By Ken Tucker
Updated December 06, 2010 at 12:00 PM EST
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The second-season premiere of Men of a Certain Age on Monday night found our trio of pals – Ray Romano’s Joe; Andre Braugher’s Owen, Scott Bakula’s Terry – facing, or avoiding, new challenges. Joe was self-treating his gambling addiction by geting in shape for a golf senior tour; Owen was trying to assume the mantle of leadership at his father’s car dealership; and Terry was swallowing his actor’s ego and trying to boost his income by selling cars at that same dealership. It’s not a spoiler to say that they’re all failing, in varying degrees. But the achievement of this series that it makes middle-age failure so energetically entertaining.

No other show would, or could, make one of its stand-out moments include a man’s embarrassment at having to use reading-glasses for the first time in front of his date. Self-conscious about aging and his newly-single status, Joe can barely bring himself to do things that might bring him pleasure, whether it’s playing golf or playing the field. Similarly, Owen can’t revel in the victory he secured at the end of last season – forcing his imperious dad (Richard Gant) to let him run the dealership – because as soon as he takes over, he faces new ego-battering problems, such as a sales staff that dismisses him as a mere Daddy’s-boy.

There’s a loose, almost ragged pace to Men that’s unlike other TV shows’ rhythms — it’s more like a rambling indie film each week. In the case of Romano and Braugher, it plays against their most familiar TV images. Romano played a needy wuss in Everybody Loves Raymond; Braugher has specialized in brainy authority types, whether it was in the wonderful Homicide: Life on the Street or the short-lived Gideon’s Crossing. As for Bakula, he’s trading on all the good will you have for him in shows ranging from Quantum Leap to Star Trek: Enterprise — his Terry is a version of Scott Bakula if Bakula had never had that earlier degree of success.

Men of a Certain Age contains a core of blunt truth: Life isn’t easy, or tidy, or pretty. This dark-tinged show is frequently very funny, never more so than when the pals gather for a diner meal, to whine and tease each other. The dialogue has a cutting crispness; the pace of the hour zips along, no matter how logy its anti-heroes may become. Indeed, Men of a Certain Age is downright inspirational to anyone, of any age.

But don’t tell these guys that: They want to moan for your — and their — pleasure.

Did you watch the season premiere?

Twitter: @kentucker

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