The nasal drone that emanates from the hangdog face hasn’t lost its baritone whine. But it’s clear as his new California-set show, “Men of a Certain Age,” caps its triumphant first season Monday night that Ray Romano has left Ray Barone back on Long Island.
Avoiding typecasting after a long running, beloved hit like “Everybody Loves Raymond” is no small accomplishment, especially for someone whose background is in the personality-driven world of standup comedy. But after nine seasons as Raymond, it’s taken Romano only nine episodes to firmly establish himself as Joe, whose sardonic wit masks turmoil and insecurity.
Joe isn’t all that lovable – but that’s okay. “Men of a Certain Age” is one of the TV season’s best new shows, pulling pathos and laughs from a bittersweet look at guys lumbering toward 50.
For the uninitiated, the show centers on three forty-something college buddies who barely have one another to lean on as they grapple with major life changes and the realization they’re running out of time to repair broken dreams.
Joe is a party supplies store owner and failed golfer whose marriage died at least partly because of his dangerous sports gambling addiction. Car salesman Owen (Andre Braugher) enjoys a strong marriage, but is battling diabetes and out-of-control eating as his finds himself constantly swallowing his pride around his successful father – a former basketball star who is also his boss and considers him a disappointment. Terry (Scott Bakula) is a single, handsome Peter Pan type whose middling acting career has given way to gigs as an office temp and as his apartment complex’ superintendent.
There’s lots of humor in the show, to be sure, particularly in the trash talk that’s hurled around the diner booth that’s the three buddies’ refuge. It’s where they’re most comfortable discussing their problems – even if the exchanges are coated in the kind of insults only old pals can get away with delivering.
The scenes, rightfully, have been compared to Barry Levinson’s 1982 coming-of-age classic “Diner.” But unlike “Diner,” these friends are well past the crossroads between youth and adulthood, and are staring into the chasm that’s life’s third act.
But it’s not as bleak as it sounds. With Monday’s 10th and final episode of the season, Joe and his friends at least are headed in new, if uncertain directions.
After buying a new house with a down payment from the proceeds of a risky bet, Joe hints to new girlfriend about his gambling habit – indicating he’s getting serious about her but also giving her cause for concern. Terry is taking an opportunity to get back into show business, but risks losing the stable girlfriend who is half his age with twice the maturity. Owen – whose father turns over the family business to a younger, slicker man he considers a surrogate son – leaves his safe, if stifling, job to work for a rival car dealer.
"Men of a Certain Age," judging by its success (it’s already been renewed for next season), seems to have struck a nerve. The TNT show comes at a time when the popular culture is only just beginning to address what it’s like to be a man over 40 in these times of economic and social shifts.
HBO’s “Hung” uses dark humor to portray the shattered life of a high school basketball coach in his early 40s whose sole power comes in prostituting himself, thanks to the attribute referred to in the show’s title. Ben Stiller, meanwhile, is staring in an upcoming movie, called “Greenberg,” in which he plays a 40-year-old loser recovering from a mental breakdown after a string of failures.
"There is a feeling like you have ... your life ahead of you,” Stiller, 44, told Reuters. “Greenberg is really coming up against the fact that he doesn't. You have to accept those things and that's part of growing up."
The Beach Boys’ “When I Grow to be a Man” is the very apt theme song for “Men of a Certain Age.” Joe, Owen and Terry aren’t quite there yet – but at least they’re trying. Romano, Braugher and Bakula are maturing professionally, playing, to varying degrees, against type as their careers evolve.
The actors and their characters' journeys will be well worth the ride into next season, and hopefully beyond.
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.