By Ken Tucker
Updated May 31, 2011 at 12:00 PM EDT

Turns out, in addition to everything else good about it, Men of a Certain Age is the uncanny forecaster of an upcoming broadcasting trend this fall: shows about men who feel insecure about their place in the world, their masculinity, their relationships with women. New sitcoms such as Free Agents, Man Up!, and Last Man Standing will all joke nervously about the topics that the guys on Men of a Certain Age have been discussing for two seasons — except our Men does it with a more nuanced, sometimes poignant approach. Add the Mad Men-envy of a bygone world in which men were men and women were human ashtrays that crops up in the new fall dramas The Playboy Club and Pan Am, and Men of a Certain Age looks positively prophetic. By contrast and unfortunately, the premiering show that preceded Certain Age, Franklin & Bash, offers a view of manhood that’s closer to the 2007 ABC sitcom Cavemen… and that may be a slight insult to Cavemen.

At the start of Men of a Certain Age‘s six-episode, mini-/half-/why-are-they-programming-it-like-this? season on Wednesday night, Ray Romano’s Joe has been buckling down to prepare for the senior golf tour that remains his middle-aged dream, but runs into a more realistic dilemma when he realized he’s probably still in love with his ex-wife (Penelope Ann Miller). Just as Scott Bakula’s Terry has decided he has truly fallen for Erin (Melinda McGraw), she’s the one who decides she wants the relationship to be just-friends. And Andre Braugher’s Owen gets an offer to sell the family-owned car dealership that may prove his chance to establish his independence, both emotional and economic, from his father.

It’s one of the ongoing pleasures of Men of a Certain Age that it’s rarely succumbed to what would seem to be its most likely trap: Falling into a monotone whine such as the one Romano lapsed into during the final seasons of Everybody Loves Raymond. Leaving that mega-success and going through his own rich-star mid-career crisis seems to have cleared both Romano’s brain and his sinus cavities, because what comes across with ringing clarity on this show is the notion that guys battling the onset of paunchiness stress and dither about love and life’s expectations every bit as much as any adolescent on The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

Romano and his co-creator Mike Royce lift the realism just high enough to make this trio’s gabby agony wiseguy-funny and, at crucial moments, surprisingly emotional. Sure, using two toothbrushes in a cup as a symbol of commitment (as the show did in Terry’s subplot) is trite, but the crushed look on Scott Bakula’s face contemplating those toothbrushes transcended the cliche.

Wallowing in cliche, alas, is Franklin & Bash, which among other things only emphasizes how much trouble TNT has with its programming flow. And by “other things” I mean: Boy, is this show stupid and insulting, to anyone watching and anyone on-camera having to act out its fantasies.

Mark-Paul Gosselaar, having luckily escaped the swamp that was TNT’s Raising The Bar, and Breckin Meyer, still perky after movies such as Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, are cast as rebels-in-neckties, shady lawyers who join what used to be called a white-shoe law firm that is presided over by the gleaming white hair of Malcolm McDowell. Franklin and Bash banter and squabble, flirt with the wall-to-wall attractive women who are these for no other purpose than to receive their blandishments, and end up as victorious wiseguys. They are insufferably smug. Oh, wait, I mean charmingly roguish. The latter is the intention of the series, right?

The thing about self-styled dudes like Franklin and Bash is, if you played out their characters to their logical extension, they’re going to hit forty and stop snickering at guys like the Men of a Certain Age trio. Because Franklin and Bash would, using a bit of the brain power they’re busy squandering here, recognize that they’re headed for an empty middle age. And that’s a show I’d like to see: Wise-asses Of A Certain Age, granted the power to witness their hollow future.

Twitter: @kentucker