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TV Tonight: Men of a Certain Age

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I took some ribbing from some female associates when I reviewed The Good Wife earlier this season and said the show turned out to be much, much better than I thought it would be. My low expectations were as much about the fact that it was a courtroom procedural as about its chick-centricity, but fair enough.

In the interest of equal time, then, let me also say that I had similarly low expectations for TNT’s dramedy Men of a Certain Age. Partly that’s because I usually find TV’s efforts to build shows around male bonding and “what men talk about today” (Love MonkeyBig Shots, BBC’s Manchild) to be heavyhanded or disappointing. (An exception is Entourage, which worked by keeping its thoughts on the cars-and-girls level.) And I wasn’t sold on Ray Romano as a (semi-) serious actor either. But on both counts, the charming, low-key Men beat my admittedly low expectations.

Romano co-created the show as a buddy story about three guys pushing 50, comfortable enough but aware of creeping disappointments. Romano is Joe, a recently separated party-store owner with a gambling problem. Andre Braugher is Owen, a family man under heavy pressure at a car dealership owned by his ball-busting dad. And Scott Bakula is Terry, a once-mildly-successful actor who’s coasted through life and is now what you would call a cougar, if anybody called men cougars.

The show couldn’t have come along at a better time. While it doesn’t do much to overtly tie in to current events, it comes during a recession in which job losses have been especially high among men in general, and its characters’ demo, in their supposedly alpha years, are particularly beset. This plays out in the storylines involving Owen, chafing under his dad’s unappreciative glare and feeling the mortgage weighing on his back. At one point he confides to his wife that he wants to quit his high-stress job, and she does what good TV spouses are supposed to do: says that he should do what makes him happy. Then she catches herself, realizes they have kids to put through school, mountains of bills and obligations that pretty much require a long slog of income-generation through retirement. Sorry, she tells him cheerfully, lovingly but no-nonsense: you just have to suck it up and work.

The kind of midlife-crisis material that Men deals with risks coming off maudlin, depressing or (see again Big Shots) creepy. But Men handles it, as in that scene with Owen, with deft, quirky humor and by upsetting dramatic clichés. Most of all, it keeps from getting bogged down in the big questions of life and mortality by keeping its focus small: the stories are about small moments, and the hours padded out by natural, well-written jawboning among the three men. (Though I did find myself wondering where they managed to get so much time to kill sitting around diner booths and cracking jokes. Maybe that happens when your kids are older.)

Romano is the biggest surprise of the group, bringing real credibility to Joe, who’s kind of a separated, less successful and more realistic Ray Barone: genial but hangdog, trying to connect with his teen son and wade back into the dating pool. (One well-executed early episode consists almost entirely of his relating a disastrous date to his two buddies in flashback form.) But Braugher, known largely for heavy drama roles, is an almost equal surprise doing comedy as the grumpy, put-upon Owen. Meanwhile Bakula—who I will admit has never impressed me a lot in anything previously—brings a melancholy charm to Terry, who has gotten through life on his good looks and charm but is starting to question whether all that’s enough.

None of it adds up to smashing new revelations or grand statements, but that’s probably why Men works as well as it does. It’s an insightful, easy-to-like, low-stakes character dramedy about men coming to terms with their limits. A story for an era of lower expectations, Men of a Certain Age meets its own diminished ones, and surpasses them.