By Ken Tucker
Updated July 06, 2011 at 12:00 PM EDT

Men of a Certain Age wrapped up its season on Wednesday night with a wonderful episode that paid off on each of the three guys’ subplots, while sustaining its best trait: Offering a convincing comic dramatization of the idea that in life, things rarely pay off the way they do in TV shows.

The season had been building toward whether or not Ray Romano’s Joe was going to qualify for the senior golf tournament. Joe’s lurching efforts to accomplish this have yielded some of Men‘s best moments. As with most guys in his position, he’s been ambivalent about it, fearful of his waning powers (of strength, of concentration). And then there’s also the little detail that he’s a gambling addict who’s distracted by the temptations and dangers being thrown his way as he helps out his cancer-stricken bookie. (And what a terrific performance Jon Manfrelotti has been turning in as Manfro. Manfrelotti is one of Romano’s Everybody Loves Raymond alumni, but he’s also made scores of episodic-TV appearances, and he nails the tough-but-smart-guy role every time.)

Joe’s qualifying-round play was every bit as tense as a series like this will allow. Even the last-minute switch-up in his final-tally status was pulled off without leaving us with the feeling that the subplot wanted to end on an “up” note, since heaven knows Joe has more challenges to face down when Men returns.

So do Andre Braugher’s Owen (you know the car-wash promotion was a bad idea, but the multiple convolutions of the ways it was so bad — these were very good, especially the guy with the smashed bullhorn) and Scott Bakula’s Terry (for whom romance remains elusive at precisely the moment he’s willing to commit).

Men of a Certain Age is everything its new, popular lead-in, the new Franklin & Bash, is not: Where the humor in Men grows organically out of the careful delineation of character, F&B is mostly superficial smirk ‘n’ snark. Still, I could learn to love F&B if for no other reason than it may continue, next season, to give Men a bigger audience as its lead-in hour.

In Men, confidence is fleeting, hard-won, but genuine and savored when it does arrive. Terry told Joe that the golf tournament was a “do-over” for him — a second chance, in middle age, to give yourself the opportunity to do a little reinvention, some loosening of joints both mental and physical. Terry was also, of course, talking about himself. And provided it doesn’t provoke another air-gasping anxiety attack in him, poor, beleaguered Owen could use a life do-over himself. As I suggested at the start, the pay-offs for this season were a mixture of the predictable and the crestfallen, yielding just the sort of conflictedness that makes Men of a Certain Age such a pleasure to follow.

Twitter: @kentucker