On The Fate of TNT’s Men of a Certain Age
July 11th, 2011
It hasn’t exactly been a secret that critics are fans of TNT’s Men of a Certain Age, but the simultaneous posting of two independent articles from prominent critics (HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall and AOL’s Maureen Ryan) defending the series against a potential cancellation has certainly cemented the show as this year’s critics’ cause.
For the record, I’m with both Alan and Mo regarding the show: the back half of the second season was maybe its strongest stretch to date, taking each character on a distinct journey that always felt controlled more by the ebbs and flows of life than by the machinations of plot development. The finale, in particular, was narratively complex while staying true to the characters and their relationships. It was about Joe’s relationship with his children, Owen’s relationship with his father, and Terry’s relationship with his past, as much as it was about golf, car dealerships, and career paths. It was a hopeful finale, perhaps, but it was not one that offered any sort of ending. In fact, I don’t know if this is a show that can truly have an ending given its focus on lives being lived.
Of course, Alan and Mo’s posts exist because the show is low-rated, and TNT is not a network known for its low-rated shows. In fact, given that Alan and Mo have covered the show’s strengths so well already, I’m actually more interested in the TNT side of this equation. A network that has staked its reputation on “We Know Drama,” TNT has found great success with quasi-serial procedurals like The Closer and Rizzoli & Isles (which both return tonight), and recently greenlit a second season for its sci-fi drama Falling Skies.
When people appeal to a network to save a show, there needs to be some sort of justification. For Chuck it was product placement and a willingness to make budget concessions, while for Friday Night Lights it was an off-network distribution deal with DirecTV. Other networks, meanwhile, are in such dire shape that they can’t afford to cancel shows with a heartbeat (NBC, I am looking at you). With TNT, though, you have a stable and consistently-performing network that seems immune to the vast majority of “Save our Show” logics, except for the one that critics help manage.
And the one that remains loosely defined for TNT.
Prestige means something different for every network. For TNT, to this point, it has effectively meant Kyra Sedgwick and The Closer, its only show to find any sort of awards traction in the recent past. Sedgwick has taken home both an Emmy and a Golden Globe, while the show has notched a somewhat surprising number of ensemble nominations from the Screen Actors Guild despite never garnering any series nominations from the Emmys or the Globes. And while the show has connected with awards bodies, critics haven’t quite viewed the show in the same light: it has been fairly unheralded by most critics, with a real sense of distance from the show’s plot and characters.
Of course, The Closer is one of the most successful cable series of all time, and has now been joined by Rizzoli & Isles (which premiered so high that TNT has taken to calling it the #1 show of all time, albeit with a whole bunch of caveats). For TNT, “prestige” has become a tenuous middleground between ratings success and a vague notion of “quality.” Their idea of “quality” is very loosely defined, more of an aura than any sort of true legitimacy. When the network picked up Southland, for example, the NBC series was generally liked but not particularly beloved, but the narrative of saving a victim of the “Leno at 10pm” experiment gave the show a certain air to it. In some ways, TNT has become defined by the series it is best known for syndicating: like Law & Order, it seeks to be just popular enough to capture the attention of viewers while being just gritty and complex enough to tap into “quality” and other forms of legitimacy.
The problem with Men of a Certain Age is that it doesn’t fit into the comfortable middle ground between popularity and quality. It is pretty far from what one would call popular, drawing numbers (on average) that are reportedly below some airings of the next generation of TNT off-network repeats (Bones and The Mentalist), while it has many indicators of quality (including critical praise, Emmys attention (with Andre Braugher garnering a nomination last year, and in contention for a nod this year as well), and a Peabody Award). No other show on the network skews in this direction, and TNT has never had a show that skews in this direction, which means that it has never faced this particular problem before.
One of the arguments that Sepinwall puts on the table is that TNT is making enough money from its high-rated series that it could financially justify keeping a low-rated show on the air, which might well be true. However, that argument depends on TNT believing that there is an incentive to being associated with quality programming – is a yearly legacy Emmy nomination for Andre Braugher (who is an Emmy favorite) and a critical impression that “TNT isn’t all bad” worth the cost of producing another season of the show? And, while the network might be interested in being associated with quality programming, is this the kind of quality programming they’re interested in? It seems that shows with more tenuous claims to quality but with considerably more viewership offer TNT enough evidence to claim that they “Know Drama,” so perhaps expanding beyond that would work against their interest.
The jury remains out on the show’s future, in part because there’s no precedent for us to consider. While we could point to the show’s highly-integrated product placement for Chevrolet as an added financial incentive, the truth is that TNT isn’t a network like NBC who is struggling to get a new show off the ground and needs to rely on every decently-performing show it has at its disposal. They have a stable of successful procedural hybrids in the same vein as their syndicated programming, with just enough variation to seem diverse and just enough prestige to lay claim to quality. Men of a Certain Age may be a decidedly quality program, but it definitely doesn’t seem like the kind of show that TNT wants to build their brand around in the future.
Now, as I was discussing on Twitter earlier, this and any other discussion raises issues relating to whether or not we should blame networks for canceling low-rated shows, as often happens with shows like Arrested Development or Veronica Mars – as I argued there, I think those shows each got a chance to prove themselves, and certainly got more episodes than their ratings warranted, so their cancellations were unfortunate but not necessarily unfair. A TV By the Numbers report reflecting on the show’s situation suggests that we shouldn’t blame TNT if they don’t renew Men of a Certain Age, and I take Seidman’s point: with ratings this low, TNT has all the justification they need for this to be considered a logical decision. However, at the same time, Seidman makes the following claim that I feel misplaces the issues at stake here:
“I’m at the point where I’m resigned to thinking that well executed, well written and well acted dramas that are very bleak in tone need to be on AMC, or one of the premium cable channels or have almost no shot at all for a third season.”
First off, given that Rubicon died a slow death at AMC, I don’t think we can consider the network a haven for good shows with bleak tones. However, more importantly and more relevant to this discussion, I would challenge the notion that Men of a Certain Age is a bleak show. While one could argue that it is a subtle show, or maybe even a slow show, the consistent injection of humor and the sense of camaraderie at the heart of the show are anything but bleak. The people who defend the show, Alan and Mo included, are not just defending it based on acting or writing, but on the emotional connection they’ve made with these characters. Yes, TNT would be justified to cancel the show, but they’re not canceling a show that has no appeal beyond “quality” in its most essentialized form.
The chances of this connection manifesting as an extended fan campaign are limited, although critics on Twitter have been throwing around potential objects to send TNT should the cancellation come down in the days ahead. Logic suggests that they will wait for the Emmy nominations to be revealed, but there’s no way of knowing how many nominations might justify renewal, or whether the show stands a chance without them. In fact, I wonder if Braugher might not stand a better chance at winning should the show be canceled, as cynical as that might seem.
For now, all we can really do is cross our fingers and wait – Alan and Mo have made the case that I would make, but they’re talking to a network that isn’t used to this kind of decision, and so it remains to be seen how compelled they might be by the argument set before them.
- Regardless of the result, I at least hope that TNT is open regarding the logic behind their decision – one of the smartest things FX did when Terriers was canceled was come right out and explain the logic behind it, which helped keep them from seeming like faceless villains in their decision.
- This is sort of off-topic, but I’ll be curious to see what happens with The Closer awards-wise after it spins off into Major Crimes with Mary McDonnell as its lead: McDonnell was quite unfairly snubbed for her work on Battlestar Galactica, so I’d be interested to see if they try to make it up for her now that she’ll be heading a more palatable series for Emmy voters.
- Some great thoughts on the specific marketing of Men of a Certain Age from Jaime Weinman, who rightly points out that the generic “everyone” marketing might not have worked for a show that may have needed a stronger connection with a more specialized audience.
- Also, Tim Goodman has added his own argument that it would benefit the TNT brand to pick up the series – I’m not convinced the show is capable of building enough of an audience to serve this function, but I take his point.
- In case you want to get caught up (and the show is certainly worth catching up on regardless of whether it continues), TNT is streaming almost the entire series.