On TNT's "Men of a Certain Age," the magic is not the stuff that happens. It's what goes on in between what happens that matters. It's about smirks and glances and little jokes and daily rituals that in the end add up to a much bigger picture.
That may be why the show doesn't get the ratings it deserves. Many watch television to escape life or live in someone else's for awhile. Fans of "Men of a Certain Age" are an introspective bunch who obsess over the never-ending quest for happiness only to realize that comes from within and only the lucky know how to find it.
The three characters -- Ray Romano's Joe, Andre Braugher's Owen and Scott Bakula's Terry -- represent three different types. Joe is a recently divorced dad trying to adjust to single life and struggling with some demons including a gambling problem. Terry is a perpetual man-child who has spent much of his life in a haze of pot and who is starting to realize that time is working against him. Owen is the stable one, with a happy family and a successful career running a car dealership. Beneath the surface, though, he struggles to break free of his father's large shadow and be his own man.
Like life, an episode of "Men of a Certain Age" veers from laughs to tears in the blink of an eye. Often the three characters take turns playing the heavy and then comic relief.
On Wednesday's show, it was Owen who seemed to be assigned with providing the laughs. After seeing some nasty comments about his sales force on the website for his car dealerships, he puts hidden cameras in the cars to see for himself how his team measures up.
It's not a pretty picture.
Salesmen are talking on their cellphones, eating, taking their shoes off during test drives and even making jokes about a potential buyer's weight. Owen is horrified, although his wife, Melissa, declares that it's her new favorite show.
Owen uses his knowledge of how his crew is acting to lay down the law. He doesn't get around to taking the cameras out, though, and learns that Bruce, who has been with dealership for 30 years, is taking kickbacks. Stunned and saddened, he goes to his father, Owen Sr., who is reluctant to do what has to be done and leaves it up to Owen to take care of the situation. Owen tries to handle things with grace until his father finds his own anger about a loyal employee stealing and orders Bruce to hit the road.
While Owen deals with his sloppy sales staff and thieving employee, Joe is still playing bookie. He even takes on a new client, a guy who works in an electronics store whose $5,000 bet has Joe nervous about covering.
The gambling is really starting to take a toll on Joe. He's messing up at work and more worried about his bets than he is his kids. It's even sapped his sexual desire as he basically pushes his on-again, off-again gal pal Michelle away, which no sane man would do.
"Leading quite the little double life here aren't you," Michelle says to him, adding "You're like Robert De Niro in "Casino."
When the guy who made the big bet loses and can't pay off, Joe doesn't know what to do. He wants to play the tough guy and get the money, but it's just not in him. When he goes to confront the gambler, he's met with a story that sounds familiar involving a busted marriage, cheap apartment and desperation. Perhaps seeing that if he keeps up with the bookie biz, he'll be exactly where he was when his marriage disintegrated, Joe hangs it up.
Terry, whose life is often filled with angst and frustration, is actually happy. He's got Erin back and taking her everywhere, even to the diner, much to the chagrin of Joe, Owen and the waitress Terry had been with prior to reuniting with Erin.
"She's cool, we never defined things," Terry says when Joe and Owen question the logic of bringing Erin to the restaurant where someone else he dated works. He's oblivious to Laura's dirty looks and plate slamming, and Joe and Owen can't get a refill on their coffee. "Forget her, dude," Owen tells Joe when the latter can't get Laura's attention.
Terry is infatuated with Erin and trying too hard to make everything perfect. His plans for a romantic dinner get snarled in traffic and he ends up having to race home so she can get to a bathroom. Unfortunately, he breaks her key off in the door and she does something that she probably hadn't done since she was 5 years old. Since Terry took her out in a car from Owen's dealership, the whole thing is caught on camera for Owen and Melissa to watch later.
Erin reassures Terry that while she jilted him once, it won't happen again. That's not good enough for Terry, who tells her he now wants to define things and asks her to live with him.
There are two episodes left in the show's summer run and its future is far from defined. One hopes that TNT will look past the ratings and decide that it has enough other hits in "The Closer," "Rizzoli & Isles" to justify keeping this gem around a little longer.
But don't take my word about "Men of a Certain Age"; watch for yourself before its too late.
-- Joe Flint
Photo: Terry (Scott Bakula) tries to buy some time with Erin (Melinda McGraw) on "Men of a Certain Age." Credit: Danny Feld / TNT.