December 02, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

As the second act in Ray Romano’s TV career, Men of a Certain Age is the opposite of a midlife crisis: It’s a midlife triumph, a series that takes a well-worn theme and makes it unpredictable, freshly funny, and sometimes moving.

The men of a certain age are Romano, as Joe, separated from his wife and owner of a party-supply store; Scott Bakula as Terry, a single, mostly unemployed actor whose laid-back manner can still charm twentysomething girls; and Andre Braugher as Owen, a tense, overworked car salesman whose dealership is owned by his imperious father.

Any one of these characters could slide easily into the clichés of a thousand movies or TV shows about middle-age craziness, but Romano, who co-created Men with one of his Everybody Loves Raymond producers, Mike Royce, manages to layer in the complexities while nurturing a tone of wry, sometimes raucous humor. It’s an hour-long show that plays like a sitcom with depth, or a drama with quietly clever grace-notes.

The premiere is spent filling us in on who the guys are. We see these Los Angeles buddies trading bad-luck stories and genial jabs over diner lunches (what plugs the comfy Norms restaurant chain receives). We glimpse them at work, where each has hit a wall that’s left him dissatisfied and itching for change. And we learn the chinks in their armor: Joe has a gambling habit (it’s the pivotal reason for his separation); Terry feels self-loathing having to audition for TV-movie jobs he considers beneath him; Owen is cowed by his father/boss (a terrific gruff performance by Richard Gant).

The second episode really convinces you of Men‘s quality. The laughs are solid: When Joe and Owen witness Terry nuzzling with a much-younger waitress, Joe razzes him, ”Now you’re gonna have to see all the Twilight movies.” And the drama becomes intense: When Owen’s wife (The Practice‘s Lisa Gay Hamilton) upbraids her father-in-law for publicly insulting Owen, the poor guy is just further humiliated.

The theme song for Men is the Beach Boys’ ”When I Grow Up (To Be a Man).” The music’s propulsive melancholy suits the theme, even if the lyric doesn’t — these men are grown-ups; it’s just that adulthood has turned out to be a bummer.

I worry a bit that what makes Men so interesting could also prevent it from being a success on TNT, home of female kick-butts (The Closer) and lightweight action dramas (Leverage). I suppose it’s a better haven than any broadcast network would be for a subtle show like this, but I urge you to support Men anyway. These fascinatingly troubled guys need all the help they can get. A?

See all of this week’s reviews

type
TV Show
Genre
run date
12/07/09
Status
In Season
Cast
Scott Bakula,
Network
Complete Coverage

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