January 3rd, 2010
As we enter a new decade, there is no question that time and age become important questions. On New Year’s, there was a twitter meme of “10 Years Ago,” which is not only prompting us to remember what we were doing at the dawn of Y2K (Hint: not recovering from a massive technological crisis) but also prompting us to compare where we are now to where we were then. And while this might not be a particularly meaningful exercise for me (considering that I was in eighth grade ten years ago, I don’t have too much to compare), the ruminations on age and life trajectory are probably more meaningful for people who were actually living lives (middle school doesn’t count) in the year 2000.
I raise this point not to try to make those older than me feel older, but rather as a nice excuse to finally write something about TNT’s Men of a Certain Age, a show that I had no expectations of enjoying but which has become a nice piece of consistency during this off-time for the bulk of my favourite series. I believe it was James Poniewozik who suggested that Men of a Certain Age is the male equivalent of The Good Wife, a show for which you have very limited expectations but that surprises you with a subtlety and a focus on execution, and I buy that (I’ve blogged about The Good Wife a heck of a lot more than I expected, after all). I expected the show to be something very different than what it is, but I’ve enjoyed its subtle approach to its storylines and its ability to find both humour and tragedy in legitimate and believable places in the lives of its characters.
And while I like James’ comparison, what really sets this show apart is that unlike The Good Wife – which had lowered expectations based primarily on the network and its penchant for procedurals – Men of a Certain Age faces an even more significant challenge: convincing a cynical audience that Ray Romano is capable of taking himself seriously.
While it might not seem fair, the show lives or dies on this question, and that it has felt so dramatically satisfying is a testament to his work here.
If we consider James’ comparison in terms of premise, the shows are very much in the same position: The Good Wife is a very female-centric take on the world of politics and the workplace, while Men of a Certain Age is a very male-centric perspective on middle age. And although both shows features engaging characters of the opposite sex from their protagonists (Josh Charles and Chris Noth on The Good Wife, Lisa Gay Hamilton on Men of a Certain Age), they are never the focus of the show’s narrative, which can offer the impression that the shows are about one particular gender and its position vis-a-vis the other in various different settings.
This is, of course, a reductive reading of both series, considering that Hamilton’s Melissa is probably my favourite supporting player on Men and that Charles is integral to selling the legal elements of The Good Wife, but I make the comparison to note that face similar challenges in terms of appealing to wider audiences on the level of their respective premises. However, if we were to extend the comparison to the extra-textual elements of each series, things become more uneven. While The Good Wife faces the expectation from critical types that CBS series are by default less interesting than more ambitious serialized dramas on other networks (which is far more potent within this community than anywhere else), Men of a Certain Age has to overcome the fact that Ray Romano is anything but beloved by a large swath of the population.
In many of my conversations with Todd VanDerWerff, he has gone on the record as a defender of Everybody Loves Raymond, even placing it quite high on TV on the Internet’s list of the Top Comedies of the decade. And there’s every possibility that he’s right, that the show has many redeeming qualities and was at its best a fine piece of comedy, but I am part of a generation who wants nothing to do with Everybody Loves Raymond. It’s a generation that found The Office (both of them, in fact) and Arrested Development at the same time Romano was dominating the sitcom game, and it’s the same generation that sees Raymond as the spiritual predecessor of Two and a Half Men (even if that comparison is not fair considering how different the two shows really are).
It’s a generation that has associated Romano with “unfunny,” which is perhaps an unfair label but one that from my limited exposure to Everybody Loves Raymond is something I would probably have conceded as of a few months ago. At some point, it became a general consensus that Ray Romano was neither talented as a writer or as an actor, not based on any empirical evidence but rather based on a cultural backlash against a show which unfortunately bears his name (I’d contend that if his character had been named something other than Ray, he might not be as maligned as he is today – ditto for the overly bold claim in the show’s title inspiring contrarianism). And while the show will always have its fans amongst those who watched it, those who avoided it have made it a point to pre-judge anything Romano does…which, if you think about it, is only Men of a Certain Age, which is now bearing the brunt of the pent-up anger at the show which everybody, it seems, does not love after all.
So while The Good Wife deserves credit for transcending expectations for CBS shows to fall into procedural traps and fail to present an accurate depiction of characters or a nuanced portrayal of the legal profession, Men of a Certain Age deserves even more credit for Romano’s confident and subtle negotiation of his reputation. Joe, as a character, is a flawed man struggling with a pending divorce and a gambling addiction that sustains him during the separation even while he acknowledges it was likely its cause. It is a character crippled by bouts of anxiety, terrified of the same problem tormenting his teenage son, and so unwilling to accept his divorce that he’s been living in a hotel for months. It is a character that could easily be the star of a sitcom if played solely for comedy, which is what makes the subtlety on display in both the writing and Romano’s performance so much more impressive and, perhaps more importantly, contrary to our expectations.
The show loves to zig when we expect it to zag, both in Joe’s character (in terms of our expectations that Romano will fall into “unfunny” territory) and in Scott Bakula’s Terry, who seems like a sitcom waiting to happen on paper until each of his stories seems to resolve itself with a realization that he may not be the guy he wants people to see him as. Terry is perhaps the show’s weak link, which is less a comment on Bakula’s performance and more on the fact that Terry is the show’s broadest character (washed up former actor who womanizes while working as a temp) and thus seems the most forced in terms of emphasizing the show’s theme of confronting the realities of middle age. There can only be so many role-playing scenarios and red light decisions before the character needs to start changing his lifestyle, and because Bakula is alone in those stories they have a tendency to seem repetitive.
But at the heart of this show is Andre Braugher’s Owen, which is both an enormously well-written character and a great piece of both casting and acting. Braugher has a presence which implies power and authority, and yet he has absolutely none: he is a man with a college degree working for his father’s car dealership as a low-level salesman at a very late age to be struggling to gain his father’s respect. It’s a situation one normally associates with younger characters (those just starting their lives and feeling as if their decisions are driven out of a desire to gain their parents’ approval), which helps present another great bit of playing against our expectations. Braugher’s intimidating size has become a symptom of diabetes and the overeating which seems to be its root cause, and his age has become a source of disappointment rather than knowledge or observation.
The show excels, however, in taking these characters and their mid-life disappointment and managing to find both humour and humanity in their situations. Braugher is getting the show’s best material as Owen, balancing a demanding (and loving) wife with a job that he wants to love (as seen in the episode where he decided he wanted to make people happy by offering them great deals) but that he’s only keeping because he needs the money to support his family and feels he needs to prove his father wrong. And the show works because it not only finds the humour in his situation, but it also allows him to find the same humour – the show’s characters are not entirely delusional, more resistant than ignorant, and it’s given the show an ideal viewpoint into this particular stage in a man’s life. These men are acutely aware of the period of transition they find themselves in, and the show works because that awareness resists both parody and melodrama to deliver something which feels honest first and foremost.
Perhaps Romano’s problem is that he keeps creating shows with titles designed for snarky responses: everybody did not, in fact, love Raymond, and a some people who aren’t of a “certain” age might resist a show which seems to limit its audience in its title. But as someone who may well be amongst the youngest people watching the show, I appreciate it because it goes beyond its premise to deliver a drama series which is unafraid to confront reality at a realistic pace: scenes which could be large confrontations become awkward conversations, and scenes which could be melodramatic arguments become small actions which speak louder than words. The show is like the middle-aged Entourage, where a group of guys hanging out and spending time with one another is surrounded by a culture of uncertainty and change as opposed to fame and opulence – and while it might make me criminally unhip with my own generation, I’d much rather hang out with Joe, Terry and Owen than with Vince, Eric and Drama, Ray Romano notwithstanding.
And, well, I didn’t expect that.
- The show’s ratings haven’t been particularly great, and TNT is setting the show up to fall by offering it a Closer lead-in for December and then abandoning it on its own. I really hope that the show can stabilize and find an audience, because there’s some great stuff going on here.
- The show’s proven very effective at constructing worlds around each character that sustain them on their own (Joe’s bookie, Owen’s wife, Terry’s job), and the real test will be how those worlds begin to collide. Last week’s episode, where Owen had to learn that Joe’s wife has been seeing someone else for over a year, was a nice piece of subtle connection in that it was never played as explosive or volatile, but then Terry’s involvement in the story (serving as auctioneer) felt like a distraction by comparison. It’s a tough balance to be able to handle, so I’ll be curious to see how it goes in the weeks ahead.
- I’ll let NeoGAF user chalkitdown1 close us out with his thoughts on the show: “I f**king love it. And this is from someone who usually hates anything with Ray Romano’s name all over it.” I bet TNT never thought they’d get that review.