‘Men of a Certain Age’ on TNT

Television Critic

Having been recently subjected to FX’s “The League,” I approached TNT’s new “Men of a Certain Age” with a fair amount of wariness. According to the press notes, the show “explores the unique bonds of male friendship,” a description that could apply to Pinter or Steinbeck and yet so often these days seems to involve jokes about Viagra and genital grooming.

With Ray Romano starring and producing, the term “vanity vehicle” also raised its ugly head. Was he, after being made rich and famous for " Everybody Loves Raymond,” now going gritty, chasing Bryan Cranston, another former comedic dad who’s now pulled down two Emmys for his work in “Breaking Bad”?

See, that’s what happens when you watch too much television. You get cynical. Because “Men of a Certain Age” is none of those things; it is instead a miraculously good show about a stage of life that is too often either ignored or overplayed. Addressing middle age with humor and insight, Romano and co-creator Mike Royce refuse to be coy, juvenile, sentimental or self-satisfied, which makes their show as revolutionary for our time as “thirtysomething” was 20 years ago. (Its director, Scott Winant, is a veteran of that series.)

The trio in “Men of a Certain Age” are college buddies. Romano plays Joe, the anxiety-plagued owner of a party supply store who is battling despair over a splintered marriage from Sonia ( Penelope Ann Miller) and the gambling problem that destroyed it.

Andre Braugher (last seen as the therapist on “House”) is Owen, father to three young children and son of his boss, the overly critical, perpetually disappointed owner of a car dealership. When Owen isn’t angry and stressed about his father, he’s angry and stressed about the nature of his job. “I’m a car salesman,” he says in an early episode, “everybody hates me.” As if that weren’t enough, he and his wife, Melissa ( Lisa Gay Hamilton), are going through a home renovation.

Terry (“Quantum Leap’s” Scott Bakula) is the playboy of the group, hiding a receding hairline with bleached blond bangs. He’s a still-struggling actor working as a temp, a condition which could describe virtually every aspect of his life. “Age is just a number, my friends,” he says when Joe and Owen rag on him about his young girlfriend. “Come on, man,” Joe says, “now you’re going to have to see all the ‘Twilight’ movies.”

Despite all his Peter Pan charm, Terry is, of course, just as uncertain and anxious as his friends -- a scene in which he shows up at a cattle-call audition for the second lead in a Lifetime movie is a classic.

All three are hip-deep in midlife, when the eyes go and the waistline spreads and the city on the hill that shone so brightly in youth turns out to be more like a semi-incorporated town in the middle of a garbage strike. An age when a person can feel not so much himself as an inexplicably inferior version of himself.

“You ever get that?” Joe asks as the three eat lunch in a diner. “You look in the mirror, you see yourself . . . you recognize yourself, and there’s that little bit of you that you don’t.”

Although Romano is the keystone of the group, it is very much an ensemble drama buoyed by writing that protects the characters from the perils of self-pity and self-indulgence with quick and gentle humor and plot points that capture the forces a middle-aged, middle-class man might actually battle.

There is no judgment in “Men of a Certain Age” because at a certain time of life, every decision is questionable. Divorce, marriage and promiscuity are equally confining, and the excruciating tension between desire and responsibility plague us all. Considering Romano’s sound-stage, laugh-track-laden past, “Men of a Certain Age” is strangely and effectively subdued -- by giving the show many exterior scenes, the worries and obsessions of the characters are kept in literal perspective. Braugher and Hamilton are particularly wonderful to watch as a couple who, having started their family a bit later than some, just can’t afford a midlife crisis.

Romano conveys a heartbreaking air of perpetual bewilderment, illuminated occasionally by flashes of insight. If he’s not careful, he’ll become the new baby boomer sex symbol, or maybe win an Emmy.