Summer Premiere: Men of a Certain Age – “The Great Escape”

“The Great Escape”

June 1st, 2011

Given that I already offered a general opinion that “The Great Escape” is a tremendous return for the show’s second season, I don’t expect to say a great deal about the episode itself.

However, I feel that this episode more than any other captures the sort of “coming of age” theme that I highlighted in my pre-air review, creating a set of circumstances in which all of the characters prepare themselves to make an important life change before suddenly realizing that the moment has passed.

It’s oddly one of the most overtly thematic episodes that this subtle show has ever done, but its broad moments are triggered by such subtle observations that it never betrays what makes the series so compelling.

Near the beginning of “The Great Escape,” the gang meet up at the diner for one of their regular chats, although it doesn’t go as planned: Owen has to rush off and has already finished eating when Joe arrives, Terry is only having coffee since he’s got business to attend to as well, and Joe only gets a brief chat in before everyone is running off. These are supposed to be the times when they sit down to hash things out, to get a sense of where they are all at in terms of headspace, but they don’t really get a chance to chat.

It’s the start of what plays out as a sort of mirror universe in which Terry is domesticated, Joe reunites with his ex-wife, and Owen becomes a stay-at-home father by selling the dealership. Of course, all of this turns out to be a dream, a one-night anomaly that is shattered by the next morning. For Terry, his night living with Erin brings to the surface her true perception of their relationship, his growing affection and (dare I say) commitment being seen only as a fling (not unlike the flings that he has had in the past). For Joe, a potential reconnection with Sonia after her breakup with “the other man” is like a chance to get his old life back, but that old life doesn’t feel right (even with the lights off). For Owen, an alcohol-driven night of dreaming and product reviewing has him selling the dealership, but the next morning brings only an understanding that to do so would be reckless (and perhaps too much of a change for him to hangle).

For Owen, this is a fairly minor setback: the dream was big, but the reality is something that he has been doing for a long time, and something that is at least familiar. Even Joe has something else to focus on, albeit something that is not moving quite as smoothly as he might have liked, in his attempt to make the Senior Tour, as well as a family to support him through any decision. While Joe has suffered from the divorce, and Owen does have a substantial debt to deal with which makes the buyout offer a difficult opportunity to pass up, there’s a clear support structure in place to help them through: family.

Terry doesn’t have that. In fact, what he’s losing is what Joe and Owen already have: someone else in their lives that they can care for or count on. This season has been a particularly strong one for Scott Bakula, as he starts to discover a greater feeling of “responsibility” to those around him. And yet, at every turn he’s found himself combating expectations that he is, and will always be, a flake. His brother seems almost in disbelief that he showed up for the birthday party, and that he actually wanted to be there just for the sake of being there. He also refused to take back the money that he loaned Terry, feeling that he would just be asked for more money again in the future. People don’t believe in Terry, to put it more simply, and here he discovers that even the women he feels he legitimately loves thinks he’s just a guy who wants to have fun instead of a guy who stares at his toothbrush beside hers and thinks that he could get used to it.

As we’ll see in the weeks ahead, the fallout from these setbacks varies: some of them linger without being particularly damaging, others are more or less dropped entirely, and another does tend to resonate more strongly. However, I think it’s interesting how separated the characters are in the episode, each off in their own little worlds: Joe with Manfro and Sonia (who’s resisting his first chemotherapy treatment until the support of a kindly stripper convinces him), Terry with Erin, and Owen with Melissa. While the show is ostensibly about the camaraderie between these three characters, and that relationship was certainly front and center in the winter finale (where the three went to get colonoscopies), this is definitely exploring within a different space.

It’s a space that does the show a lot of favors: some really funny material (especially Owen’s late night decision-making montage, so brilliantly punctuated by the products being reviewed), some stronger dramatic material (Melinda McGraw was particularly good at selling Erin’s sense of guilt), and some material that nicely straddled both (Sonia and Joe’s failed tryst being particularly strong in this degree, with the off-screen garbage can attack punctuating a nice subtle scene). Like another episode later this season, I wouldn’t say that this episode felt wholly organic: the episode has to do a lot of things to create these scenarios, and the way they all tie together is certainly a writerly construct. However, the episode still feels subtle because each story spins off into something insightful about these characters, with the big moment of revelation being torn away by a heavy dose of reality.

It’s a very strong thematic note for the show to hit at this stage in the season, a great launching pad for the episodes that follow, and a pretty terrific episode in its own right.

Cultural Observations

  • “You have glitter on your cheek” – I thought that was going to lead to some sort of confrontation, but it was just a throwaway joke.
  • I liked how Albert comforted Sonia so earnestly, and that he has no idea what “the change” is – a good kid. We’ll see more of Albert next week.
  • Seriously, though, that product review montage makes the fact that I find Melissa’s magical “Product Review” job to be a bit specious entirely fly out the window. Worth it.
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