Taking a break from their slate of crime-related procedurals and taking another crack at a show about dudes dealing with their mid-lives, TNT premiered Men of a Certain Age last night. The brainchild of Ray Romano and co-Everybody Loves Raymond-er Mike Royce, the show is about a triumvirate of men in their late forties all suffering through some sort of identity crisis or another. It's not really ground-breaking, it's only moderately interesting, and there's lots of clunky dialogue. But, there's something to it. Unfortunately, that something (when revealed) makes everything worse.
But, before I get to that, let's deal with the show itself. Romano plays a guy named Joe who owns a party supply store and is a divorced father with a gambling problem. He clearly still has a thing for ex-wife, the show's opening conversation includes a totally transparent lie about how he's happy that they're "friends" now. (Right after saying that, Joe notes that "he knows it's corny but..." Let me tell you something, if your first scene notes that things are "corny, but..." you're in big trouble.) Joe's buddies are in similar straights: Andre Braugher plays Owen, a car salesman who struggles at work under the yoke of his boss-dad. His other struggles include sleep apnea, diabetes, being a little overweight and renovating his house while getting ready to pay for school for his three kids. Scott Bakula plays Terry, an aging actor, who has all but given up that pursuit. Instead, he spends most of his time not working at his temp job and hitting on a 20-something barista. Basically, they're all pretty pathetic guys with minimal amounts going on, they like to hike and eat lunch, and pains have been taken to make them, and all this, seem "real."
We're talking shaky, hand-held camera work and lots of jump cuts, we're treated to three or four as Romano brushes his teeth, for example. It's a page ripped from the Friday Night Lights handbook, and unfortunately it doesn't quite work here. Yes, it's nice to get naturalistic filmmaking, but it has to be in service of the overall show to function properly. In the scene when Owen's dad tells him he's basically being disinherited (i.e. management of the car dealership will go to someone else), Braugher acts his ass off and we're close to him in a hand-held shot. Unfortunately, it's so dark we can't see his features, he might as well be acting from inside a paper bag. Add to this a terribly saccharine piano score and what should be the pilot's most powerful moment falls horribly flat. This goes for dialogue as well; a lunch-time conversation about Owen's stress eating takes a downhill turn when Terry says that being a car salesman is Sisyphean, because the slate gets wiped clean at the end of every month, and Joe and Owen have no idea what he's talking about, but they really do. Three men who have been friends for 40 years have all the same cultural references, not to mention that anyone who went to High School knows the myth of Sisyphus. This is the writers worrying about their viewers not knowing who Sisyphus was and what the allegory of his myth represents, making the whole thing faux-real. If it were really real, we wouldn't have to watch characters explain to other characters references they surely get; we wouldn't have to ever hear uttered the line "I told you guys about this." It's bad writing that is more worried about the viewers being able to follow the most basic of metaphors instead of being true to the characters.
Immediately after the Sisyphus conversation, Romano's Joe stares out the window of the diner and expounds on having lost his sense of self. "You're staring in the mirror and you're like, 'that's me but it's not me,'" he says with the appropriate sorts of pauses and head movements of someone saying for the first time something they thought up in the car. (Note: that quote might not be 100% direct, but I'm pretty sure that's what it was.) And it was at that moment that I realized the larger faux-real-ness of Men of a Certain Age that makes the whole show fall apart: men make decisions in a very unique way and this show has chosen to bypass that.
This is the thing that makes the show oddly hypnotic. It draws you into the minds of these guys, and their decisions, mostly, make sense. It's a sort of Sex and the City-ifying of men and that's fine; it was only a matter of time before someone on American television tried (once again) to use a drama (instead of a sitcom) to explore a male psyche not obsessed with fighting crime in some substantive way; I don't think there's been a show about men in this way since HBO's the Mind of the Married Man, though I'm probably forgetting a few. In this respect, Men of a Certain Age is wholly realized, the characters are fine and their issues are mostly realistic ones that will probably resonate with people in one way or another; this is the "something" that it has to it.
But, this leads us again, to a facet of faux-real-ness that's really annoying: we never get to see any decisions. Terry is shown an open call audition ad in an industry rag and tells his co-worker buddy and his barista crush that he isn't gonna go. But, he does. Why? Well, maybe it's because the barista pushed him, maybe because he got a spot of optimism, maybe it's because he can't deal with the temping. We don't have to know the answer, but we need to see it. We can't have a scene open with him walking into the audition without seeing him decide to go and go through those machinations, "yes, I am going. This is what I will wear, this is the scene that I will do..." The same goes for Owen. He wants to quit his job, his wife says that he can't (because of money), so he comes to work super-motivated. There's a missing step there and it's the showing of that missing step that made a show like Sex and the City speak to so many people. Even if they didn't agree with the overall course chosen by the character, it's the decision-making that brings you in, that makes a character real. Because Men of a Certain Age refuses to show us that part (and there are about five non-decisions in the pilot), it can only really gloss over its subject matter and give us only partially realized characters. To me, no matter how much other good stuff is going on, to not have that element makes the show a failure.
Come on, Eldrick.