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Nussbaum’s Critical Speed Round: Men of a Certain Age, Dexter, How I Met Your Mother, and More

Men of a Certain Age stars Romano, Braugher, and Bakula.

The excellent Men of a Certain Age debuts again on TNT on December 6. Like Louie, it's a story about middle-aged guys, but not so much rancorous/surreal as observant/melancholic. Which sounds boring, right? It's not, mainly because of the strong performances by Romano as the divorced schlub with a gambling addiction, Andre Braugher as a car salesman with an overbearing father, and especially Scott Bakula as an aging actor facing his own sell-by date.

Although Men looks like yet another series about middle-aged post-divorce guys — like Californication, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Hung — this one has always reminded me more of the old movie Diner, with a similar mix of judgment and compassion. The first episode of season two isn't quite up to the standards of the show's best installments (there's a one-crazy-night plot that feels forced), but it left me excited for the new season.

If you're a fan, I require you to listen to this excellent WTF With Marc Maron Podcast. Maron interviews creators Ray Romano and Mike Royce about Romano’s post–Everybody Loves Raymond nervous breakdown, what happened when they pitched Men of a Certain Age to HBO, the internal discussions at TNT about how to balance the show’s darkness, and the fact that they were consciously using Diner as a role model.

Watching Dexter on Sunday, I had a freakish insight. Deb Morgan? Dexter’s sister? She’s basically Cowgirl Jessie from Toy Story. She’s the excitable, traumatized, butch-yet-straight younger sister to a fellow cowboy who was suspected (okay, only in the first Toy Story) of being a homicidal killer. She’s the damaged, angry, funny, life-force-filled lunatic from Toy Story 2, who insists on her primal connection to her brother, except that in Deb’s case, instead of having been locked in her own packaging for years, she was seduced by a serial killer and then lost her hot FBI affair to another serial killer. Also, she says "fuck" instead of "yeehaw."

I suppose this suggests that Quinn is Buzz Lightyear, which makes no sense. But I do think LaGuerta and Batista would make a lovely Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head.

I’m a longtime fan of How I Met Your Mother, but this season is bumming me out. First there’s a solid episode at the Museum of Natural History, with a good mix of pathos and slapstick, then one that’s nothing but a series of cheap Canada beaver jokes. I know other people enjoyed it, but to me, it was a pale Xerox of the early Robin Sparkles bits. Even my Canadian husband said “eh.” I liked the Punchy payoff, in which Ted's friend pitied his tiny apartment in New York, but I’m starting to worry about overall wit decline. Also, remember when Robin used to be a genuinely interesting, idiosyncratic character, not just a dirty joke whining "you guys"?

For comfort, I caught up with this utterly brilliant Mean Girls/trampoline episode of Community, and then this equally cool (if rather severely meta) bottle-episode parody. And then this Troy and Abed clip that made me laugh and laugh.

Also, I’m so excited in advance about the return of Parks and Recreation that I’m all the way into backlash.

Back in 2002, The Ring terrified me. Luckily, there was an antidote: the terrible sequel, The Ring 2. Similarly, I discovered the antidote for my unjustifiable nostalgia for My Generation, an ABC series canceled earlier this season, by binge-watching the unaired six episodes currently being burned off on Hulu.

Now, I knew the show was not actually good. I recognized that the mockumentary elements were so illogical they made Modern Family look like Titicut Follies. But really, I had no idea these unaired episodes would be so completely terrible, so much so that they left my heart open to new TV catnip. (I’m open to recommendations. Brothers and Sisters isn’t doing it for me.)

So, spoilers. The Punk gives birth, the Jock comes home from the war. The Rich Guy and the Prom Queen canoodle, respectively, with the Overachiever turned Enron Damaged Slacker and the Gorgeous True Love Latina Politico. The Hipster D.J. is not in fact gay but married. To a model. Whom he met during the 2003 New York blackout.

The Asian Nerd has disapproving Korean-parent clichés. The White Nerd is sad, but meets a cute waitress. And in the most bizarre backstory, it was revealed that the Prom Queen, during her short-lived acting career in L.A., was briefly cast in Grey’s Anatomy, then got into a car accident and — it is strongly implied — Katherine Heigl stole her role. I’m not kidding, that’s an actual backstory.

I was left with nothing but admiration for the performances that elevated this muddled quasi-soap, mainly the madly charismatic Kelly Garner and Mehcad Brooks, who deserve a spinoff about their military marriage, along with the white nerd, Keir O'Donnell. Then maybe the networks can dish up a truly decent ensemble series about people in their twenties, which is probably what I was craving in the first place.

Photo: Danny Field/TNT