Troubles That Ring True for Women of a Certain Age
“Men of a Certain Age,” TNT’s funny, elegant meditation on midlife, which resumed on Monday nights for a second season this month, was created by Ray Romano and Mike Royce (both of “Everybody Loves Raymond”), but it is easy to imagine that these are pseudonyms for two other people entirely — let’s call them Ramona and Michele.
The suspicion festers because the sensibility of the show is so genetically female, so catered to how women think men ought to live. Revolving around the relationship of three male friends with a long history, the series is warm, chatty, minutiae obsessed and almost hormonal in its swings from cool observational comedy to saturnine character examination. It is, in some sense, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” ratcheted down a few tax brackets and up a number of scales in emotional key. The result has proved to be a success. Since its premiere last year, the series has attracted an average of 3.9 million viewers a week, more than half of whom are women.
The grainy, scrapbook-inspired credit sequence that plays out to “When I Grow Up (to Be a Man)” by the Beach Boys, with its tenor of preordained wistfulness, sets the mood at the proper caliber of restrained bittersweet sentimentality. It suggests that the three men at the center can trace their origins to the days of Tonka trucks, sustained themselves through the awkward making-out-with-girls-on-the-beach years and landed securely in the present day to experience the tenuous pleasures and psychic disturbances of middle age.
In the intervening time Joe (Mr. Romano), Terry (Scott Bakula) and Owen (Andre Braugher) have confronted divorce, addiction, Oedipal issues, creative failure, child-rearing anxieties and near daily abrasions to their masculinity. But they have remained in constant touch, soothing one another in decidedly analog fashion, with face time.
It was a complaint leveled at “Sex and the City” that few responsible adults in the world had as much time to eat with their friends as the show imagined. The same dart could be aimed here. Joe, Terry and Owen have breakfast together at a diner almost every day, and because the setting is Los Angeles — the San Fernando Valley, specifically — they can further enhance togetherness with regular hiking.
After a 20-year marriage Joe dates tentatively, of late from the small pool of single mothers at his son’s school. Terry’s contribution to the collective malaise is a stalled career as an actor. Owen battles a difficult relationship with a belittling father, a former player for the Los Angeles Lakers (portrayed by Richard Gant) who employs and manipulates his son at his thriving Chevrolet dealership. (Owen has recently taken over the reins and is trying to juggle his new demands at work with an already hectic married life at home.)
Humiliation is one of the show’s pervasive themes, one that has become more dominant as the series has progressed. It is rendered here as an inevitable dimension of American life when you are a man approaching 50 who has managed to ascend merely to the middle class.
“Men of a Certain Age” takes a less brutal approach to the subject than “Hung,” where an underfinanced high school teacher is driven to male prostitution to balance his budget. But the mood of abjection is ever present, most palpably at the car dealership, where bosses and colleagues ritually seek to debase one another as if in rehearsal for a community-theater production of “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
This season, realizing he had to move on from acting, Terry has gone to work at the dealership, only to find himself subjected to endless mocking YouTube replays of an embarrassing ’80s TV commercial in which he appeared. Terry, with his shaggy hair colored in highlights, is the show’s Lothario, but he sleeps with aging waitresses, his appeal to younger conquests having entered its ember stage. Terry had a dalliance with a 25-year old barista last season, though it began uneasily when she asked if midnight was too late to get together. (“No,” Terry responded, “I’ll have my nurse wake me.”)
Unlike “Californication,” which is firmly steeped in the myth that unimpressive 49-year-olds can pick up women who look like models as easily as they can pick up a door knob at a Home Depot, “Men of a Certain Age,” dismantles the Hugh Hefner fantasies that have tried to hoodwink so many. Here, men date realistically, awkwardly, desperately, without free-access passes — guaranteed simply by the virtue of their maleness — to whole frontiers of coltish 23-year-olds. (An added value of the approach is that it has led to the casting of beautiful, fine and underused actresses in their late 30s and 40s — Sarah Clarke of “24” and Jessica Tuck among them.)
Happiness isn’t improbable, only cartoonish ecstasy is. In many ways “Men of a Certain Age” seems designed not for men at all but for the 46-year-old just-divorced woman who is at home on her sofa, perhaps brooding doubly now because she has just finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” in which gorgeous, intelligent young women throw themselves at older men. If she is miserable imagining her ex-husband going to parties with rangy blondes who possess doctorates in applied mathematics, “Men of a Certain Age” is here to tell her that he isn’t.