The Return of TNT’s Men of a Certain Age
June 1st, 2011
There are usually some questions about when, or why, critics write pre-air reviews for returning series. Personally, I tend to only do so in circumstances where the show is going through drastic changes, where my opinion of the show is going through drastic changes, or when the show simply deserves the recognition in light of its quality (and I’ve seen episodes in advance, of course).
TNT’s Men of a Certain Age, returning tonight at 10/9c, fits into the third category: in fact, considering that this is actually the seventh episode of the second season, it’s hard to argue that there are drastic changes when this is a sort of false premiere as opposed to a fresh start. This is the same show that returned for its second season back in December, and it remains that show through the first three episodes of the back half of the season (which is all I’ve gotten through to this point).
And yet I’m compelled to write down at least a few thoughts given the fact that I feel as though some people still aren’t paying attention as a result of the series’ subject matter. I had actually fallen behind on the first half of the season, and so I just recently sat down to the winter finale, in which Terry, Joe and Owen go and get colonoscopies. On paper, this sounds like something that is very distinct to the eponymous demographic, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong: after all, the number of 25-year-olds getting colonoscopies is likely pretty slim.
That being said, the idea that the problems that these characters face are strictly “of a certain age” is false: although their experience is certainly more reflective of my parents’ generation than my own, given that I am likely among the youngest viewers the show has, this is as much a “coming of age” story as any show set in high school or university. However, instead of focusing on “coming of age” moments which are ingrained within our experience, mapped out for us from the time we are born, Men of a Certain Age focuses on the fact that middle age doesn’t work the same way: it’s amorphous and, well, anything but certain.
Men of a Certain Age is not a show about the perils of becoming older, it’s a show about the perils of defining yourself at a stage when there’s no clear path ahead of you. As it returns to conclude its second season, the characters are admittedly preoccupied with the notion of turning 50, but it’s not about what they can or can’t do. Instead, it’s about what they should or shouldn’t do, a question that speaks less to being “old” and more to simply being human.
And the result is a pretty terrific drama series.
I wrote a piece back during the first season that sums up the basics of my opinion: the show has convinced me to take Romano seriously, demonstrated the skill/range of Andre Braugher, and provided Scott Bakula an outlet for both his undeniable charm and his dramatic chops. It has allowed all of them to travel to some particularly dark places, while also maintaining a clear sense of humor regarding its subject matter. There’s a few moments in the third episode back, “A League of Their Owen,” which are absolutely hysterical, but there are other parts of the episode that take some of the characters into something close to anti-hero territory.
One of the reasons why a pre-air review works for this second half of the season is that it starts off with an episode that really focuses in on each character’s search for their place in life. The show has largely moved these characters into positions of relative stability: while Joe started the series living out of a hotel after his divorce, he now has a house of his own and a pretty healthy relationship with his ex-wife; Owen started the series working for his father and is now running the dealership himself; and Terry has spent the season and a half flitting from fling to fling before finally landing what seems like a real relationship with Erin. Tonight’s premiere throws these trajectories into focus, basically stopping and giving each character a glimpse of what their lives might be like were circumstances different.
And while their specific circumstances are certainly impacted by the question of age, none of the characters feel as though they are defined by it. Owen’s Daddy issues are pretty universal, Terry’s issues have always been problematic because they seem like the issues of a much younger man, and Joe’s effort to redefine himself in the wake of a relationship (and a gambling addiction) is what anyone goes through after some sort of major life change. While the specific experiences they have may be (logically) related to their current place in life, the ideas behind them are something we all go through, and offer some really compelling dramatic space in which Romano and Mike Royce are telling some fine stories.
The three episodes I’ve seen are all very strong, and I doubt that will change with the three episodes that follow. For me, this isn’t exactly surprising, but I feel this is still a show that can “surprise” people with what it’s trying to be relative to expectations. However, part of what makes the show work is that what we see never feels like it derives from twists in the plot. Although there is action, and although characters can be taken to some fairly dark places, it doesn’t seem like the show needs to move pieces around to get them there. Instead, it just sort of happens: these characters are complex, and live in a complex world, and find themselves in situations that don’t feel staged even when they’re pretty clearly staged (as they are in a few instances).
But I don’t want to go too far into that, because it’s my intent to review the series weekly in post-air form when I can go into a bit more detail. I don’t expect them to be particularly widely-read, and I know that fellow critics like Noel Murray and Alan Sepinwall will also be writing their thoughts week-to-week, but there is some real craft on display here so I figure it’s only fair that I say what I’ve got to say. Although airing on TNT, and being “aimed” at an older demographic, might make it an unlikely show for post-air analysis, trust me when I say that the episodes I’ve seen lend themselves to something more than a cursory opinion.
Even from someone who is only about halfway to a certain age.
Men of a Certain Age returns at 10/9c on TNT with “The Great Escape” – my review will go live at 11/10c.