Tuned In: "Men of a Certain Age"

Grown-up comedy-drama with likable trio was worth wait

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The enjoyable TNT character drama "Men of a Certain Age" has been a long time in the making, and after seeing the first episode, it's clearer why it's been such a slog.

TNT announced it was developing a one-hour drama with humor for "Everybody Loves Raymond" star Ray Romano in April 2008. With a name like Romano's attached, it seemed like the kind of show a network would want to get on the air quickly. But the series was not given a green light, following production of the pilot, until January 2009. Why did it take so long?

Part of it, I suspect, was just the typically grueling development process, but "Men" also falls outside the bounds of the types of shows that have worked on TNT. The network has had ratings success with action shows ("Leverage") and procedural cop shows ("The Closer," which airs the first of three new episodes Monday at 9), but TNT's previous attempt this year at a show beyond that comfort zone -- the ad agency-set comedy-drama "Trust Me" -- was a flop.

And "Men" is much closer, tonally, to "Trust Me" than it is to "The Closer." Happily, "Men" is also a much better show than "Trust Me."

Romano, who created "Men" with fellow "Raymond" executive producer Mike Royce, stars as Joe, a neurotic former pro golfer-turned-party supply store owner who's a gambling addict in the midst of a divorce he does not want. He spends most of his time with his best friends: Terry (Scott Bakula, "Enterprise"), a cool, confident actor who mostly works temp office jobs, and Owen (Andre Braugher, "Homicide: Life on the Street"), a stressed-out, diabetic husband and father who works as a salesman at the dealership owned by his hyper-critical father.

The show's stories are shared equally among all three men, and the series is a character study rooted in the fine details of guys pushing 50. It's talky but not didactic, and the camaraderie among the core cast feels real, not forced. That's mostly due to the small details in the show's scripts.

In tomorrow's premiere. Joe tries to argue that he lost two pounds of his weight after urinating, something Owen disputes as impossible. While driving up a Los Angeles canyon to a hiking trail, Joe hits a possum, prompting his worry/guilt impulse to kick in.

In next week's episode, Terry gets angry when he's almost run down in a crosswalk.

"I ran the plate," Terry tells his friends.

"What are you? Mannix?" Joe inquires sarcastically.

Some viewers may roll their eyes at the premise of a show that focuses on middle-age, middle-class guys with problems, but "Men" generally doesn't make the characters too pathetic or sad sack, particularly in episodes after this week's pilot, which is a little darker than future installments. What's more, the characters are well-defined enough that they don't come off as types -- they have more depth, and their problems are rooted in character not plot contrivance.

It's hard to deny the talent of the cast, a triumvirate of likable actors who have earned the audience's goodwill over the years, each one amassing a terrific body of work. They're all skilled enough to play both the drama and comedy of the situations their characters confront, and, what's more, viewers are prepared to know and like them.

It doesn't take much time to accept Romano in a role that's more pathos-tinged than sitcom-funny, but his "Men" character is not that different from Raymond. Bakula's Terry is less of a stretch from his past roles than Braugher's Owen, particularly compared to Braugher's Frank Pembleton in "Homicide." But that, too, is part of what makes "Men" an enjoyable experience: It's fun to see these actors step into new but easy-to-accept roles.

Contact TV editor Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv.


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