By Tom Shales
Monday, December 7, 2009
There's something rare and wonderful about "Men of a Certain Age," and yet it keeps seeming either vaguely or highly familiar. That's partly because the new TNT series treads ground already trod into mush by previous movies and TV shows -- although that turns out not to matter. Because for viewers of a certain outlook, the show also plunks resounding chords of painful affirmation.
Ray Romano, a living saint at CBS for his nine hugely profitable seasons of "Everybody Loves Raymond," created and co-wrote the series with Mike Royce, a "Raymond" writer and producer, and what makes the show ambitious is not that it ventures into strange, virgin territory but that it has the courage and perhaps hubris to add to voluminous literature on its subject, the great American midlife crisis. Before you say "Oh no, not that again," take a look -- and risk being enthralled.
"Midlife" takes in a lot of territory: such related subjects as divorce, fear of aging, fear of dying, fear of abandonment and, of course, fear of fear. In the starring role, Romano proves himself genuinely an actor, not just a comic who's stretching in a sitcom. This, however, is a show with three starring parts; the other two are filled by Scott Bakula -- in the best series role of his life -- and the great Andre Braugher, who immortalized himself in "Homicide: Life on the Street" and now finally finds himself in a worthy successor.
Braugher looks startlingly out of shape in "Certain Age," but his character, Owen Thoreau, is supposed to be. Like his two friends, Owen is in his late 40s and riddled with the aches and anxieties that come with the job, not the least of which is the literally heavy burden he carries front and back as he struggles to keep up on the trio's early-morning hikes. He's developed diabetes as a result of his weight, and must inject insulin daily.
Romano plays Joe, proprietor of Joe's Party Depot and not the pro golfer he once dreamed of being; "Men of a Certain Age" has a lot to do with dreams once dreamed. Separated from his wife, juggling scheduled visits with his two bright kids, and failing to cure himself of a costly gambling addiction, Joe notices that getting ready in the morning takes half an hour more than it used to, and he describes himself to others as being "six months away from Flomax."
Bakula shows refreshing depth and maturity as Terry, the third member of the group and the one most desperately clinging to youth. A small-time actor who's now a part-time layabout, Terry works at jobs he doesn't care about and fends off real or imagined challenges to his agility and virility.
When in the third episode the driver of an SUV speeds away after splashing Terry with water from a puddle, Terry tracks the man down for a confrontation -- one that turns out to be anything but what he hoped for.
"Certain Age" is fit to walk in some hefty footsteps -- include those left by "Diner," Barry Levinson's seminal film on the subject of boys fighting off manhood, though Levinson's boys were much younger than Romano's. "Diner" was derived from, or inspired by, Federico Fellini's brilliant humanist drama "I Vitteloni," one of the maestro's most under-appreciated masterpieces, the story of aging friends in an Italian village from which they all vow to escape but probably never will. Turner Classic Movies occasionally shows it -- in the middle of the night.
Romano's series may not have artfully poetic ambitions, but it hits home in ways that can be emotionally brutal -- perhaps none more so than Owen's confrontation with his father, an unforgiving and stubborn man who is also Owen's boss at Thoreau Chevrolet. Dad has been watching with dismay as his salesman-son's health and vigor decline, and finally deals a devastating blow: "You're an embarrassment," he tells him, and Braugher reels from this heart punch with grief you can feel.
The women in the three men's lives, it shouldn't be overlooked, are also beautifully performed. As Owen's wife Melissa, Lisa Gay Hamilton has a terrific scene in which she marches into the office of her father-in-law to intercede for her husband -- a lovely motive but a self-defeating gesture. Part of the scene is played wordlessly, viewed behind glass from a distance, and yet Hamilton communicates worlds of hurt and anger. Hamilton and Braugher achieve a sweet working rhythm together; you can see what this husband and wife see in each other and how that sustains them.
Honesty is one of the show's great virtues. Another is its ability to keep a positive outlook and not become a dirge, despite the sobering realities being bandied about. The bandying is outstanding, presumably compelling, even for those who are only tangentially acquainted with the woes of middle age, a time of life generally dismissed (or disparaged) by those younger and older. It gets little understanding or empathy from those outside it, existing, like the "Twilight Zone," somewhere "between light and shadow."
TNT, which really takes a giant step up with this production, provided the first three episodes for review, and the show seems conceived in three-part arcs. Various plotlines reach resolution in the third installment, but there are plenty of quandaries and conundrums still to be explored -- enough for a mid-lifetime.
However banal the central subject might seem, "Men of a Certain Age" proves a powerful yet mercifully amusing experience -- bittersweet, poignant and wise. It's not just a series, but something of a tonic.
Men of a Certain Age
(one hour) airs at 10 p.m. Monday on TNT.