The late George Carlin used to do a great bit about middle age in the form of an imaginary conversation between two guys. It went something like this:
Guy One: How old you?
Guy Two: I'm middle aged.
Guy One: Yeah, but how old are you?
Guy Two: I'm 57.
As Carlin noted, how many 114 year olds do you know?
The show, for the uninitiated, intersperses the lives of three college buddies on the cusp of 50 – and, to varying degrees, on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
There's Joe (Ray Romano), a storeowner whose marriage fell victim, in part, to his sports gambling addiction. There's Owen (Andre Braugher), a solid family man whose girth has grown under pressure from his domineering father/boss, a basketball hero turned successful car dealer. There's Terry (Scott Bakula) a charming Peter Pan of an actor who never made it big and is increasingly beset by humiliations suggesting he never will.
"Men of a Certain Age" proved an unexpected, if low-key, hit with critics and audiences – as The Hollywood Reporter notes, the show pulled in nearly twice the audience of the far more discussed cable drama “Mad Men,” a program about guys from a far different time with a far different approach to life.
The success of "Men of a Certain Age" is a tribute to the intelligent scripts mixing life-drawn drama and humor, and the all-around fine acting (Romano more than holds his own). But "Men" also may have tapped into something in the zeitgeist with its realistic take on aging guys struggling to find their place amid mounting economic pressures and changing expectations of men’s roles.
A handful of other current shows – all on HBO – strike somewhat similar themes. In the seriocomic "Hung," a forty-something former high school sports hero markets the attribute alluded to in the title when his American Dream crashes into reality in depressed Detroit.
In "Bored to Death," the hilarious broad comedy is tempered and given resonance by the underlying search for the meaning of manhood by a young, lovelorn writer (Jason Schwartzman) and his 62-year-old seeming suave, but emotionally lost-in-a-haze-of-pot-smoke mentor (Ted Danson, in what may be the best performance of his career).
Then there's the most outrageous example, "Eastbound & Down," in which Danny McBride plays an unhinged, self-destructive former baseball pitching star on a quixotic comeback quest punctuated by wild, drug-fueled swings from grandiosity to crushing insecurity as the clock ticks down on his once-magic arm.
Those three shows are on hiatus now, which makes the return of "Men" all the more welcome. When the program’s first season wrapped in February, the buddies all were on the rebound: Joe took strides toward stability. Owen took over his father's business and hired Terry.
"There was that aspect of, ‘If this is the last episode, we want it to have at least something to it, some sort of closure,’" the show’s co-creator, Mike Royce, told The Star-Ledger of Newark earlier this year. "But at the same time, we were setting things up for the second season."
TNT, thankfully, was smart enough to extend the show into middle age, which is what a second season passes for these days. The new season looks promising, judging from the previews – in the first episode, Romano’s Joe, a scratch golfer, mulls an unlikely tryout for the PGA’s senior tour.
Hope flickers on in these characters, thanks in great part to the show’s stars.
Braugher, the tough guy detective of "Homicide: Life on the Street," is the standout – bravely playing overweight and under confident as he forges ahead for his family. Bakula embraces portraying an aging pretty boy Lothario who threatens to be swallowed by his own shallowness – but is smart enough to realize he needs to get his act together. Romano proves there are third acts in life – going from stand-up comedian to sitcom star to a strong actor in one of TV’s best dramas, a program he co-created.
In the show, Romano’s Joe is couple of months away from 50, which qualifies as middle-aged in the popular vernacular, if not by Carlin's math. At this certain age, the overgrown kids may not be all right – but at least they're trying and are well worth watching.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.