Ray Romano matures with ’Men of a Certain Age’

NEW YORK (AP) — On Wednesday’s return of “Men of a Certain Age,” mild-mannered party-store owner Joe has a confusing brush with his ex-wife.

Terry, the failed-actor-turned-car-salesman and perennial bachelor, seems ready to settle down with his new girlfriend.

And Owen, who runs his father’s struggling car dealership, makes a pivotal decision about his career.

To put it another way: There are no murders, zombies or superhuman capers. The three lifelong pals who now are coping with mid-life are such remarkably ordinary heroes for a TV series they seem downright exotic. As played by series stars Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher, these guys are never larger-than-life, but instead recognizably true-to-life.

“Men” (airing at 10 p.m. EDT on TNT for this six-week mini-season) was duly rewarded for its special brand of normalness when it premiered in late 2009, winning critical praise and healthy ratings.

This year, it won a prestigious George Foster Peabody award, administered by the University of Georgia and popularly known as the Pulitzer of the electronic media. The Peabody judges hailed the series as “comical, poignant and harrowing, sometimes all at once.”

Receiving the award onstage at the annual luncheon in New York last week, Romano proudly wisecracked, “I just want to say to my wife of 23 years: Maybe NOW you’ll watch the show.”

A few hours earlier, over breakfast at their hotel, Romano and “Men” co-creator Mike Royce looked back on how their prize-winning show had come about.

The short answer is, naturally. A few years back, both men were feeling a bit of middle-age angst in the aftermath of Romano’s hit comedy “Everybody Loves Raymond,” on which Royce served as a writer and executive producer.

The CBS show’s nine-season run had concluded on a high note in 2005, Romano recalled.

“When ‘Raymond’ ended, I was on the top of the world. Cloud 9, money, free time, golf, go places! And my therapist said, ‘You want to start coming twice a week?”’

“I said, ‘There are times where I don’t have enough to say coming ONCE a week,”’ Romano, now 53, chortled wryly. “Within three months, I was going twice a week.”

“Right after ‘Raymond,”’ he explained, “I had a world-is-my-oyster attitude, but I found out I don’t like oysters. I had this existential emptiness. ‘What is my purpose? Who am I?’ I had a big identity crisis.”

“I had the same problem, but with less money,” laughed Royce, who is now 47.

So Romano and Royce began commiserating.

As Romano recalled, “I said, ‘Let’s meet. You going crazy like me?”’

“We talked about how we both felt very adrift,” Royce said.

Meanwhile, the idea for a new show began to percolate.

The character they wrote for Romano was a newly divorced father of two with a gambling problem and a job that seemed to brand him as a variation of the timeless sad clown: a man who runs a party store for whom life isn’t a party. He is also, like so many people, looking for a do-over: He wants to qualify for golfing’s senior tour, which would offer him at 50 the chance to resurrect his long-ago-abandoned dream of being a golf champ.

Romano is a lifelong golfer who, for this breakfast, happened to be sporting a well-worn Pebble Beach hoodie.

“Write what you know,” said Romano. “That’s what we did with ‘Raymond,”’ which, of course, was based on his fractious home life with a wife, kids, parents and brother under foot.

The new show, an hour drama-with-comedy instead of a half-hour sitcom, would be more reflective, more nuanced, more bittersweet than “Raymond.” And, inasmuch as it focused on three nearing-50-year-old-and-beyond-the-demo chums, it should have been a hard sell at the networks.

“Thank God I didn’t think about that when we were pitching the show,” Romano said. “If there’s something to worry about, I’ll find it.”

Some networks passed — “It isn’t loud enough,” one network complained — but TNT grabbed it.

Then these partners wrote a pilot that, as Royce said, “was about as bleak as the show has ever been — which, of course, scared certain people, including TNT. But there has to be some pain before the characters can come out of it. And as we go along, we find out more and more how we can be funny without being jokey.”

As they go along, has doing the show given Romano any personal insight about navigating his own middle age?

“I don’t know,” he replied, caught short by the question. “My character is still kind of grasping. He still hasn’t gotten to a place of contentment.” A bit like Romano? “I ask my therapist, ‘Why can’t I just sit back and be happy?’ And he says, ‘Well, first of all, I need to make a living.”’

Romano wants to keep making a living, too. So don’t bet on him and Royce transforming their characters into a state of bliss.

By summer’s end, he and Royce will start charting out the episodes for the third season. And, looking further down the road toward the series’ eventual finale, whenever that might be, he cautioned the audience to keep expectations for the characters in check.

“The last episode won’t be a downer,” he promised. “We’re going to be happy for where they are. But it’s going to be realistic.”

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Online:

http://www.tnt.tv

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore@ap.org

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