On American television, hour long dramas are about the best and the brightest. We tune in to see the brilliant doctor who can diagnose the most vexing patients, the police officers who always find the real killer, the advertising genius who crafts commercials that make insightful social statements. The mediocre and the bumblers have their place in comedy. We laugh at failure. We take success seriously.
There is an exception to this rule: TNT’s excellent drama ‘Men of A Certain Age,’ which chronicles the fascinating lives of three thoroughly ordinary middle aged men. The best way to appreciate MOACA is to watch it back to back with ABC Family’s teen gymnastic soap opera ‘Make It Or Break It.’ As a lifelong gymnastics fan — and former klutzy, untalented tween gymnastic student –I am all over this guilty pleasure. This is the story of a group of teenage girls with huge dreams. They want to win the Olympics, to be the best in the world. It is certainly not entirely realistic. The gymnasts are far taller and curvier than Shawn Johnson. They eat cookies, licorice and popcorn, forbidden fruits for most real life gymnasts.
I would say that an hour of of a teenage girl attempting to master a new move on the uneven parallel bars would be inherently dull, but MOACA made a guy hitting a golf ball into a clown’s mouth in the back room of a party supply store suspenseful. So, really, it is the writers and ABC Family who have chosen to make the show a standard issue teen drama about elite gymnasts, with high drama storylines forbidden romances, potentially career ending injuries, and strange Christian abstinence speeches. The show is at its best when it focuses on the positive value of making an effort. As the terrifically named Payson tells her anti-school spirit, burn out potential love interest, “Trying to be something is a whole lot better than sitting on your butt and trying not to be anything at all.” It is a great message for the teenagers who make up the core of the show’s audience: work hard and you will accomplish your goals. Even if you do not, you will learn something of value from the journey itself. It’s what I believed at that age, when I cried over every B+, believing that if I could just be the perfect student, I would get into my dream college and live my dream life. After watching MIOBI, I want to fire up my screenwriting software and write something great. Yes, I too will be a champion.
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‘Men of A Certain Age’ is about people realizing that they are never going to be champions. Though the titular men have done all the right things, all it has gotten them is jobs they do not particularly enjoy and unsatisfying relationships. It is the rare television show that tells the truth: sometimes life does not turn out the way that you had hoped. Contrary to the cliche, everything does not happen for a reason. Success depends as much upon luck as determination. Expending an effort is not always worth while. Coming to terms with diminished expectations is a pretty universal experience, but it’s revolutionary for American television. Sure, ‘The Office’s Dunder Mifflin is dull, but it is full of quirky characters who love each other, deep down. MOACA’s Owen hates selling cars at his father’s dealership. His coworkers have little use for him. On a typical show, he would quit his job to follow his passion. Success and happiness would soon follow. Instead his mortgage and his children’s private school tuition make it impossible for him to leave. Terry (Scott Bakula) followed his heart. All his pursuit of an acting career has gotten him is financial insecurity. In the most recent episode, we learned that Joe (Ray Romano), a recently divorced party store owner with a bit of a gambling problem, had the skills to be a professional golfer, but could not perform under pressure. In a perfect counterpoint to ‘Make It or Break It,’ his bookie tricks him into hustling a couple of rich jerks. His nerves get the better of him until they make a racist remark. He gets so ticked off that he ends up beating them handily. It seems that he has kicked his nerves and has a shot of making the Senior Tour. Instead, he retreats to the make shift golf hole in the back room of his store telling himself that he will try out if he can hit ten holes-in-one in a row. It’s a plot twist worthy of ABC Family, except that when his employee sees him, Joe’s nerves return. The episode ends with him starting all over again, unclear whether this will turn out to be a Hollywood triumph or a Sisyphean exercise in futility. It is a metaphor for what most of us go through every day.