While the world outside is often scary right now, television can still provide some refuge. With the TV edition of our Revisiting Hours franchise, we’re taking a closer look at quality shows we didn’t give their due in The Before Times.
Men of a Certain Age is a fictional story of disappointment and lowered expectations, so it makes sense that the series’ real-life story revolved around settling for something less than the best.
Ray Romano and Everybody Loves Raymond writer Mike Royce originally developed the series — about three male friends pushing 50 and reckoning with the various wrong turns their lives have taken — at HBO in 2007. HBO passed later that year, and before Romano and Royce could look for another home, the Writers Guild of America went on strike, shutting down Hollywood for months. Eventually, MoaCA landed at TNT, one of the giants of basic cable at the time, but a network known for straightforward crime procedurals like The Closer and Rizzoli & Isles. No one at the network seemed to know what to do with Romano and Royce’s much quieter and more nuanced creation. Its first season premiered in December of 2009, a time of the year that’s traditionally been a dumping ground for new series. The show won critical acclaim, a Peabody Award, and a pair of Emmy nominations for co-star Andre Braugher, but TNT pulled the plug after two seasons. In the nine years since the finale aired, episodes were available for digital purchase or on DVD, but the only streaming option was Hoopla, a service available via some public libraries. For the growing number of TV watchers who consume all their content via a handful of subscriptions, the show had basically never existed at all.
The lucky few of us who watched MoaCA during its original run knew that while the show mostly depicted its heroes dealing with frustration, setbacks, and high cholesterol, it also periodically allowed each of them small triumphs that felt enormous within the very modest scale of their lives. So it also feels right that the series’ arrival into the streaming world should come so late, and with virtually no fanfare. Before HBO Max launched last week, MoaCA wasn’t even listed as one of the non-HBO shows that would be part of its catalog. Even Royce, who had heard some rumblings, didn’t know for sure until the morning of Max’s debut that his work would finally see the streaming light of day. So what could have felt like a pretty big deal instead played as an afterthought from an already confusing launch day, when people were too busy trying to figure out who could actually access HBO Max, and how, to notice this forgotten old show (in every sense) while scrolling through the A-Z series list, where it was nestled in between McMillions and Metalocalypse.
But now Men of a Certain Age is here again. And it’s not only still wonderful, but these decade-old episodes feel more at home in the Peak TV world than they did in that transitional moment for cable TV at the turn of the previous decade.
Romano plays Joe, a party-store owner recently separated from his wife, battling a gambling addiction, a crippling level of anxiety, and a growing belief that things are all downhill from here. Braugher’s Owen is a frustrated, overweight car salesman working in the shadow of his overbearing father Owen Sr. (Richard Gant), a former Lakers reserve still living off his minor celebrity 40 years later. Terry (Scott Bakula) is a would-be actor who never quite made it in the business, while also never quite accepting the same responsibilities of adulthood that Joe and Owen have. The theme song is The Beach Boys’ “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man),” and it’s clear that for this trio, the men they’ve grown up to be aren’t who they want to be.
As Joe puts it, when you look at yourself in the mirror at a certain age, “You recognize yourself, but there’s that little bit of you that you don’t.”
The decade leading up to the show’s premiere had actually been a good one for TV tales of middle-aged ennui, but in a more glamorous, usually criminal context. Joe is a bit afraid of his bookie, Manfro (John Manfrellotti), but Manfro turns out to be less Tony Soprano than a fellow lonely guy in need of a friend. In an early episode, Terry is so offended by a reckless, inconsiderate driver that he drives off in the man’s car for a few blocks as a minor bit of vigilante justice, but that’s as close as any of our heroes get to acting like Walter White. Their lives are mundane, and so are most of their adventures. One of Owen’s biggest triumphs is to spend a few days selling cars without haggling, just so customers won’t hate him; the sad punchline is that while his sales top everyone else on the lot for the month, he winds up with a tiny commission check for charging so little.
The modest stakes and relative plotlessness made MoaCA a poor fit both on TNT(*) and in that era, a few years before the Peak TV explosion that made television as a whole much bigger and many of the stories told on it much smaller. The idea of a shaggy little show that’s most interested in capturing a vibe feels a lot more familiar and accepted now. HBO’s terrific new series Betty — about young, mostly queer and brown female skateboarders in New York — on paper has nothing in common with MoaCA, yet both shows are so effective in building out their worlds and characters that narrative arcs feel almost besides the point.
(*) You may also notice that episodes, especially at the start of Season One, often feel about 10 minutes longer than they probably need to be — a relic, perhaps, of the show’s origins at HBO, where each installment would have run closer to 30 minutes rather than TNT’s 40 (plus commercials).
MoaCA was also a bit ahead of its time in how it used two of its three leads. In 2009, Romano was a famous sitcom star, and Braugher a two-time Emmy-winning dramatic powerhouse. Devout Everybody Loves Raymond viewers knew Romano could play serious notes when asked to, just as fans of Homicide: Life on the Street could quote many of Braugher’s comedic line readings. (When his partner complains that he never says please or thank you, Braugher’s Frank Pembleton dryly replies, “Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”) Yet on Men, Braugher is primarily the comic relief, while Romano does most of the dramatic heavy lifting. As Joe considers the possibility that he has passed his anxiety onto his son Albert (Braeden Lemasters), his acting is more precise and vulnerable than even his most serious Raymond moments suggested was possible. And after spending his early television career playing commanding figures with awe-inspiring oratory skills, Braugher is a delight as a beta male who often struggles for the right thing to say, like when he tries arguing that his dad treats him worse than the other salesmen on the lot:
The parts provide both with plenty of opportunity to do their prior specialties, too, but the funny thing is, the role reversal stuck. Romano mostly does dramatic work these days (like his turn as Joe Pesci’s cousin in The Irishman), while Braugher has spent the last seven years wonderfully making a fool of himself as Captain Holt on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. To viewers sampling MoaCA when it premiered, the distribution of work seemed odd; to anyone watching it now, it makes perfect sense(*).
(*) Bakula had spent most of his career to that point bouncing between drama and comedy, or starring in shows that, like MoaCA, did both at once. So he fit in just fine, though Terry often filled a similar role on this show to the one Samantha did on Sex and the City: as the character with the crazier adventures (and busier sex life), but also the one whose stories feel a bit more predictable and shallow than the others. The best Terry stories tend to come late in each season as he tries to figure out what to do next with the mess he’s made of his life.
Where its heroes all struggled with the aging process (even buff Terry can’t hide all the lines on his face), MoaCA itself has aged very gracefully. Other than specific references to music and movies from the guys’ youths — and, yes, the fact that it doesn’t take place during 12 simultaneous apocalypses — almost nothing about the show feels out of date from when the episodes originally aired. (And, like NBC used to trumpet back in the days when Homicide first aired, if you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!)
Life is much more complicated today than it was a decade ago, yet at least one of those complications has freed MoaCA from limbo. We’re deep in the streaming TV era now, and HBO Max is the fourth major new service to debut since October, joining Disney+, Apple TV+, and Peacock (which is available to Comcast subscribers before a wider launch this summer) in competing with Netflix, Hulu, et. al. for eyeballs and subscriber dollars. In many ways, this is annoying: Soon, you’ll have to pay at least as much for all the interesting streaming services as you once did for your cable bundle. Corporations are not in the business of saving you money, after all. But one silver lining to this new Peak Streaming moment is that each service has to work a little harder to justify its existence and your subscription fee.
HBO Max’s initial originals are underwhelming, but its library is extraordinary: not just everything you would have gotten with a traditional HBO subscription, but some of the best movies ever made, and a wide array of non-HBO shows, from outside acquisitions like Doctor Who to ones from Warner Media’s deep catalog. Men of a Certain Age isn’t a title that would get anyone to subscribe to Max on its own, but the deeper the overall roster looks, the more value the service seems to be providing for the money. The more of these services there are, the more brilliant-but-canceled obscurities like this one will get dusted off and put back into the glittery streaming light.
If Men of a Certain Age was being made today, it’s not hard to imagine a scene where Joe, Owen, and Terry complain that there are too many streaming services, not to mention too many TV shows, to keep track of anymore. But it’s also easy to picture Joe scrolling endlessly through a menu, whining all the way, only to be thrilled to find some great old show he thought nobody but him remembered anymore.