Ray Romano and MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE
Sometime during the era of Norman Lear's dominance over the television sit-com landscape there arose a formula for writing scripts that haunts us still. I call it the "three lines to insult to laugh track" gambit. It's simple. Character A enters the scene through what appears to be the kitchen or back door. She asks a question of character B, who is eating a bowl of cereal. Character B guiltily evades the answer to the question. Character C throws an insult about Character B to Character A. The insult is a clever quip exploiting Character B's weight or habits of personal hygiene. The audience chuckles (or canned laughter of the proper intensity is supplied.) Another character enters from the living room and asks the same question, i.e. "Who drank all the milk?" Character A responds with a variation of the same insult, but it's a little stronger. Audience laughs again, a little more fulsomely.
Line one is the exposition, it moves the story line along. Line two reveals the learned helplessness of a character. Line three insults that character. Then there's a laugh and the dialogue returns to another insult, another laugh before the cycle returns to the expository dialogue that moves the story another inch further along.
All the laughs are from the insults or the escalation of the insults. These imply long audience familiarity with the characters; the audience participates in the humor of the insults because they are, in a sense, members of the family, entitled to
exchange barbs with the characters.
Shows such as I LOVE LUCY were constructed differently. They were real Situation Comedies, i.e. Lucy would get herself into a comic situation. The humor was provided mostly by lies that Lucy told to Ricky. The lies were made necessary due to some transgression Lucy had committed against one of Ricky's personal rules. Each lie led to further complications as Lucy tried to protect herself from Ricky's notorious Latin temper. The lies would lead to crazier and crazier situations until Lucy's fib was unmasked. Yes, she broke Ricky's favorite bongo drum, yes she defied his order not to audition for the part in a TV commercial. Somehow Ricky's temper never explodes. The audience knows that Ricky loves Lucy and that he would never harm or abuse her. Ricky's most fearsome outburst is "Lucy, you got some 'splainin' to do." He's merely playing the part of the fiery Cuban, in a time when Cubans were still hot-blooded band leaders. Lucy has never been in any real danger. The threat of danger, and Lucy's fibs and their escalating complications to avoid this imagined danger are the meat of the show's humor. The situation is comic, as is Lucy's physical humor when she inexorably loses control of the Situation.
I may find I Love Lucy dated and no longer very funny, but I see a moral and imaginative collapse in the quality of the formulaic nit-coms we see today. Insult comedy is a venerable stream in the great delta of comedic history. Co-opting insult humor as the driving engine in the bottomless plethora of mediocre sitcoms only serves to allow laziness to rule the writer's room.
Producers and writers seem to have learned nothing from the formula-busting brilliance of Seinfeld. True, since Seinfeld's long run on the air there is room for wackier premises and looser story structures, but these too have played into the propensity for lazy writing. It's been an awfully long time since anything as good as Seinfeld has appeared.
Ray Romano has never been on my psychic radar. I didn't watch his sitcom.
I don't watch many sitcoms for the reasons outlined above. But Romano surprised me with his beautifully calibrated drama series "MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE".
The series revolves around three middle-aged men. They are old buddies from high school and they meet at a restaurant several days a week to eat breakfast and hash out their personal problems. Scott Bakula plays out-of-work actor Terry Eliot. His boyish charm still works on the ladies but it's proving to be an unreliable backstop for whatever pitches the future may throw at him. At fifty, his face is falling and his prospects have dried up. When he's offered the role in an updated commercial that was once his greatest hit, he cringes with embarrassment. Instead he takes a job with the second old friend of the trio, Own Thoreau, played by the redoubtable Andre Braugher.
Owen is the son and heir to Big Daddy Owen Thoreau, the towering figure in one of Los Angeles' venerable auto dealerships. Owen Junior still calls his father "daddy" and is struggling to overcome the iron-clad dominance of his monolithic father. "Daddy" is ready to retire and hand the business over to his son. But he makes it clear that he has no confidence in young Owen. He feels that his son doesn't have the drive and charisma to sustain a competitive business. Owen Senior's pompous contempt for his son, his constant undermining of younger Owen's efforts makes him the perfect bully and the ideal target for an audience's wrathful involvement. He is what every good drama needs: a villain.
Romano plays Joe Tranelli, owner of a store specializing in party supplies. He's a compulsive gambler, recently divorced and trying with all his heart to connect with his adolescent children.
These three very different characters share breakfasts, jogs in the hills above L.A. and as much intimacy as any American male can achieve.
Using these simple ingredients, Romano has produced an absorbing drama that is utterly lacking in strain, self consciousness and over acting. The obstacles and tensions each character endures are convincing yet played with a precision that draws no attention to itself.
This may not be a series that will attract a younger audience looking for a high level of stimulation. I may not have been drawn to EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND but in the future I will be watching any project with Ray Romano's name attached to it. He's demonstrated a quiet mastery of television drama.The series went two seasons. That was all it needed to achieve its goals. A third season would have gone against the grain and defiled its own modest yet profound ambitions.
MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE has no laugh tracks, no set-ups to predictable put-downs, no generic sitcom kitchen-with-living-room set. It has, instead, several great characters, three of whom are honestly struggling with the onset of male middle age and its challenge. The series ended with satisfying resolutions without ever seeming pat or forced. The struggles of life would continue but these three men could rely on one another's support. I can't think of a greater gift that can bestowed out of friendship. Support equates to a guarantee that in times of trouble your friends have "got your back."