Last night, Ray Romano returned to television in the new TNT dramedy, Men of a Certain Age, and everybody did not love him. TV veterans Romano, Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap, Enterprise) and Andre Braugher (Homicide: Life on the Street) play a trio of college buddies now in their late 40s, struggling with where life has taken them. Each has a piece of the American dream, but for none of them is it enough.
Braugher’s Owen sells cars while he waits for his father to retire and let him run the dealership. He has a loving family, but he hates his job. He’s also out of shape and diabetic, and has a seizure while hiking after a confrontation with his father.
Bakula’s Terry is a mostly failed actor who works the absolute minimum at a temp agency but continues to charm beautiful women. He’s demoralized by an open casting call for a Lifetime movie role that he doesn’t even want.
Romano’s Joe runs his own party supply store and had a solid family at home, but found that even that wasn’t enough. His marriage was derailed by a gambling problem; he misses his wife, but you sense that his malaise predated the separation. He, too, had seen his dreams fall short, back in 1983 after just a couple of months as a pro golfer.
The pilot deftly introduces us to the idea of frustrated ambition. Terry and Owen both face choices to either admit defeat or hang on to their fading dreams. Joe finds himself with two years to go before he’s old enough to give the Senior Circuit a try, and he tries to fill the void by gambling. When even that’s not enough, he lies to his bookie that he doesn’t have the money he owes, just to see what will happen. He feels the lack of meaning in his life the most intensely and is looking for anything that might fill it—even danger. He’s 48 and doesn’t recognize himself in the mirror.
In one scene with his kids in the car, Joe cautions them about the consequences of wrong choices. He tells them generically about a friend he had, and how they used to be close but veered in different directions. He blurts out, “And he’s dead now, he died in a bathtub with [inches] of water.” But he really seems to be questioning his own path, even as he warns them.
The laughs are few but deserved. And the story and pacing are slow and deliberate. Anyone looking for Everybody Still Loves Raymond will be disappointed. But there’s something at the heart of this show that rings true. There’s a quest for meaning that, even when the characters are looking in the wrong places, still comes through. It’s not Fight Club or American Beauty, but it’s a more realistic response to the same restlessness that men of a certain age can feel. These men need a good story—for them to live and for us to watch. Here’s hoping the show’s writers can continue to deliver it.