During a recent Internet/cable TV outage, I binge watched Men of a Certain Age, because, after all, I *am* a man of a certain age and I figured the story of three middle aged guys addressing the challenges of getting old would be appealing. The show, which ran for two seasons and a total of 22 episodes on TNT, was created by Ray Romano, who also stars as Joe Tranelli, a soon-to-be divorced party store owner with two kids and a gambling problem. His besties are Owen Thoreau, Jr. (Andre Braugher) a married father of three who has toiled as a salesman at his father’s car dealership his entire adult life and Terry Elliott (Scott Bakula) an aging Lothario who had a whiff of minor fame as an actor many years ago but nowadays rattles about with an air of Zen while gliding through life on temp jobs and casual relationships.
After I finished the series, I was initially surprised to learn it has been honored with a Peabody Award after its first season, but then I realized that the people who give out awards like that are middle-aged guys who probably have a lot of unresolved daddy issues that they think can be resolved by bonding with your son over golf (as Romano does), sleeping with younger, hot women (which Bakula does), or working at a job you hate because you are taking care of your family (as Braugher does).
Which is much of what happens in the show’s two seasons. Past the obvious tropes about getting older - reading glasses, peeing in the middle of the night, the colonoscopy you get at 50, the show is primarily concerned with opportunities lost, paths not taken, and regret. There is a Peter Pan quality to the whole thing, not just Bakula’s “professionally charming” character whose life as a confirmed bachelor is filled with a steady stream of beautiful sex partners, but all the characters’ desire to shrug aside the lives they have created. Romano’s character dreams of a second chance at playing golf professionally while Braugher has toiled at his father’s car dealership after failing in business in his 20s.
The show is at its strongest when it avoids the easy cliché of little blue pills or old guys not understanding technology and instead mines the uncertainty of middle age. Braugher picks a fight at a bar with a younger, bigger man who sits in a chair being saved for Bakula, explaining to his friends afterwards that he was tired of taking shit and decided that was where he would make his stand. And that resonates. Much of adulthood is taking shit - from your boss, from your family, and the assorted randos we all have to deal with, the guy who changes your oil but tries to upsell you into replacing the air filter, the customer service reps who never have an honest answer, and that asshole who just cut in front of you in traffic. Fuck that guy, right?
Similarly, when Men stops the revolving door that is Terry’s bedroom and has him experience loss - real loss - because he has played his cards wrong with (age appropriate but still hot!) Erin, it finds great humanity in a man approaching his sixth decade with the obvious fear of growing old alone. Terry shows up at Erin’s door unannounced after she has dumped him and returned to an ex-boyfriend and he looks at her wistfully and says “I don’t know if I’m supposed to wait for you or get over you.” It is a raw human moment experienced by a man unaccustomed to feeling such a thing and shows one of the sore spots of aging - vulnerability - in a way that does not feel cheap or manufactured. Few reach their fiftieth year without having loved and lost, but the sting is that much more painful when you feel time slipping away and the chances for long-term happiness dwindle.
Men also makes an unabashed case for the importance of male friendship and expressing your feelings. The bull sessions the three have at their favorite diner or on nature hikes are the glue that holds the show together. Putting these basic aspects of human connection front and center among a gender reared to show little emotion and certainly not to express insecurity, anxiety, or fear is really important, but there is a fine line between male bonding and immaturity that the show sometimes finds difficult to straddle.
Romano makes a male friend, his new bookie “Manfro,” and their drunken shamble of an evening early in the show’s first season when Joe learns his ex-wife is dating another man, is a real highlight. But Romano’s Joe keeps the other man at an arm’s length through most of the series run. When Manfro gets colon cancer, Joe helps out but also skims clients on the side, which results in the bookie attacking Joe at his store and knocking out one of his teeth. You suspect the bookie was less offended at the chiseling than the violation of their friendship.
And therein lies the problem I found in watching Men. While the challenges resonated and felt real, the characters’ failures were rarely tied to real world consequences. Romano’s gambling problem costs him his marriage, but the biggest bet he places wins him the money he needs to move out of his long-term hotel room rental and into a well-appointed house just blocks from his children. Manfro’s assault lands Joe in a dentist’s chair where he reconnects with a hygienist he had fallen for but chased away when she learned of his gambling problem. Even his ex-wife is down for some one-off sex when he consoles her after she breaks up with her boyfriend.
When we meet Braugher’s character Owen, he is unfocused and indifferent to his job, worn down by years under his father’s thumb. But when the reins are handed to a slick, younger man and Owen Jr. quits and accepts a job with a competitor, the old man changes his mind and hands the dealership over to his son. But Owen Sr. continues to backseat drive the decisions even as he tells his son about hundreds of thousands of dollars in undisclosed debt that knee caps the younger man’s attempts to rejuvenate the business. The father-son dynamic has a rented mule quality to it, with Braugher’s mien growing more dour the more responsibility piles on his shoulders and the more his father second guesses his decision making.
Bakula is a commitment-phobe whose immediate response to good things in his life is either to nuke them or run away from them but when he falls for Erin, a woman with whom he had shot a TV commercial many years ago, her patience borders on the saintly. She stays with him even when he is humiliated publicly by a former (and much younger) paramour he walked out on, and is fine with his desire to chase a new career in TV directing even though he has no experience, quits a job he is (finally) good at (selling cars at Braugher’s dealership) and they had just moved in together.
Oddly, none of the women, regardless of age, experience any of this existential angst. Whether they are in their 20s, 30s, or 40s, the women of Men are toned, gorgeous and always up for a roll in the hay but without all the pesky navel gazing and rumination on how things could have turned out differently. Erin quit acting many years before when she was told be a casting agent she was too old but loves her teaching job and Owen’s wife does go back to work yet continues to shoulder all of the child rearing as he tries to keep the car dealership afloat. Joe’s ex-wife is essentially an after thought except to experience a comeuppance when the guy she left her marriage for ends up cheating on her with a younger woman. The rest of the parade are one-dimensional sex objects, from the recurring character “Fantasy Woman” (a large breasted brunette who is seen almost exclusively in spandex but never given a name) to the succession of younger women, older waitresses, and other assorted sexual conquests Terry notches because of his charm and then shoulder shrugs at when he inevitably bails.
Perhaps it is simply a matter of being spoiled by more serious dramas on pay cable that left me a bit cold at the Hollywood ending Men gave us. Joe qualifies for the Senior PGA tour, Owen’s father finally cuts the apron strings and lets his son run the dealership, and Terry and Erin move in together. It is an appealing fantasy of waving a magic wand over your life at fifty and wiping the slate clean, but bears little resemblance to reality. And maybe that is what the show is arguing for - that if it is true that as you get older you either become far more risk averse or far more risk tolerant, the show encourages the latter, not the former. That is fine so far as it goes, but it was a bit too pat for me.
Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy