“Men of a Certain Age,” which is nearing the end of its second season on TNT, is a dramatic enigma. The stars of the television drama — Ray Romano, Scott Bakula, and Andre Braugher — are not unlike the other kinds of leading men you’d expect to see on a TNT series, but “Men of a Certain Age,” to its credit, doesn’t fit into TNT mold. It’s a mature, languidly paced program more about themes and character than about plot, and it’s probably for that reason that the show had shed half its viewers since it debuted in 2009. Regular TNT viewers might have expected Wild Hogs with the guy from “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Quantum Leap.” What it’s become is a rich examination of middle-aged malaise, a realistic and intimate portrait of three men dealing with life in their late 40s.
The show was created by Ray Ramono and Mike Royce — who had worked together on “Everybody Loves Raymond” — and while Scott Bakula is his typical easy-going laid back charming self and Braugher every bit as good as his Emmy-winning career would suggest, it’s Ramono himself who is the surprisingly warm center of the show. In “Raymond,” he’d always struck me as the family-sitcom version of Jerry Seinfeld, a reasonably amusing guy that surrounded himself with much better actors. But Romano blossoms in “Men” as a slightly neurotic party store owner trying to cope in the aftermath of a divorce while dealing with a lingering gambling problem. The first season touched upon that addiction in a fairly straightforward manner, but in the second season — as we see him struggling to find ways to fill the lack — we find out how much that addiction truly has a hold over him. It starts with small mind bets — promises he makes to himself if he does or does not fulfill certain tasks — which are like the small tastes of non-alcoholic beer that lead a man back to alcoholism. The character has been so richly drawn and superbly acted over two seasons now that Romano’s Joe is a hard character not to root for, even as he teeters on the edge of disaster, a disaster that would further fracture his relationship with his two teen-aged children
Scott Bakula’s Terry is dealing with his middle-aged crisis in reverse: After a life as a struggling actor, sleeping with women half his age, Terry is seeking stability and companionship. He settles in as a car salesman for Owen (Braugher) and, over the course of the second season, has fallen in love with a woman his own age, a former actress turned teacher. Commitment is new to Terry, and there’s some novelty to watching him jump through some of the typical tropes of relationship dramas as a 50-year-old man. I’m happy to report, too, that 20 years after “Quantum Leap,” Bakula still has that familiar twinkle, and there’s something very appealing about a ladies’ man weighed down by earnest naivete.
Andre Braugher, along with the smart writing and the comfortable pacing, is nevertheless the chief reason to tune in to “Men of a Certain Age” each week. He’s simply outstanding as a married father of two, rooted in a stable relationship, dealing with the day-to-day running of the family car dealership he inherited from his father, a former NBA player and still a large presence in the car lot. Owen is an assured, self-confident person at home, but he turns into a weak pushover in the presence of his father, who he still (uncomfortably) calls “Daddy.” It’s been an absolute joy over two seasons to watch Owen mature, to bring some of that confidence at home into the workplace. Moreover, the drama’s A-plots often revolve around the dealership, which allows the show to bring in more colorful supporting characters.
Billed as a comedy, “Men of a Certain Age” is more of a drama with a light, somewhat amusing sensibility, much like “Parenthood” with a larger focus on friendship instead of family. It’s a show that rarely hits the big notes or wallows in the low — it levitates, floating through thematic complications with comfortable ease, gradually piling on the smaller conflicts, crescendoing to satisfying but never overcooked conclusions. “Men of a Certain Age” is warm and compelling, a show that embraces middle age as much as it fears it. Now with “Game of Thrones” on hiatus, “Men” is also the best drama running right now.