Monday, December 3, 2012

Men of a Certain Age.

Through the magic of Time Warner Cable, Netflix, Hulu, You Tube, (and so on, and so on, and so on) we can now watch basically anything we want to see. It doesn't matter if it's an old MTV video, a movie, or a TV show.

A couple of years ago I fell in love with Men of a Certain Age. Its cancellation was incredibly disappointing. (Apparently, TNT does not know drama.)  I found it On Demand a few weeks ago and I've been watching it repeatedly since. If it's any indication of how great I find this show, it only aired for two seasons. They weren't especially long seasons, either. I've basically been on a twenty-two episode loop for the last few weeks, and it hasn't gotten old.

The show opens with the Beach Boys:
When I grow up to be a man 
Will I dig the same things that turn me on as a kid? 
Will I look back and say that I wish I hadn't done what I did? 
Will I joke around and still dig those sounds 
When I grow up to be a man? 

You see the main characters as care-free children.  They grow into teenagers, hanging out on the beach with girlfriends.  The final shot of the opening is the three best friends in a convertible, driving down a highway with the wind blowing their hair.  They've got nowhere to be.  They've got no one to hassle them.  There is no one else with them -- no girls to distract them, no other friends to impede on the special bond they share -- it's just them, with the California summer sun beginning to set and an open road ahead.  My vision is totally idealized, I'm sure.  Anyone else could tell you that I'm overlooking fathers that harass them to get a job, girls that deflect offers to go to the movies, or questions about what to do after high school.  There's plenty of that in life.  I like the ideal vision much better.  I like thinking these guys appreciated being guys without complications.  There is plenty of time for the complexities of life down the road.

The show is, as the name indicates, about men as they hit a transitional age. It takes on the exchange I think every one of us plays internally at some point: Am I a grown-up now?  How the hell did that happen?  I sure as hell don't feel like a grown-up, but I do feel old.  Shit.  What happened to all the things that I was supposed to do?  What happened to all the things I wanted?  Is it too late for those things now?

The writers of Men of a Certain Age did an incredible job of creating a story about three best friends who represent the variety of Every Man:

Joe -- The Ne'er-Do-Well
This is a man who wants to do everything right.  The goal is to avoid temptations and  live a life that he's supposed to live. He's settled, and he doesn't mind it. The rewards of his efforts are a perfect family with one girl and one boy, a business of his own, a beautiful wife, a hobby he loves and is good at, and two best friends that have been in his life since he was young. The house Joe thought he had in order is really a house of cards that tumbles. His marriage dissolves. The daughter becomes a promiscuous teen. The son develops an anxiety disorder so profound that he can barely socially interact. Joe's gambling addiction becomes so intense that a $25,000 bet  is justified as reasonable since the money would go for a down payment on a new house.  Joe's story is one of What Happens When You Have to Start All Over Again?  You think you've done everything right, and then it all goes to hell.  Trying to explain his failed marriage Joe describes emails with an old girlfriend.  Though the emails were not romantic, they were filled with things he didn't share with his wife.  When she found them, things changed.  He surmised it was at that point when her infidelity began.  Joe says, "You're happy.  Then you're mostly happy, but not all the way.  Before too long, you find out you're not even together anymore." The series takes Joe down a path of discovering who he is, now that he's given a chance to find out without the "oughts" and "shoulds" guiding every decision.  Unfortunately, it seems like Joe really needed those in his life.  The gambling becomes out of control.  He ends up handing over almost all of the responsibility of his Party Store to recent high school graduates and stock boys that don't speak English.  Attempts to relate to his children devolve into threatening to beat up a kid that called his daughter a whore and communicating with his anxiety-ridden son solely through golf.  Attempts to improve his golf game to make it to the Senior Tour are impeded through a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.  On his first post-separation date he is so nervous the comes before he even gets the condom on. Joe's trying, but getting it right is going to take some time.

Owen -- The Waiting Game
This is a man that really does seem to have it all. He's got a beautiful wife with three fantastic young kids. The marriage is genuinely happy and meaningful. While his home life is great, all the things he believes he is supposed to have are missing.  Owen is constantly in his father's shadow.  Dad was a pro basketball player and still strongly believes in winners and losers. Working at his father's car dealership does Owen no favors in gaining his father's approval.  Actually, he has to compete with others for attention and is far from the favorite employee. He's constantly given shit by his dad and the guys he works with for being overweight and an underachiever. Owen can't seem to catch a break.  Contractors bail on his house remodeling, leaving him without a permit and stuck to move any further.  Reasonable requests with the city are moot.  In a speech that seems to resonate as much for himself as the city worker that hears it, Owen details the impact the failure will have on his relationship with his father.  He describes all the times he's aimed for success just to come up short, and how the feeling of simple accomplishment has always eluded him.  The show's final moment of Owen's triumph holding the permit is as profound as someone who's just won a first place prize.  To be out from under his father's thumb, even for a little while, is a major victory.  Dad taunts son at the dealership, first by favoring other salesmen and then by toying with his son over a "will he or won't he" retirement game. The struggle is one that Owen seems determined to win, but there's no certainty.  As always, he's at the mercy of someone else.  Owen is the loser waiting for his shot at life that never seems to happen.

Terry -- The Peter Pan
Terry is a mostly unsuccessful actor that never fully grew up. He's charming and handsome and has probably never encountered a woman that has turned him down.  It's never occurred to him to settle down, at least not seriously.  There's never been a relationship that lasted more than a few months.  Despite these tendencies, there are attempts to avoid a completely shallow life.  There's philosophy, yoga, health foods, zen activities, and retreats. In reality, Terry deludes himself and ignores all the aspects of life that his friends indicate are what life is supposed to be about. He may be have a different 25 year-old in his bed every night, but he's at a point where he's starting to realize there really ought to be more.  His application to become a Big Brother is declined.  Acting jobs don't pan out.  Promises to stick around are broken and potential relationships are lost as a result.  "Grown-up" jobs are not met with maturity, and the price is paid.  As an apartment complex manager, Terry fails to keep up with requests.  This leads to literally being covered in shit, no small metaphor for an empty life whose facade is fading fast.

Between the acting and the writing, this show is truly fantastic.  Episodes run on a general theme with each of the characters, but without the feeling of  being hit over the head. Music is woven throughout, perfectly wrapping scenes. Real things happen. Real situations, real conversation, real awkward feelings, real portrayals of real men. It's the little things, the subtle things, that make the show exceptional. After a genuine moment of reflection on the passing of time and a friend's cancer diagnosis, Joe looks out onto a female player on the golf course and says, "That is a nice ass, though."  Owen waits for the family to go to bed so he can raid his hiding spots of junk food that's been banned due to his diabetes.  When Terry first spends the night with the woman he finally feels he could have a relationship, the Realness of the situation is expressed with a simple glance at the cat on the end of the bed who watches him with wary eyes.  It's just a show about real life.  Real life plays out in a much more enjoyable way when you can watch it on TV instead of living it yourself.

"Getting older. It all gets real. You know?" -- Joe

I'm not 50, like these guys are. Regardless, I feel the words of the intro song.  I feel the quote by Joe. The past few years I've felt the pains of middle age. I'm not 40 yet, and this may seem premature to a lot of people. It doesn't feel that way to me. I look at my life, and I feel like I'm at a point where I'm supposed to be over my youth. I'm supposed to be finished with all the silly fun things but be able to look back on them with fond affection. Instead, I feel like I didn't ever do the things that create those memories. I feel like nothing I was supposed to do ever got started. Everything seems stalled.. These guys share the real side of their stories at a antiquated diner or over hikes in the hills of California.    Maybe no one has life figured out, and no one is really pulling anything off other than an illusion.  Perhaps my frustrations at a stalled life are typical.

I feel so incredibly immature, and yet so old.  I'm Terry, but without the fun he's had exploring life and fucking around.  I'm Joe, with the anxiety and peculiarities.  I've always tried to do what I'm supposed to and I've ended up sub-par, with a flailing career and personal life.  When I've sought out some spontaneous joy, it's been a failed experiment.  Is the best I can do to wait for something that must come along simply because I've wanted it for so long, like Owen?  Comparing myself to three fictional 50 year old men is most likely not the best way to figure out my existential crisis.

It's still a great show, though.

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