If you are not watching TNT's new drama, "Men of a Certain Age," you are missing weekly television's finest actor in one of the medium's most socially relevant roles of the season. I am talking about Andre Braugher as Owen Thoreau Jr., a middle-age Chevrolet salesman and father of three working for his dad's auto dealership, where he has become one of the staff's weakest performers.
Talk about a TV series working the same thematic turf as Arthur Miller's American classic, "Death of Salesman." Thoreau, one of three college friends now in their late 40s who form the core ensemble of this comic drama, is a stressed-out and overweight diabetic who literally seemed on the verge of dying after collapsing on a hiking trail in last week's series premiere. Thanks to his friends rushing him to an ER, he lives to suffer more indignities in the workplace Monday night at 10 when he is given a dealer car appropriate to his rank on the sales chart.
If you are not familiar with Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, then think of David Mamet's Pulitzer-Prize winning play, "Glengarry Glen Ross" - or the 1992 film version. Thanks in large part to Braugher's performance, the character of Owen Thoreau Jr. looks as if it could run almost that rich and deep.
Fans of the Baltimore-based NBC police drama "Homicide: Life on the Street" will not be surprised to hear that Braugher is doing some of the finest work on television. From 1993 to 1998, he gave a tour de force performance as Baltimore Police Detective Frank Pembleton.
One of the great joys of being The Baltimore Sun's TV critic during those years was getting the time and space to write about Braugher's Pembleton on an almost weekly basis as he dazzled in episode after episode.
Who can forget the mounting tension as Pembleton would enter the interrogation room known as "The Box" and start to bring all those mighty forces of race, rage, Jesuit education, guilt, pride, arrogance and a fierce sense of morality to bear on the suspect sitting across from him at the cop-shop-cheap, metal table of inquisition?
"Three Men and Adena," with guest star Moses Gunn as the suspect, was the landmark episode in the first season that established The Box as "the main stage for Pembleton and the moral center of the 'Homicide' universe," as I wrote in an appreciation. The producers put Pembleton, his partner and a suspect in a room with a few sticks of battle-scarred, municipal-green furniture, and somehow they managed to show us the human soul and the heart of darkness just before the late local news came on.
And for all the praise that I and others heaped on the screenwriting, it was Braugher's searing, take-no-prisoners performances that made it seem as if you could smell the sweat in that room and feel the rising need to confess your own sins to the angry detective who claimed to speak for those who died at a killer's hand. It was Braugher who took moments of outstanding television and simply willed them into becoming art through the sheer power of his performance.
One week into "Men of a Certain Age," I am not saying Braugher is performing at that level. For one thing, this is a different kind of series. Written and produced by Ray Romano and Mike Royce, of "Everybody Loves Raymond," it is a comic drama, which means it is written with a lighter touch. Think Barry Levinson's 1982 film "Diner" - but for men approaching 50. The three leading characters regularly meet at a diner.
Romano plays Joe Tranelli, one of the three college buddies at the heart of the series, a former aspiring pro golfer with a gambling addiction who is now separated from his wife. As bleak as that might sound on paper, Romano makes it work on-screen by leavening it with humor.
The third leading character (Scott Bakula) is a bit actor who teaches a yoga class and never seems to be without an attractive woman at his side or in his bed. Bakula's character, Terry Elliot, provides the sex for the series, while Braugher provides the dramatic ballast with Owen Thoreau.
Braugher offered the key to understanding Thoreau when he explained his involvement in the series by saying, "I really dug this character - I dug the fact that he's struggling for competence and not succeeding."
The two-time Emmy Award winner hit the idea of workplace "competency" and the effect that not measuring up has on Thoreau several times in a conference call, saying, "Owen is looking for professional competence, and he's looking for respect. And he's simply falling short."
The sense of workplace and professional failure is one being felt by a lot of middle-age and older men these days as the recession-ravaged American economy continues to take a nasty toll under the euphemism of downsizing - or even worse, rightsizing. Making him part of the ever-shrinking auto industry is a nice touch by Romano and Royce.
The British are more blunt in using the word "redundant" - as in men of a certain age being made redundant in the workplace as they never have since the Depression. And guess what: Because this group has been in power for so long, there is almost no sympathy for men in their 40s, 50s and 60s who are suddenly out of work but short of retirement age. They are left to wonder why they didn't measure up - and to suffer the feelings of failure and guilt that follow close behind.
Without being heavy-handed or obvious in any way, Owen Thoreau Jr. speaks to that under-discussed phenomenon in American life like no other character on TV. This is what makes his role potentially so resonant, even as his performance makes us come to know and care for Owen as a person.
Usually, such culturally rich territory belongs exclusively to HBO. But this time, TNT got there first with Braugher and "Men of a Certain Age."
The series debuted last week as the highest-rated premiere of the year on basic cable, with 5.4 million viewers. As the networks go all tinsel, chimes and cheap holiday reruns, make the move that millions of others are making to cable for their serious TV viewing - and put this new drama at the top of your list.
"Men of a Certain Age" airs at 10 p.m. Mondays on TNT