“Back in the Shit”
February 22nd, 2010
“The grand essentials of happiness are something to do, something to love, something to hope for.”
I took a couple of stabs at making this introduction into a fairly elaborate discussion of how surprising I find Men of a Certain Age’s quality to be at points, and how glad I am that I sat down to watch the pilot despite being far outside of the show’s demographics, but I realized that I wrote about a lot of that the first time I tackled the show. The message, I hope, was received: this is a damn good show, and one that you should be watching.
But I was drawn into trying to recreate those points because the show continues to surprise me, and more importantly it continues to be really compelling. There is an honesty about this show that makes me like it more and more with each passing episode, and even when the show gets a fairly romantic sendoff (out of fear that this would be the show’s one and only season) it feels imminently satisfying because it leaves at least one of its three protagonists lacking in one of the above “grand essentials of happiness,” and leaves its others with work to do before they truly achieve those goals.
“Back in the Shit” is perhaps not the show’s best episode, rushing to take characters to dark places and rushing just as quickly to bring them a bit more good fortune, but it does so while retaining the subtlety that took the show from a middle-aged male version of Sex and the City (as it was once sold) into an adult drama series with heart, humour and good reasons I want to punch Ray Romano in the kidneys – the grand essentials, if you will.
There’s no question that, in order to achieve a fairly happy ending, “Back in the Shit” rushes quite a few particular developments. It isn’t surprising that Owen is more motivated at his new job down the road at the other Chevy dealership, but it’s a bit surprising that his father would so quickly realize that he isn’t comfortable retiring without someone he trusts in the position of manager. Similarly, it makes sense that Joe would fall further into gambling after getting lucky on his big bet to win the house, but for him to turn it around so quickly felt a bit contrived. It’s not that these story developments are inorganic or anything like that, but they just felt like they reached their resolutions before the full dramatic (or comic) potential of the storylines ran out.
The trick with Men of a Certain Age, though, is that the stories had all of the scenes necessary to sell us on these particular developments. We saw what Joe’s “rock bottom” looked like last week, so this week was more about what happens when Joe takes his gambling too far while he handles two mortgages and the rest of his life’s expenses. And since the episode needs us to hate Joe a whole lot, we see how he fires Carlos (who, to be fair, was sleeping on the job) before he gives up gambling, and we see how he leaves Albert alone in a movie theatre while he bets on the game. And then he has that scene with Albert in the car that really did break our hearts, and then we don’t want to punch him quite as much; sure, we could have spent more time on Joe’s struggles with money, and they didn’t need to wrap up the story in a single episode, but his relationship with Albert (who inherited the anxiety that is creeping back into Joe’s life) has always been the heart of his character, so it made sense to use that to bring the character to a better place.
Similarly, Owen’s relationship with his father has been one of the best parts of the show, so the rushing that takes place to get Owen in charge of the dealership is ultimately grounded in their relationship. We skipped over a number of scenes here (the boss agreeing to hire Owen out of spite for their competitor, Owen interacting with his new co-workers, Owen’s motivated sales techniques, etc.), but the point got across: Owen Sr. got to see that his son was more motivated trying to prove his father wrong than he was to make him proud, and in the post-retirement euphoria Owen Sr. sees his son in a new light. Sure, the show rushed its way through the necessary barriers, never quite establishing what made Marcus’ leadership so terrible outside of turning him into a bigger douchebag, but I buy that Owen Sr. would be uncomfortable with someone who wants to take things in entirely different directions, and even if the underlying reasons were left untouched thanks to the concern over this being the end for the series, I think Owen Sr. is going to want Jr. to roll over and keep things the same, so there’s still plenty of room for tension down the road. It was rushed, yes, but it didn’t rush things to a place without complications, and there’s still plenty of potential within that storyline.
What balanced both stories, I felt, was that Terry’s life remains in shambles. While Joe was able to course correct from his dangerous path, and Owen was able to channel his frustration into a positive step forward in his employment situation, Terry was given an opportunity to move forward with his career at the expense of his personal life. Terry’s character was slow to get going, but these last few episodes showed him the kind of life he could have lived if he had stuck with acting, and when he abandons Annie and his role as Building Superintendent to traipse off with Bobby Nylan for three weeks he is simply doing what he feels he is supposed to do. Annie was really excited about the opportunity, after all, so he’s only trying to follow the dream; the problem is that Terry, who has always had trouble committing to things, chose this precise moment to commit wholeheartedly to one part of his life in spite of everything else, so he returns home to an angry boss, a pissed off ex-girlfriend, and a weed-induced hookup with the acting acquaintance he had fill in for him.
And while Joe and Owen both get the resolutions they were hoping for, their wakeup calls (Owen getting passed over by Marcus, Joe’s scene with Albert in the car) followed up with positive resolutions, while Terry tries to talk to Annie only to get named “Dick” on his coffee cup, and returns to a faceful of feces. While Joe and Owen have families, people to help inspire them to pick up the pieces, Terry has none of that, and it’s fitting (considering Terry’s realization in the Cynthia Watros episode that he does sort of want that kind of life) that in the end he turns to his friends as a sort of surrogate family. Those hikes and coffee shop visits became less common as the series continued, but that final hike really brought the group together so that Terry’s frustrations could be brought to something close to a resolution. While Joe and Owen have enough support in their lives for their “happy” endings to feel realistically happy, Terry’s ending is far more tenuous: he might be professionally charming, and we might have all been able to figure out that Owen would “solve” Terry’s situation, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be good at selling cars, and there’s plenty of comic and dramatic potential there.
That is ultimately what makes the show’s rushed resolutions work: while they took some shortcuts to get them there, nothing feels final. Owen and his father are still going to have a tenuous relationship even if Owen Sr. feels better with this arrangement, Terry is still going to feel unfulfilled selling cars (especially when Owen wasn’t particularly happy about the job when he was just a salesman either), and if Joe’s shot at the end of the episode was any indication he might not so easily make it onto the Senior Tour. It makes sense that Owen’s life would be the most together (as he has a stable family environment to keep him grounded), it makes sense that Joe would be full of hope with no guarantee of success (with no reunion with Dory, for example, leaving his romantic life in disrepair), and it makes sense that Terry wouldn’t be reunited with Annie, left with nothing after struggling to keep himself focused.
You could claim, I guess, that the show is about mid-life crises, in that Joe faces life post-divorce, and Owen faces a lack of forward momentum at work, and Terry struggles with the career he never followed through on and the life he could lead if he found something more stable. But the show never feels like it defines these characters by their crises, focusing instead on how they got to this point, and how they navigate the long-term ramifications of these kinds of events. Bolstered by the fantastic performances from Ray Romano, Andre Braugher and (especially this week) Scott Bakula, the show has managed to avoid falling into any of the potential traps surrounding this premise, taking time to focus on small problems (like Owen’s struggles with his home renovation), quirky relationships (Joe’s bookie), and small victories. It’s a show about big problems that never felt like it exploited those problems for the sake of dramatic effect, and that it managed to maintain that pedigree in an episode where they were rushing towards a satisfying ending in case of cancellation was a true feat.
The series was a pleasant surprise in the beginning, but the surprise was gone by the time the show got to its finale, and now it’s just one of the most well-made drama series on television: and considering that this summer may have me actively campaigning for Ray Romano to get a Dramatic acting nomination at the Emmys, that’s one hell of a feat.
- The finale brought out all sorts of critics who don’t always write about the show, so check out James Poniewozik and Noel Murray; meanwhile, you can also check out Alan Sepinwall’s feature on the series, and his full interview with Mike Royce on the season finale (and the season as a whole).
- In terms of the show’s Emmy chances, TNT has had good luck with actresses (Sedgwick, Hunter) but not quite the same luck with series or actors. I have to wonder if they’re going to try to divide things up by submitting Scott Bakula as a supporting actor, as his relegation in early episodes makes it logical if not necessarily fair. Feel free to speculate on what episodes they should be submitting for Emmy consideration (although to be honest, it’s pretty straightforward), as both Romano (1 win in 5 nominations) and Braugher (2 wins in 5 nominations) are on the voters’ radars.
- My one major complaint with the finale is actually the music: things were just a bit too ominous when Joe was nailing on Albert, and a bit too saccharine when he was feeling differently. The show could have played those scenes without music at all and they still would have delivered.