I never watched Sex and the City. I’ve caught a few reruns, but the girls didn’t engage me. So who would have thought that three guys closing in on the mid-century mark would be so riveting for me? Is it the chance to be a fly on the wall during their breakfast conversations, where I get a window into how men think and what they talk about? Possibly it’s because they parse the issues of the sandwich generation with such enthusiasm. Either way, it’s a winner. From the first episode, I was hooked. Not only did I get psychological moments of revelatory truth in a weekly show, I also got belly laughs that made my sides hurt.
The show’s center, three college buddies—Joe, Owen, and Terry (played by Ray Romano, Andre Braugher, and Scott Bakula respectively) share an emotional history that allows them to be more honest with their feelings than your average male. They verbalize all the unsaid thoughts that gnaw at mid-lifers from, “How did I get here?” to “Where am I going next?”
Those uncertainties fueled the origins of the program. Co-creators Romano and Mike Royce found themselves asking those very questions. Both men, who have been in each other’s orbits for twenty-five years, had traveled the stand-up comic road. Romano’s Everybody Loves Raymond ended in 2005. Seeing that not too many shows were staking out this territory, they decided to tackle the topic.
I spoke with Los Angeles based Royce by telephone to discuss the season, the characters, and the creative intention. With some of the same speech inflections as Joe, Royce told me that they were able to build a solid base of female viewers, who were not football enthusiasts, in the original Monday slot. The current stats by gender fluctuate, but often have women outnumbering men. Royce attributes that to the fact that the show is a relationship drama, with “women getting a peek at the male psyche.” When I suggested that the series had a feminist bent, equating feminism with humanism, he replied, “I’m happy to take that.”
We talked about the scripts—including the “colonoscopy” episode where the friends decide to take their tests together, making a trip out of it. Since the procedure is a test that you take at 50, Royce and Romano decide to run with that as a jumping off point.
The episodes are multi-layered. Different story strands that seem independent and organic always echo a theme or insight, experienced in different ways by the individual characters. Royce said, “We always try to be very precise with the writing. Everything is adding up to something. From the music to the title — there’s a reason.”
The dialogue nails it. It can spring from an occurrence like Owen holding the door for two twenty-something women who look right through him—thus creating a catalyst for an ensuing riff on waning sexual attractiveness. Often it’s just a simple one liner, like Joe declaring, “You kicked your anxiety in the balls today.” Men of A Certain Age pivots from casual off-the-cuff conversations where the friends compare their “asses,” to admissions of waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning—with the existential dilemma drenching them in sweat. It may not be the way Sartre put it, but you get the message, in the gut, loud and clear.
The metaphors abound as each man digs around inside his own dreams, aspirations, and failures. For Joe, it’s his talent at golf and his struggle with gambling. Terry works to parse out his aging actor conflicts and the disconnect between what should have been and what is, in both his career and his relationships. Owen, who has achieved success in his marriage (to a fully drawn wife played to perfection by Lisa Gay Hamilton) and home life, has a major challenge with a sabotaging father whom he still deferentially calls “Daddy.”
Royce, Romano, and the writing team flesh out a rich ensemble of supporting players. They stand as individuals, while giving insights into the primary trio. Joe’s employees, the salespeople at the Thoreau car dealership, children, parents and friends—all become fodder to help examine the vagaries of life. Joe, a West Coast Woody Allen type, sees himself in his son’s anxiety attacks. He questions how to carve out a new life as a divorced man. Juxtaposed are story lines that include his father’s new sweetheart, and his interaction with his daughter’s boyfriend—who just happens to be using his bathroom after a coital encounter with his little girl.
Royce explained that the goal was “to make the comedy funny and have the drama affecting.” It works. This year, Men of a Certain Age was one of three television shows to get the prestigious Peabody Award.
Life is messy. Men of a Certain Age allows the audience to follow the men’s triumphs and disappointments as they struggle through challenges and choices, one day at a time, trying to figure it all out. As Owen chides Terry, “You think you’re the only one with problems? Grow up!” What could be better than getting a reality check wrapped in a laugh?
With just the final episodes remaining, the complete seasons have been posted online at tnt.tv. Hopefully TNT knows that it has a gem—and will pick up a third year.
Photos courtesy of Danny Feld/TNT