Television of a Certain Quality: TNT’s Men of a Certain Age

Television of a Certain Quality: TNT’s Men of a Certain Age

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.

Cultural Observations

  • 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.
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17 Comments

Filed under Men of a Certain Age

17 responses to “Television of a Certain Quality: TNT’s Men of a Certain Age

  1. I went into “Everybody Loves Raymond” as a fan of Ray’s stand-up and his appearances on “Dr. Katz.” And I did enjoy the show for a while–it’s nothing more than the basic Cosby template, rejiggered to fit Romano’s stand-up persona. It did have moments of insight, of almost depth, but mainly it was played for laughs. (Romano said right from the get-go that he hated the title for those exact reasons; as I recall, the network foisted it upon them. It’s a title that would have fit perfectly in 1957; its retro cheery style didn’t help the mildly mistaken impression of it as an “old” show.)

    Did I continue to watch after two seasons? No. They were running a well-tuned machine, but the tone seemed to get meaner as the show went on. There was an undercurrent to it that I just didn’t enjoy. I should say, I love dark comedy, I’m fine with “Seinfeld” et al, but the tone was a little too nasty for what had once been an effective slice-of-life family sitcom.

    But those glimpses of depth, of reality, of darkness under the surface, that’s what’s showing up here and giving weight to what could have been a flimsy show, “fortysomething” without the women.

    This is a fine analysis of the show, so I won’t go on about it. I’m not sure I like it quite as much–I do want the writing to be a little sharper, the plotting a little better. I’d like to enjoy their company a little bit more. Right now, I only want to know more about Owen and his situation. If I’m supposed to care about Joe and Terry, I need more reasons to want to spend time with them.

    That said, I’m still watching. So that’s something.

    • Hi, David–hilarious. I just mentioned RAYMOND in light of SEINFELD below your comment.

      You’re right: there is a nastiness to RAYMOND that is akin to SEINFELD, which is one reason, I’m arguing in my essay, that the show maintained its popularity. RAYMOND is essentially, some argue, SEINFELD after the characters moved out to the suburbs and had families. In other words, SEINFELD was no longer on the air, but audiences had RAYMOND. =)

    • I’ll agree with you, David, that things aren’t perfect – they’re rushing some stories and dragging out some others, and that doesn’t always feel natural. However, I think the low expectations have played a big part in the show’s effectiveness – it’s leading to some critical leeway, certainly, but I don’t think that’s actually a problem. It’s a new series, and giving it some time to develop and find itself is only fair, especially when we consider the restraint they’re showing across the board.

      Will comment on Raymond below.

      • Indeed. I’d much rather see series get this treatment than the old “one and done” routine. And since I’m still watching, I’m more inclined to stay with an imperfect show with potential than a show that’s clearly never going to grow/change.

        To make a crazed leap, this is why I don’t get why people go crazy for the failed pilot “Heat Vision and Jack.” I grew up with the same cultural references they’re spoofing, I get what they’re doing, I just don’t think it’s done well at all. So when people online lament the show that was lost, I lament the sketch that bloated into a pilot. It is what it is, it would never change, it would’ve been cancelled quickly. (Truth be told, I couldn’t even get through the whole pilot, I skipped to the end about 2/3 of the way through.)

        This isn’t in the same league, but “Men” has a similar loose, shaggy style as the film “Wonder Boys,” which is one of my favorite films. Given time, I hope they’ll find the right balance.

  2. I’m also a fan of MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE, and when I find some more time, I intend to blog on the show as well: http://kellimarshall.net/unmuzzledthoughts. Hopefully, your post will prompt me to get the lead out! Two things regarding your words above:

    – First, you were only in EIGHTH GRADE ten years ago? To quote Frank Barone (the fantastic Peter Boyle) of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, “Holy crap!” Man, I feel old. =)

    – Second, I can understand why some people (your age and older) did/do not like EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. Its multi-camera format, stock characters, style, etc. are considered “old school,” I know; and I am also aware that many have called it America’s last true family sitcom.

    With that said, I was/am a huge fan of the show; in fact, I still watch it in syndication, and there are several episodes I can quote by heart (e.g., “Marie’s Sculpture” “Debra’s Workout”). More significantly though, I am in the process of writing an essay for publication on the sitcom, particularly as it relates to its predecessor, the equally as successful SEINFELD. I don’t know if you were/are a fan of that show (who isn’t?!), but the similarities between it and RAYMOND are actually many (you’ll have to wait for the finished product/paper to find out the details!). In any event, perhaps if you look at RAYMOND in light of the characterization and (bizarre, narcissistic) content of SEINFELD, your opinion(s) about the former might change. Just a thought. =)

    • Kelli, I was actually just reading about said paper somewhere or other in my morning reading, so that was certainly part of the catalyst to get me writing about this show (so I forgive you for not writing about it earlier! Heh.)

      In terms of Raymond, I’ll say two things.

      1) I have seen bits and pieces of the show, but I didn’t watch much TV earlier in the decade and when I did start, it was with the Office/Arrested Development generation (and so Raymond was not only uninteresting, it was the enemy in terms of stealing Emmys from Arnett/Tambor/etc.). So I can’t entirely judge the show so much as I can judge the general reaction towards it amongst my generation. I never found it particularly funny, but I also (outside of bitterness Re: Emmys) never watched enough to properly judge.

      2) I also haven’t watched much Seinfeld (yeah, yeah, I know – it’s on the list), but I think David raises my question when it comes to the comparison (which is “Huh, this is fascinating” question, not a “Now wait just one minute” question): while Seinfeld was always sold as a sitcom about nothing, Raymond was sold as a sitcom about a family. And while I’m not suggesting narcissism and families don’t go together (they clearly do), I am interested to read your paper to see just how Raymond manages to negotiate/soften/interpret that type of character and storytelling for an audience who have a sense of the tropes being played on with its basic structure.

      Thanks for the comment, and I look forward to the post/paper to come.

      • And yes, the tone on “Seinfeld” was part of its appeal.

        Too often, especially in later seasons, I felt “Raymond” had lost the tone that made it worth watching. The opening credits from the first season encapsulated the style and tone of the show perfectly; when they got away from that, they couldn’t find it again. It was a little bit “Seinfeld,” a little bit “King of Queens,” it was the evolution and turnover of writing staff.

        And, like “Modern Family,” every line seemed just a little too polished, a little too written. (As I think about it, “Modern Family” seems like a blend between everything I didn’t like in “Raymond” with everything I don’t like about “The Office,” without the skill or awareness of how to make a fake documentary. But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post, which I’ll get to soon…)

      • Thanks. Will keep you posted on the RAYMOND/SEINFELD paper. In the meantime, it sounds as though you need to sign up for my SEINFELD course ASAP! =)

        http://www.kellimarshall.net/courses/writing/seinfeld

      • Like Kelli, I’m a fan of Raymond, although not to the extent that she is, but I’ve enjoyed the show far more than I’ve ever enjoyed watching The King of Queens or According to Jim. I haven’t watched Men of a Certain Age yet, but I plan to, in some shape or form, after reading your post. Your posts are always extremely well-formulated and thought-provoking.

        And while we’re on the subject of Seinfeld, having watched a great deal of said show myself, does anyone else get the strange feeling that Elaine Benes might as well be the central character, not Jerry Seinfeld — if “The Bizarro Jerry” is anything to go by (an episode where Elaine “befriends/adopts” a new trio of bachelors) — and offers a very different perspective on the show’s events than Jerry, Kramer or George (she is the only character with a steady day job, for instance). Just thought I’d throw it out there.

  3. princesscowboy

    Wow this post made me feel very old too!

    When I first saw ads for this show I saw Ray Romano and immediately my brain said “Nope not watching this.” Like you, I really disliked EVERYONE LOVES RAYMOND (could never sit through more than 10 minutes of an episode) and I do lump it together, for better or worse, with shows like TWO AND A HALF MEN. But I gave MEN a chace because 1. it was winter break and we had nothing to watch and 2. Twitter folks kept saying it was good.

    And it’s not just good, it’s pretty damn great. Mature, subtle, funny, sad. And the biggest surprise has been Ray Romano, who plays his role–which could be very unsympathetic (hopeless gambler, socially awkward, weird dude)–perfectly.

    Re: Andre Braugher’s Owen: One of my favorite scenes with his character was when he was sitting on his bed getting dressed and talking with his wife and his middle-aged man pot belly was sticking out. It was such a nice, real moment (and the scene could have totally worked with his shirt on), but they left it off. It was touching for some reason.

  4. Pingback: Season Finale: Men of a Certain Age – “Back in the Shit” « Cultural Learnings

  5. Pingback: Everybody Loves Raymond and Seinfeld | Unmuzzled Thoughts (about Teaching, Shakespeare, and Pop Culture)

  6. Pingback: Coming of [a Certain] Age: The Return of TNT’s Men of a Certain Age | Cultural Learnings

  7. I cannot tell a lie, that rlelay helped.

  8. Pingback: Everybody Loves Raymond and Seinfeld | MediAcademia

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