by Meredith O’Brien
Dudes . . . did you know that thirtysomething and fortysomething dads don’t have it all that easy these days? The Desperate Housewives, The Good Wife and the divorced mom from The New Adventures of Old Christine aren’t the only ones being depicted on TV right now who are having mid-life angst issues? Two new shows – one a dramedy about middle-aged men who seem to have lost their way, the other a crude comedy about suburban guys in a fantasy football league – put the focus on men, most of whom are fathers who aren’t sure if they should be satisfied with or irritated by their current lot in life.
The more serious fare comes from TNT in the form of Men of a Certain Age . Its biggest star is Ray Romano, who plays Joe, a man who once dreamed of being a pro golfer but now that he’s 47, worries that his aspirations might’ve already passed him by. He owns a party supply store, is recently separated from his wife (her decision, not his), has two kids (ages 18 and 13) and has a gambling problem which hurt his marriage. Now living in a hotel where the highlight of his day is receiving automated 6 a.m. wake-up calls, the pilot episode depicted Joe as feeling disconnected from his children now that he’s not living with them in the family’s home. He’s not the man he thought he’d be.
Joe’s best friends from college who live in the area and whom he sees regularly, are feeling just as unmoored in their own lives as he does. The other dad in the group is played by Andre Braugher (who was excellent in Homicide). Braugher’s performance in the pilot was remarkable for the fact that he was willing to be filmed in his underwear looking, shall we say, unfit. His character, Owen, is a married dad of three, including a baby. Owen has to deal with weight problems and eating issues, diabetes and the fact that he hates his job as a salesman at his father’s car dealership but has to keep the job because his family needs the money. While he was lying in a hospital bed following a diabetic attack, his broken nose bandaged and wearing a hospital gown dotted with Hulk stickers his boys had placed on him, his wife told him he’d have to tolerate his father’s verbal abuse, even when he’s told that he’s an “embarrassment” to his dad.
Ouch. It’s not often that the leading male TV characters on a show are so openly sad and seemingly rudderless. (Mad Men’s Don Draper may be sad and a pathologically unfaithful husband, but at work he flourishes.) I found this pilot kind of refreshing, actually, because recently it’s mostly female characters who, once they hit their late 30s and 40s and have a kid or two, look at their lives and think, “Who the heck have I become and how did I get here?” In her review of Men of a Certain Age, the New York Times’  Alessandra Stanley wrote that the characters are “fragile, sensitive . . . almost on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” and said the show is “an intimate, womanly look at male bonding.”
Over on FX, things aren’t quite so dire and despondent for the thirtysomething men of The League , a crude (mostly sexually crude) comedy about a group of buddies who have a fantasy football league. Two of the guys are married, one’s divorced and one’s single and acts like he’s still in college even though he’s in his late 30s. This half-hour comedy takes a sharply satirical, almost Curb Your Enthusiasm-ish, look at suburban fatherhood and marriage where the guys seek to channel their inner college student via beer and fantasy football while awkwardly balancing careers, wives and kids.
For example, a dad who was hosting his daughter’s fifth birthday party in the backyard with his wife, turned it into a competition for the benefit of his fantasy football league. He gave each kid in the sack race a number which corresponded with a member of the league. The order in which the kids finished the race determined the guys’ order in the football draft, thus there were beer swilling suburbanites rowdily cheering on the children as they hopped toward the finish line, and the same men were shouting inappropriate profanities when their designated kid fell short.
One of the fathers in the fantasy league, a defense attorney, just had his first child with his wife and is having trouble regaining his sex life mojo because his wife is completely baby-centric. Meanwhile the birthday party dad -- a district attorney who’s looking to have another kid – spent most of the show’s brief first season worrying about his daughter playing with her poo and wanting to do bodily harm to her favorite dancing cartoon character doll, Mr. McGibblets (think dancing Elmo). So despised was Mr. McGibblets that the father enlisted his dim-witted buddy to dress up in a McGibblets costume, go into his daughter’s bedroom at night and scare the hell out of the kindergartener so she’d want nothing to do with Mr. McGibblets ever again. It backfired of course.
The guys in this fantasy football league see their hobby as a way to avoid facing the oftentimes difficult responsibilities of adulthood because they know that it’s just a matter of time before these guys morph into the guys from Men of a Certain Age.
(Episodes of both The League  and Men of a Certain Age  are available online.)