can’t watch TV tonight”) to keep himself interested. The dealership is struggling in this economy and the employees still view Owen as his father’s puppet. And Terry quickly begins to doubt his new life as a car salesman.
There’s a low-key sense of honesty to it all; it’s a scripted drama (or hour-long comedy with dark moments, take your pick) that tries hard to not follow the easiest, most obvious paths. The season premiere gives a happy ending to one guy, only to immediately reveal to the other characters that it wasn’t as easy or uplifting as it seemed at the time. A later episode finds Joe’s son Albert (Braeden Lemasters) sneaking into a drunken party, and just as he winds up in a place that all but screams for dramatic music, screaming and a promo for next week’s Very Special “Men of a Certain Age,” the scene takes a left turn and just asks how a kid like this would act in this situation.
The comedy remains effective and natural. If someone delivers a laugh line - say, Terry making fun of Joe’s new glasses - it’s a line that makes one of the other characters laugh, too. In an odd “Freaky Friday” switcheroo, sitcom vet Romano tends to get the most complex and interesting dramatic scenes - there’s a real depth of feeling to Joe, a likable guy who wishes he could stay out of his own way - while dramatic powerhouse Braugher gets many of the biggest laughs. (He plays flustered spectacularly well.) And as the guy with equal parts comedy and drama on his resume, Bakula moves fluidly between the two extremes, and the writers seem to have a better idea of what to do with Terry than they did last year, where the overgrown Peter Pan thing ran its course very quickly.
Midway through the premiere, Joe is helping Albert with a school report on Sisyphus, and he begins to sing the praises of the most futile man in Greek mythology: “He was a guy, putting his head down, doing his job, you know? Pushing that rock.” That’s the struggle all three “Men of a Certain Age” face, but while they often find the rock rolling right back down the hill again, the show surprisingly keeps pushing it ever upward. I went into the series knowing that Romano could act, knowing that Braugher could be funny, not predisposed against a series about three buddies battling the frustrations of pushing 50, and still I feel like its quality keeps sneaking up on me. It’s so small and spare and simple, and yet it can be incredibly effective at what it does. Nice to have it back.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com