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Why Aren’t You Watching MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE?

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My husband and I tend to get  a little antsy over the winter holidays, when most TV shows are on hiatus. We value that precious block of time — between 8pm and 10 pm — when the 3-year-old is in bed, the dishes have been washed, and we can finally put our feet up and watch TV. Romantic? No. Enjoyable? Ahhhh yes. So to prepare for that cold, dark 4-6 week stretch of primetime emptiness, I load up our Netflix queue with new releases or try to burn through a season of TV on DVD (recent favorites include Starz’s hilarious and underrated Party Down and the disappointing 5th season of Showtime’s Weeds).

Any show with Dick Casablancas is automatically going to be kickass.

My husband depends on me to investigate and select our television and film diet (this is all a film/media studies professor is good for, after all) and after reading some glowing reviews (also here, here and here) I suggested that we check out TNT’s new hourlong drama Men of a Certain Age. My husband tends to trust me on these matters, but I still knew it was going to be a hard sell: “So honey I think we should watch this new show. It’s about middle-aged men. It stars Ray Romano. And the guy from Quantum Leap. And some other guy who starred on a show we’ve never watched. It’s on TNT. Ummm…it’s supposed to be good…” Nevertheless, my husband agreed because, well, we had nothing else to watch. And as I mentioned, we’re TV addicts. We’ll take methadone if we can’t have heroine.

Watch out, Sam, Al’s a Cylon!

But as it turns out, Men of a Certain Age isn’t TV methadone — it’s the good stuff, people. Men focuses on three friends: Joe (Ray Romano), a recently divorced father of two teenagers, Owen (Andre Braugher), a married father of three who sells cars at his father’s dealership, and Terry (Scott Bakula), a single playboy and struggling actor. Believe me, I am normally not interested in the lives of middle-aged men — especially middling car salesmen and the owner of a party supplies store, but the show manages to make their stories compelling, amusing and touching all at the same time. What I love about Men is that it is realistically treats topics like aging, divorce,  and parenthood without cynicism. Joe doesn’t bicker with his ex-wife, Sonia (Penelope Ann Miller, sporting the most unflattering haircut of all time), nor does he concoct elaborate plots to get back her back. Instead, Joe exists in the twilight between acceptance and denial — he lives in a hotel (to avoid moving into an apartment) and offers to fix things up around his (former) home. Indeed, it is often hard to tell if Joe misses his wife or simply his old life (that happened to include his wife). Sound depressing? It is. And yet…it’s not.

Here are some specific reasons to tune into Men:

1. You won’t hate Ray Romano

Douchebags.

Okay, that was a little unfair — maybe some of you don’t hate Ray Romano. But anyone who names their sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond is kind of asking for it. Especially since Everybody Loves Raymond was such a colossal pile of shit. I tried — and repeatedly failed — to get through an entire episode of Raymond during it’s long run. But the Ray Romano in Men is both different from and similar to his character on Raymond — there’s the dopey look, the ennui of marriage and children, the humiliations of middle age — but  as New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley put it “Joe is what would happen to sitcom Raymond if his wife left him, his parents died, and he started to hate his job.” Romano’s Joe is a chronic gambler (part of the reason behind why his wife left him) with crippling anxiety (part of behind why he failed to become a pro golfer) who misses his old, pre-divorce  life. His predicaments, such as a tragicomic attempt at seducing a new date with sexually charged instant messages, are both uncomfortable to watch yet extremely real. Joe needs a hug and Romano plays him just right that the viewer wants to give him one.

2. Andre Braugher’s gut


In one episode of Men Braugher’s Owen is talking to his wife, Melissa (Lisa Gay Hamilton), as he dresses for work. He sits down on the bed, shirtless, his man boobs and formidable middle-aged gut on full display. This moment is not played for laughs, nor is it necessary to the narrative (he could have just as easily performed the scene wearing an undershirt). Rather, Braugher’s gut is simply a detail of the mise en scene, a reality of middle age. The scene is intimate, personal. Marriage — after so many years — is about sleep apnea machines (which Owen must use nightly) and bellies that have gone soft. These realities do not seem to bother Melissa, however. Their relationship is tender and real.

3. It’s a little bit sad, a little bit funny, a little bit disturbing

Not many shows can master this mix of emotions. In fact, off the top of my head I can only think of one other show that mixes these various emotions without plunging any one character into caricature: My So-Called Life (my guess is that Freaks and Geeks strikes a similar tone, but sadly I have not yet watched this series). Men manages to keep its humor, tragedy, realism, and awkwardness in a fine balance throughout each episode. One great example of this occurs in the pilot episode, when the three friends are driving to through the woods and accidentally hit a possum with their SUV. Joe worries that the animal might be suffering ad backs up over it (complete with a sickening thump noise) in an effort to put it out of its misery. But when the men look in the rearview mirror, they see the possum crawl off into the woods. Later that night, Joe  and his bookie, Manfro (Jon Manfrellotti), with whom he has established an unlikely friendship, head back to the woods to seek out the possum — Joe simply cannot stomach that the animal might be in pain as a result of his actions. When the two men finally locate the (now dead) animal, we see Joe pick up a large rock and it seems that this will turn into a scene of violence. Is Joe going to vent his frustrations by bashing in the head of this dead animal? The next shot reveals that Joe is actually using that rock (and several more) to build a cairn for the animal. Some might call this storyline overkill (excuse the pun) but it really illuminates Joe’s character.  As Manfro observes, “You’re weird, Joe.” I also like that the scene could have gone either way — violent or tender.

4. The lighting

I‘ve blogged about lighting before in my praise of Mad Men — not because I am a lighting aficionado, but because television shows do not always take their lighting design seriously. The light in Men of a Certain Age is beautiful and always appropriate for its Southern California setting.

Lucky for me, Men of a Certain Age has been renewed for a second season, despite its low ratings. But I’m still going to urge you to watch it because I promise, you will thank me later. Even if you hate Ray Romano. So go on, give it a try. You can watch full episodes at the TNT website. I recommend “Go with the Flow,” a funny but touching episode devoted to Joe’s first date in 20 years.

So what do you think? Are you watching Men of a Certain Age? Did you watch it and hate it? Please share your thoughts below…

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The Sins of the Mother: Some Thoughts on MAD MEN’s Betty Draper

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In the most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris’ column, “TV’s Great Bad Mommies” was devoted to the “bad mommies” featured on Showtime’s Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and United States of Tara. These women “invite you to be appalled — because, as we all know, few guilty pleasures are as nastily satisfying as secretly ragging on somebody else’s parenting skills.” His column concludes with a nod to Mad Men‘s Betty Draper (January Jones), who “performs motherhood like a scripted role — and experiences parenting less as a fulfillment than as the steep price she agreed to pay for the life of privilege she once wanted.”

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I both agree and disagree with Harris’ assessment of Betty’s approach to motherhood. While it is tempting to see her as an ice queen, as a woman who merely endures her children in order to gain access to club lunches, furs and a maid, I think this view also discounts the richness of Betty’s character. Because Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) childhood is such a compelling mystery, it is easy to forget that Betty also experienced a traumatic childhood. Her story, like Don’s, is only revealed to the viewer in pieces.

We have learned, for example, that the late Mrs. Hofstadt was a beautiful, regal woman, but that she was also a real bitch; Betty discusses her with a mixture of reverence, fear, and resentment. Furthermore, as we discovered in last night’s episode, “The Arrangements,” Ruth Hofstadt took rather Draconian measures to ensure that her “fat” daughter lost weight (and kept it off). While sharing a tub of chocolate ice cream (with salt?) Gene (Ryan Cutrona) tells Sally (Kiernan Shipka) about how her Grandma Ruth would take her mother shopping and then make Betty walk all the way home. This parenting left an indelible mark on the adult Betty, who rarely puts anything other than vodka or cigarettes in her mouth. Oddly, Gene finds the story to be amusing, colorful even, rather than disturbing. He also urges Sally to become something other than a housewife, explaining that her grandmother did drafting work for an engineer in the 1920s. Smart women, it seems, should do things.

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While this exchange exists, in part, to show some of the disdain Gene harbors for his daughter’s shallow existence, it also illustrates that he is surprisingly progressive for a man of his age and time. He sees that Betty is living a life of unrealized potential (I can’t wait for the episode in which Betty receives a copy of The Feminine Mystique [1963]) and worries that Sally, an intelligent and curious child, will grow up to do the same. “You can really do something,” he tells Sally with sudden gravitas, “don’t let your mother tell you otherwise” (I originally had a link to this scene below but it has been removed by AMC. Phooey).

After purchasing a bag of peaches for his beloved granddaughter, Gene collapses in the A & P. Sally is naturally devastated by her grandfather’s death–the only adult to take a genuine interest in her has died. Therefore, when the news is delivered to Betty by a solemn police officer, it is fitting that neither of these two adults acknowledge Sally or her grief. Instead they leave her outside to sob alone in her ballet outfit. Later, when Sally rebukes her parents and aunt and uncle for laughing over a joke (she is too young to understand that laughter is often a part of grief), Betty chastises for her for being “hysterical.” “Go watch TV, Sally,” she commands. During this exchange the mother in me longed to reach my arms through the television screen and embrace Sally. And I wondered how I was supposed to feel about Betty and Don since they did not.

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Indeed, at these moments it is difficult not to hate Betty Draper. But we must remember the lonely childhood Betty must have endured walking home from the grocery store, wiping the tears from her chubby cheeks, wondering all the while how she might gain the approval of the cold woman waiting for her at home. Betty was raised to shut herself away from food and emotion–she can’t even bring herself to discuss her father’s will with him. “Can’t you keep it to yourself?” she pleads, “I’m your little girl.”

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This is not an excuse for Betty’s approach to mothering, but it is an explanation. Meanwhile, Sally is left to mourn her grandfather alone in front of the television, while images of self-immolating monks dance before her eyes.

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So what do you think? Is Betty meant to be a sympathetic character, or do the writers want us to hate her?