On paper, Men of a Certain Age looks like a recipe for a navel-gazing disaster: Ray Romano, playing with house money from nine syndicated seasons of hit middlebrow sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, co-creates and stars in a midlife crisis dramedy on standard cable. Contrary to the laws of television vanity projects, Romano instead delivers a fairly nuanced character study of three friends in their 40s.
Romano plays Joe, a recently separated businessman who owns a party supply store and struggles with a gambling addiction that may or may not have wrecked his marriage. Romano, wisely, has not strayed too far from his acting comfort zone; utilizing his hangdog face and nasal voice, he’s essentially Ray Barone with a few more tics and a little more sadness. Romano was also smart enough not to cast himself as the sole lead in the show; he shares that duty with television veterans Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula, playing college friends of Joe’s, each with their own middle-aged malaise.
Bakula plays Terry, a washed-up actor and committed bachelor who still frosts the tips of his hair at the age of 49. He has to temp at an office to pay his bills, but his semi-celebrity status still lets him off of the majority of hooks. The other friend is Owen (Braugher), a mediocre car salesman with young kids, a heavy-duty mortgage, and a looming diabetic health crisis. His is the strongest performance in the show, playing a man who’s trying to figure out how much unhappiness he can endure to guarantee himself an okay life.
Of the first few episodes, the pilot is by far the weakest. It works up a sweat in its attempts to quickly sketch its characters and hammer home its themes. The men talk too readily about their own astonishment at growing old instead of talking about what real middle-aged men talk about: wives, kids, jobs, sports. But the show develops a groove in the second and third episodes. There are still some forced situations (Joe gets hit on by a drunk businesswoman and panics) and forced dialogue (the friends compare the number of medicinal creams they each use), but there are also more throwaway scenes with shoot-the-shit dialogue that do more to flesh out the men’s lives than anything in the overwritten pilot.
The best scene of the early episodes involves the three men watching a blowout basketball game; Joe is slightly too interested and Terry and Owen realize that he’s bet on it. They call him out, but the scene never boils over into melodrama; Terry and Owen are content to ride him on the issue and then let it go. The friendship between the three men is both the show’s strength and a potential weakness. As Certain Age flirts with honestly portraying the bleakness of modern American life, it strains to credibly justify how three stretched-thin middle-class males would find time for daily morning hikes and communal lunches. It’s a little too comfy for a show that would benefit from placing its characters in increasingly uncomfortable situations. It’s admirable to portray men who are barely treading water; it would be daring to let one of those men sink.