Perhaps the most groundbreaking thing about TNT's critically acclaimed comedy-drama, Men of a Certain Age, is how disinterested it is in being groundbreaking. In an era when every new show seems to tout some high concept-terminal cancer patients who deal drugs, 1950s ad men with mysterious pasts, serial killers who target murderers, and vampires, well, vampires doing just about everything-Men of a Certain Age focuses on average guys with all-too-average problems.
Created by and starring Ray Romano, it treads similar thematic ground as Everybody Loves Raymond but paints those same issues of marriage, parenthood, and career with a far more realistic brush. Instead of a long-suffering wife who comically rolls her eyes and nags, Joe (Romano) has a remarried ex-wife who treats him with awkward politeness. Joe's career didn't take the path he dreamed of either-instead of playing on the PGA, he's owns a party-supply store. It's not glamorous work, but at one time it at least had the significance of providing for his family. Now that his family's broken up, the job doesn't even give him that comfort.
But if Joe is the cautionary tale against giving up youthful ambitions, his friend Terry (Scott Bakula) serves as a warning for chasing them too far into the sunset.
A single, struggling actor on the wrong side of 45, Terry's most convincing role is the one he's created for himself. He practices yoga, frequents the trendiest restaurants, smokes pot, and sleeps with women half his age, all in an attempt to convince himself he's not growing more pathetic with each passing year. But try as he might to armor himself with every trapping of hipness, moments of clarity occasionally pierce him. Like when a woman he likes doesn't see him as a good candidate for a serious relationship or when his family-man little brother says he never expects Terry to pay back the money he owes him. At those times Terry realizes he's the guy everyone likes, but no one respects.
And respect plays a major role in Men of a Certain Age. For those who argue there's no difference between the sexes, it's interesting to note that this show for and about men spends far more time on work than it does on romance. Owen (Andre Braugher) may be blessed with a loving wife and two sons who admire him, but as a manager at his dad's car dealership he fights daily to overcome the derision of co-workers who think he's coasting.
This sounds like a pretty dark landscape and it often is, particularly when the men try to fill their desire for significance with sex, gambling, and profane posturing. In today's TV landscape, their sin isn't particularly sensational (though it is far more explicit than it needs to be, and the sexual content and language earn the show an MA rating). Rather it's the same degrading grind that's been wearing men (and women) down since the beginning of time.
What brightens the picture is the friendship between the men and the quintessentially male way they bear one another's burdens by insulting and harassing each other. In their crude and often hilarious way, they call each other out to be bigger men, to be better men. The problem is none of them seem sure what that looks like or how to go about living up to their responsibilities as men in a world with no fixed standards.
For example, when he discovers his teenage daughter is having sex with her boyfriend, an upset Joe wants to punish and restrain her. But wait, his ex-wife argues, they're being safe, they're in a committed relationship. Considering that Joe doesn't apply even these ephemeral rules to his own dating life, on what grounds can he object? What moral authority can he appeal to as a father? It is yet one more situation in which Joe finds himself impotent.
And this is where Men of a Certain Age falls short. Though it poses problems far more relevant and relatable than all those high-concept shows, it's clear the men behind it don't have the first clue about how to fix them.