Tuned In: 'Men of a Certain Age' offers humorous and poignant view of midlife

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Some TV shows are big noisy affairs that announce their presence with chest thumping and look-at-me bravado. TNT's "Men of a Certain Age" (10 p.m. Monday) is more subtle.

Not only is "Men" a character-driven show on a network filled with procedural crime dramas ("The Closer" returns Monday at 9 p.m.), it also lacks a traditional story engine. Many TV shows have a way to generate stories in the form of a single workplace (cop show, lawyer show, doctor show) or a driving goal (getting off the island on "Lost," figuring out the conspiracy on "The Event"). But "Men" has no such urgency. It's simply a drama, with comedic moments, about three middle-aged friends, each with his own trials and tribulations.

In the world of TV, that's not sexy and not easily promoted, but it does make for a different and welcome style of storytelling. Ratings were not through-the-roof in the first season, but the show performed well enough to return. Lately, viewers have been asking when "Men" would be back, another good sign.

By the end of the first season, neurotic, divorced dad Joe (Ray Romano) kicked his gambling habit, married Owen (Andre Braugher) finally got some respect from his car dealership-owning father and washed-up actor Terry (Scott Bakula) started selling cars for Owen.

As season two begins, the guys continue to meet for lunch at a diner, giving one another grief over their foibles. In the premiere that means razzing Joe about his new reading glasses.

"It's your future, too," Joe shoots back.

Owen tries to get comfortable in his new role as a manager, a challenge when Terry rides a bike to work (at a car dealership!) and then fails to make any sales.

For his part, Terry backslides after he has to leave a quickie sex encounter in order to get back to his job. He decides selling cars is not the line of work he wants to be in, but he tells Owen he won't leave until his replacement is found.

"I'm not gonna think about what I'm gonna think about next," Terry tells Joe. In the Dec. 13 episode, Terry is still working at the dealership, a little but telling detail that feels more like life than what we so often see on television, contrived hasty exits designed to create resolution within a single episode.

"Men of a Certain Age" puts its three lead characters in quiet situations where conversation -- as well as what goes unsaid -- takes a priority over plot and melodrama.

The relationship between Owen and his wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton) comes to the forefront in next week's episode as she considers a return to work that doesn't go as planned, resulting in a quiet scene between the couple that's touching and realistic.

One of the first season's best ongoing stories, the relationship between Joe and his sensitive son, Albert (Braeden Lemasters, a talented child star), continues to develop. Albert suffers from anxiety and last season it was almost painful to watch as Joe realized Albert inherited that trait from him.

This season both Joe and Albert evince signs of growth. Joe tries to get back into professional golf and allows himself to have an uncomplicated love life. Albert takes steps of his own to get noticed by a girl he has a crush on.

There are elements of the season premiere that feel a little bit like a re-set from the upbeat first season finale (the chipper tone of that finale was a welcome approach for viewers' sake since producers had no idea when they were writing it if the show would be renewed). But even in giving the guys messy lives again, writers Mike Royce and Mr. Romano do take care to show in early episodes that the characters are evolving.

They're not making evolutionary leaps but these men do show enough signs of progress that viewers who appreciated their struggles and triumphs in the first season will have renewed reason to cheer them on in season two.

Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published December 5, 2010 5:00 AM


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