It isn't easy being a sitcom. The landscape of TV comedy is split in two, with many of the best-known and longest running sitcoms unable to shake the shadow of "According to Jim" and the laugh track looming over them. One of the best recent examples is "Everybody Loves Raymond", which ran nine seasons and tackled the most conventional of sitcom topics: family life. As much as "Raymond" is a popular show that many people enjoyed (including myself), it's hard not to think of it more as the best example of a kind of television that includes "'Til Death" and "Yes, Dear" than a low-rung entry on a list that might be topped by "Arrested Development" or the UK version of "The Office".
Following the conclusion of "Raymond", creator/writer/star Ray Romano moved over to TNT and partnered up with Mike Royce to create "Men of a Certain Age", which follows Romano's character Joe and his two friends Owen (Andre Braugher) and Terry (Scott Bakula) as they drift through middle age. Given Romano's history with "Raymond" and the concept of the show, it would be very easy to picture "Men" as a tired, exhausted evolution of "Raymond", stuck the mold of that second-tier sitcom -- think jokes about Viagra and the internet. Thankfully, Romano and Royce avoid those trappings by deftly juggling an entire cast of well-defined characters.
Although the title refers mainly to the show's three middle-aged protagonists, it slyly reflects on the show's supporting cast as well. Whether it's Joe's friendly, slightly sleazy bookie Manfro (Jon Manfrellotti), Owen's tough-love father Owen Sr. (Richard Gant), or Terry's slightly dim boss Dave (Michael Hitchcock), the show has a great sense of place, in terms of where the other characters are "at" in relation to the leads, and vice versa. It's a key layer that takes the show beyond a trio of guys on the verge of mid-life crises to a somewhat more introspective area of exploration. Joe, recently divorced, is faced with figuring out who he is all over again. He's re-entering the dating scene while trying to assess and understand the mistakes that ended his marriage, while also dealing with his two kids (Braeden Lemasters and Brittany Curran), especially his son Albert, who has inherited his anxiety problems. Owen, conversely, is acutely aware of who he is at all times: his weight has led to diabetes and sleep apnea, and he works for his father at a local Chevy dealership, who pressures him to step up so he can potentially take over. Lastly, Terry is a serial womanizer and has-been actor who refuses to assess himself, even as age tries to force him to.
The three men are equally defined by the women on the show. Owen's wife Melissa (LisaGay Hamilton) is the most consistent presence, attempting to stand between Owen and his father when conflict arises. In the hands of another actress, the blend of "wise" and "sarcastic" wife types might come off as overly hackneyed, but Hamilton walks the tightrope, adding shades and facets when the script fails to include any, and generating believable chemistry with Braugher. Carla Gallo plays Annie, Terry's 25-year-old girlfriend, and Gallo sells the idea that she'd be interested in Bakula, which is a feat in and of itself. Lastly, Joe hits it off with Dory (Sarah Clarke), a dental hygienist that Terry sets him up with. Their relationship offers Romano a chance to show off his improvisational skills, and she imbues her impossibly charming character with personality.
Season highlights include "The New Guy", in which Owen is stuck with unfortunate knowledge about the man Joe's ex is dating, "Powerless", where Joe confronts a kid bullying his daughter, "Go With the Flow", which introduces Dory, and the season finale "Back in the Sh*t", which raises the stakes for all of the characters. Only the pilot episode, which includes a thread about Joe stressing over a dead possum, feels a touch too broad.
The episodes in this two-disc set break down as follows:
Disc 1: "Pilot", "Let it Go", "Mind's Eye", "The New Guy", "Powerless"
Disc 2: "Go With the Flow", "Father's Fraternity", "You Gonna Do That the Rest of Your Life?", "How to Be an All-Star", "Back in the Sh*t"
"Men of a Certain Age" comes in a transparent 2-disc, single-width non-ECO-BOX DVD case with a flap-tray. Inside the case is a two-page booklet with episode summaries, and the whole thing comes in a cardboard slipcover with artwork identical to that printed on the cover insert. It looks nice, although I'm not quite sure if the cover image is meant to be a glass-half-full metaphor or not, and if it is, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" did it better.
The Video and Audio
The show is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1, which are both solid. Between the two of them, the video is slightly more impressive than the audio, which has strong fine detail and natural-looking colors, but the audio is more than adequate at reproducing the show's dialogue, background ambience, and occasional '70s rock song. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Two audio commentary tracks with Romano, Royce, Scott Bakula, and Andre Braugher are included, on the pilot and season finale. Not surprisingly, the four guys are more prone to joking than they are at dissecting the episode (lots of jabs at Braugher's training at Julliard), so consider these pleasant, but non-essential listens. Romano also drops some hints about Season 2, so if you're really spoiler-phobic, you might want to wait.
Disc 1 finishes with a section marked "Behind-the-Scenes Features", which includes an "overview" featurette (4:36) and a trio of on-the-set interviews, one for each star (2:35, 2:44, 2:54). All of these extras are basically promos for the show and heavy on clips.
Moving to Disc 2, a selection of deleted scenes (20:26) is next. Almost half of these edits are from the pilot episode, which may be interesting in that most of the "deleted" material is footage that was eventually re-written and re-shot. Finally, the set closes out with an okay gag reel (7:07). It gets funnier as it goes along, but it's mostly notable for including more footage of Ken Jeong than the one episode he appears in and the deleted scenes combined.
"Men of a Certain Age" is not a classic, but it's successful in taking Romano, one of the most well-known "second-class sitcom" stars of the last decade and integrating his comedy into a more dramatic, less gimmicky dramedy with a stellar ensemble to back him up. Hard to imagine Tim Allen or Bob Saget pulling off the same trick. Most viewers will probably be able to suffice with a rental, but fans of the show are in for a solid DVD package all around. Recommeneded.
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