Sunday, December 6, 2009

Despite the odds, "Men" has a certain charms

Are there three actors less likely to work with one another than Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher?
Romano, best known for stand-up and his long-running hit sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," just doesn't seem to fit with either the intense Braugher, most closely associated with heavy dramas like "Homicide," and Bakula, best known for genre series like "Quantum Leap" and "Enterprise."
Though each has his strengths, these just aren't three guys that you'd picture hanging out together. And yet, on TNT's "Men of a Certain Age," which features the three actors as a trio of longtime friends, Romano, Bakula and Braugher make an engaging -- and believable -- team. Their surprising chemistry is the centerpiece of the series, which debuts at 10 p.m. Monday, but the show has much else to recommend it.
"Men" features Romano (who also co-created the show with Mike Royce) as Joe, a party store owner with a gambling problem. His two best friends are out-of-work actor Terry (Bakula) and car dealer Owen (Braugher). All three men are at varying degrees of crisis. Joe is separated from his wife, whom he still loves. Owen works for his unrelentingly disapproving father. And Terry, though clearly the most cheerful of the group, is increasingly aware that, despite his freewheeling lifestyle, his life is kind of empty.
Mostly, the show puts the three actors in separate stories, but it also gives them plenty of scenes together, during which they convincingly banter like old friends. They mock each other, discuss their various relationships and concerns and crack wise. Their rapport is one of the show's many shocks. Another is that Braugher -- he of the booming, commanding voice and sad eyes -- is pretty gifted in the show's comedic scenes. He really gets to shine in a later episode, when a disillusioned Owen decides to become the world's nicest car dealer.
Romano also surprises, by being a better actor than you'd expect. Yes, he was funny on "Raymond," but didn't have the range or depth of, say, the late Peter Boyle, who played his father. Here, Romano has more dramatic material to work with and, if he's not quite as versatile as his co-stars, he certainly doesn't embarrass himself. In fact, any awkwardness Romano might have in the role is kind of appropriate, given that he's playing an awkward man who doesn't quite know his place in the world.
As for Bakula, in the three episodes I saw, he had the least interesting material to work with. But he does have a nice storyline in the second episode, when Terry takes revenge on an impolite driver. Plus, as a hardcore "Quantum Leap" fan, I always enjoy getting a glimpse of Bakula's good-natured charm.
Though the show is a bit slow at times, there's a lot of humor, some nice observations about middle age and those fine performances (I didn't get a chance to mention Lisa Gay Hamilton, who plays Braugher's wife, but she's pretty good, too). Overall, "Men" is a promising, intelligent drama featuring a group of characters we actually enjoy spending time with.

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