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?

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