On TV: Men of a Certain Age

TNT knows its demographic: the older male who's been ditching Holly Hunter's chump-snapping thighs for the USA network. In an attempt to reclaim some over-40 glory, Ted Turner's channel premieres its garishly titled "dramedy" Men of a Certain Age this evening after The Closer, and it's no surprise that dependable network stars like Ray Romano, Andre Braugher, and Scott Bakula front the proceedings. What's more than surprising, however, is how Romano outshines his co-stars.

Men of a Certain Age gives us three downtrodden male protagonists facing midlife with enough literal exhaustion that a single cigar puff could kill the whole cast. Romano plays Joe, a recently divorced father of two who deploys one-liners and nihilist commentary when addressing his friends and co-workers, who consider him a fogy. Braugher, formerly a pillar of intimidation and prestige on Homicide: Life on the Street and a recent House, M.D. arc, is a panting family man named Owen who works for his father and must upgrade his salesmanship to keep his job. And the ineffable Bakula is Terry, an easygoing actor who picks up a bunch of girlfriends and not as many roles. All three are longtime friends, and all three have witnessed each other devolve into workplace-rattled shells. Men certainly features the most Chekhovian grimness of any Ray Romano project thus far.

But in case you couldn't tell, Men of a Certain Age is a very determined "dramedy" where the howling live audience that would usually accompany Ray Romano's jokes is replaced by, you know, the silence of reality. It's got a "Garfield Minus Garfield" flair in that way, and thus, you might actually find yourself laughing. Within the first episode, Joe talks with his kids about the onset of sexuality, stuttering throughout his impromptu seminar, and Braugher pops a couple diabetic shots and suffers a hard fall during a hiking trip. It's not exactly a flying circus, this comedy -- but it works that existential "You have to laugh" quality about monotonous hardship that dots The Far Side comics and Aimee Mann albums. The term "Sisyphean" is even thrown around, more than once.

At the heart of Men of a Certain Age is Romano's performance, which is oddly (and somehow, predictably) the most effective part of the show. Robin Williams and Billy Crystal have taken turns playing working-class Pagliaccis, and Romano is a worthy successor, retooling the sad clown of Everybody Loves Raymond into a milquetoast who comes off best in long closeups. Braugher and Bacula seem poised for redeeming story lines following their tough gos in the pilot, but both have been more effective in other series with less conventional characters.

Though TNT's new series arrives behind a flux of series like Cougar Town, where life spins itself anew after the trauma of middle age sets in, it surpasses the last series to try and represent a cluster of fortysomething men, ABC's Big Shots. While that little-seen show littered each episode with desperate affairs and goofy country club antics, Men of a Certain Age shows subtler promise, a willingness to grow and allow pregnant pauses to tell some of the story. Whether it becomes a beacon for TNT's next wave remains to be seen, but thus far it at least feels like a proper second act for comedian, er, actor Ray Romano.