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Dear TNT: Please save 'Men of a Certain Age'

July 11, 2011

By Alan Sepinwall

To whom it may concern at TNT:

Last Wednesday night, I published my review of the season finale of "Men of a Certain Age," which was as much about the idea that it could be the last episode of the show ever as it was about the episode itself. Ultimately, I struck what I felt was a happy but resigned note. You gave us two seasons of this marvelous show, after all - a show whose charms are incredibly subtle (so subtle that I'm not always able to properly describe them, and I love the show) in an era where only the noisiest and/or most high-concept shows seem to be breaking through, a show built around three men who were aging out of the infamous 18-49 year-old demographic even as the series began - when it would be easy to imagine you nice people rejecting the pitch in the first place, or thanking Ray Romano and Mike Royce for their time after the first season's modest ratings. I wanted more, but two years seemed improbable enough that I was bracing myself to leap straight over to the Acceptance stage of grief in the event you didn't order a third season.

But in the days since the finale aired, I haven't been able to get "Men" entirely out of my head. 

I keep thinking about moments from the life of the series. I think about Joe the gambling addict watching his friends and family celebrate an improbable softball victory he couldn't even pay attention to because he was too busy following the score of a game he had a bet on. I think about aging playboy Terry watching his new 20something girlfriend talk to her parents - parents old enough to be Terry's friends - and, mortified, slipping out the side door. I think about Owen letting the weight of running his family's failing car dealership start to crush him, to the point where he's barely able to move towards a ringing phone that's almost certainly bringing more bad news.

And I think about lighter moments, too. I think about Owen raising his arms in triumph, Rocky-style, after scoring a minor but crucial victory over government red tape. I think about Joe literally throwing his attractive blind date off his lap in a fit of anxiety. I think about Terry helping a friend steal a gnome from the lawn of his wife's new boyfriend.

Mainly, though, I think about how much I don't want "Men" to go away.

I know that the ratings aren't great. I know that the show isn't an especially great fit for your brand. I know and respect all the various business reasons you might have for saying you gave it a shot (two shots, in fact), and it didn't work.

But I also know this: this is a great show, the best original series you've ever programmed, and one you should think twice before saying goodbye to.

Again, I don't always do the best job of articulating the greatness of its series, but it's there in those moments I described above, and so many more. It is a series about small details, and those details add up into big things: big laughs and big emotion, big pain and big joy. Joe and Owen and Terry live unremarkable lives, but the way the show's writers, its directors and its three outstanding main actors portray those lives is very remarkable indeed.

And what's been especially remarkable in these last few weeks of season two is how often I've seen and heard from fans of the show who wouldn't seem to be in its wheelhouse: men and women in their early-mid 20s who find themselves just as invested in, and affected by, these short stories about these three middle-aged guys in a way they never would have expected to. (Go and read the comments in that finale review for just a few of those.) That's how effective a job, Romano, Royce and company have done. I'm much closer in age to Joe and his buddies than I am to most of the characters on the CW, so it's not surprising that I might relate to them, but when I'm hearing from recent college graduates who can't get enough, that's when I know they've done something special.

I recognize that that's anecdotal evidence. I know what the ratings are, in total viewers and the young-adult demo. I know it's a hard show to market, one that at this point has to spread almost entirely by word of mouth.(*)

(*) And if anyone happens to be reading this who doesn't work for TNT and is interested in catching up on what you've missed, TNT has all the episodes up on its website.

But I also know it recently won a Peabody Award. I know that Andre Braugher got an Emmy nomination last year, will almost certainly get another this year and even has a decent shot at winning this year - or possibly next year, when his fantastic work in these most recent episodes will be eligible. And wouldn't you rather still be airing "Men" and be able to capitalize on that win when it happens?

Critical acclaim and awards don't pay the bills. I get that. But on the business side of things, you're doing pretty damn splendidly for yourselves. You have "Rizzoli & Isles" set to take the baton from "The Closer" as your flagship series when Kyra Sedgwick says goodbye (and I suspect the "Closer" spin-off will do pretty well for itself). You have a lot of other series that do good numbers, fit your brand and keep the ship afloat. (And some of them are perfectly fine in their own right. I've enjoyed what I've seen so far of "Falling Skies," "Leverage" is a fine bit of escapism, "Southland" has the things it does very well, etc.)

I don't have access to your books and wouldn't presume to tell you what you can and can't afford to keep on the air. But I have to assume that you got into the TV business not just because of the potential to make a lot of money, or get into LA's nicer restaurants. (Though both of those are obvious pluses.) I have to assume you chose this and not some other career path with the potential to be just as lucrative because some part of you loves the idea of making TV - and not just making TV, but making the kind of TV that people will remember years down the line.

And of your current roster, "Men" seems best equipped to be that kind of show. It resonates. Its audience is not large, but it is passionate. When I hear people talking about it, when I read what they write about it, it's just on a deeper, more lasting level than when they talk about "The Closer" or "Hawthorne." Most of your lineup is designed for people who want to turn their brain off and let an hour or two of scripted TV wash over them at the end of a tough day. "Men" isn't intellectually challenging - you don't need to have a spreadsheet open to keep track of it the way you might "The Wire" - but it's not disposable, either. It engages its audience emotionally in a way that the best dramas do, and manages to do that while keeping the stakes small and the tone neatly balanced between light and dark.

I understand that you haven't made up your minds yet, but that a decision is coming soon. And I know that maybe the numbers will never get much bigger. Or maybe if the series is scheduled in a way where all the season's episodes air in a row -  rather than the start-and-stop approach to season one and the split of season two into a pair of six-episode micro-seasons - word-of-mouth might build enough to justify the investment.

But whether the ratings go up or stay modest, this is the kind of TV show you should be proud to have on your network. And the kind of show I hope to be proud to write about for a while longer still.

Alan Sepinwall

Courtesy of HitFix.com