'Men of a Certain Age' Doesn't Waste a Midlife Crisis

Today's cuppa: cafe latte

Here's the full text of my feature story on the new TNT series "Men of a Certain Age," premiering tonight ...

'Men of a Certain Age' doesn't waste a midlife crisis

men-of-a-certain-age,jpg.jpgIn a diner with orange seats that could be a Denny's or a Howard Johnson's or, if you're in Southern California, a Norm's, three middle-aged men - played by Ray Romano, Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula - gather over eggs, coffee and toast to talk about their lives.

The conversation is a mix of confession, reflection and speculation, all overlaid with humor and a good dose of merciless ribbing.

"We said, 'Let's just write what we know,' " Romano says. "And sadly, this is what we know."

The "Everybody Loves Raymond" star teamed with longtime collaborator and "Raymond" writer Mike Royce to pen the pilot for "Men of a Certain Age," premiering Monday, Dec. 7, on TNT.

The one-hour, character-based drama looks at the lives of three college pals negotiating their 40s in the Los Angeles area.

Along with being one of the stars, Romano is a co-executive producer with Royce (who's the show runner), Rory Rosengarten and Cary Hoffman.

He's also writing for the show, which prompts the question: After the success of "Raymond," why is Romano still working so hard?

"I tried that for two months," Romano says, playing with a saltshaker in a booth in the darkened diner set on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. "When 'Raymond' ended, there was about three or four months of 'Let's see what happens. This is fun.'

"At first it was exciting, because you get to rest on your laurels, enjoy things. Then after a few months, you're like, 'Now what? Who am I?' There's a big void. I knew what that void was. It was not doing something. So that's why I do it, because I have to. It makes me full."

Romano plays Joe, a slightly neurotic, recently separated father of two with gambling issues, who set aside dreams of playing pro golf to own a party supply store.

Close at hand are his two best friends from Syracuse University: overstressed, diabetic Owen (Braugher), who has a loving wife and children but chafes under the thumb of his father, who's his boss at the Chevy dealership, and Terry (Bakula), a B-list actor forced to take temp office work to make ends meet and fund his hedonistic lifestyle.

While it's not hard to imagine Bakula as a handsome actor, it's very unusual to see Braugher, who usually plays intense, driven professionals, as a harried, schlubby guy who has a hard time asserting himself.

"We didn't even want him," Romano says. "They said, 'Just meet with him.' So we met with him. He said he wanted to do this, that he's sick of chasing people with guns. I've got to tell you, it's one of those lucky things."

"It's great," says Braugher, munching on a bagel in the diner set (he wasn't the one eating during filming). "No guns, no weapons, no prop masters."

It's not just the lack of firearms, though, that appealed to Braugher.

"I'm playing a character," he says, "who has a living father and mother, a wife, three kids, relationships. A lot of the characters I play, they're loners. They're set apart in some way. One of the beauties of this piece is I'm absolutely immersed in my family life."

On the other hand, Bakula is a husband and a dad of four who's playing a footloose bachelor.

"I think it's a ball," he says, taking a break in an office set. "I identify less with the actor part of him than with people I know in the real world that are this guy at this point in their lives.

"Through my acquaintances and friends, I know people that are living this life still. That's the part that I identify with - not connected, not committed, a guy who's not been married at 50. That's what makes him lovable and a bit of a scoundrel ... and envied by these two guys at times."

As for playing an actor who's far less successful than himself, Bakula says, "You can't explain anybody's journey in this business. You can document it, but you can't explain it. I'm just not as carefree of a guy as he is. I was raised too traditionally to be this guy ever.

"It would bother me to be his age and not have money in the bank and be living paycheck to paycheck. If I hadn't had a level of success in the business, I would have left the business and done something else."

To get the New York-based Braugher and the always-busy Bakula to sign on - and to give himself time to wear many hats - Romano insisted on doing just 10 episodes this first season.

He also doesn't want to think of himself as the standard-bearer for men of the generation that came of age in the '70s.

"Don't put that pressure on me," he says. "Put it on Scott."