By ADAM BUCKMAN
NEW YORK, Dec. 4, 2009 — What do we do, we men of a certain age, when we try to make sense of the new world?
Some of us try to find meaning in the past, which sometimes means attempting to mine significance from old music. It’s a tactic applied repeatedly in Ray Romano’s new drama series about men in mid-life — “Men of a Certain Age” (premiering Monday, Dec. 7, at 10 p.m. on TNT).
In the five episodes TNT provided for preview, the show’s eclectic playlist ranges from the obscure — “Do You Know What I Mean?” by Lee Michaels — to the sentimental — . And the show’s theme song is “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” by the Beach Boys (with its lyrics “Will my kids be proud or think their old man is really a square? . . .”).
Pop songs — especially those forgotten by most of us — may seem like unlikely destinations for an exploration into the meaning of life, but I’m here to tell you, when you’re 50, the search can take on many forms and take you to many unlikely places.
For example, my own search has taken me recently to this priceless video — on YouTube — of performing his one and only hit, “Oh, Babe, What Would You Say?” on the Johnny Carson show in 1972. Smith, formerly a sound engineer who worked on a string of Beatles albums (up through “Rubber Soul”), was 49 years-old when he made his first trip to the U.S. to appear on the Carson show. What does the story of Hurricane Smith’s personal triumph in middle age have to do with the meaning of life? I don’t know — you tell me.
Meanwhile, on “Men of a Certain Age,” Romano plays Joe, a 48-year-old man (Romano himself will be 52 later this month) in the midst of a divorce. He lives in a motel and runs his own business — a store selling party supplies. In the store, Joe plays music from his youth — the album rock and Top 40 songs that his generation — my generation — first heard on the radio, which, in the era before the Internet, was the only source of music anybody really had.
Ray’s great in the role — the kind of performance at which cable has been excelling these last few years, the “surprise” performance so strong and sensitive that it astonishes, like Bryan Cranston in “Breaking Bad” and before that, Michael Chiklis in “The Shield,” both of whom won Emmys their first seasons out.
In “Men of a Certain Age,” intentionally or not, the Romano character emerges as the central figure in an ensemble of three; the other two are Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula.
Music of a certain age plays a central role in “Men of a Certain Age,” as if the show’s creators — Romano himself, along with one of his co-producers from “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Mike Royce — are embarking on their own search for meaning in middle age and have decided, through the medium of this TV show, to take interested parties along for the ride.
These might include all men over 45, but should also include anyone — grownups primarily since this new series shatters all kinds of language taboos for basic cable — interested in checking out a new drama series produced with brains, humor, maturity and respect for its audience.
And once again, it bears mentioning that this is the kind of series that only cable TV has the courage to attempt these days.
Contact Adam Buckman: AdamBuckman14@gmail.com