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Mr. TV: Fifty Something

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It isn’t often I get excited about current TV. But tonight, for the next several Mondays at 10 p.m., I’ll be front and center for new TNT drama Men of a Certain Age, the tale of three men (played by Ray Romano, Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula) approaching the dreaded half-century mark.

Sorry to say, I am totally attuned to the subject matter. And so are the baby boomers left hanging in 1991 after the abrupt cancellation of water-cooler favorite thirtysomething. After getting through our 40s minus the support of a relationship drama we could totally relate to, Men of a Certain Age is a belated treasure. I had the opportunity to speak with Romano about this unexpected career move.

Was doing a drama as opposed to another comedy a conscious decision on your part? We had nine great years on Everybody Loves Raymond, one more than I actually thought we would. But I knew if I tackled another comedy, everyone would compare it to Raymond. So, I spent some time deciding what I wanted to do. I really was in crisis mode, doing odds and ends, wondering how I would spend the rest of my career. I knew doing another comedy was not the way to go.

I still miss Raymond. Was it difficult to end the series? Of course it was. After all those years you really are like family, so to suddenly not have a place to go every day is definitely an adjustment. But we wanted to leave while we were still on top, and I have no regrets about that decision. There were just not a lot of stories left to tell, and Peter Boyle was not in the best health at the time.

How did the idea of Men of a Certain Age come about? Well, I basically hit a wall. I was in my 40s, out of work and looking for the next great thing, and I wanted to do something real…something I myself could relate to. So Mike Royce (one of the executive producers on Everybody Loves Raymond) and I put our heads together and decided to tackle the story of three longtime college friends who are approaching midlife together. My character, Joe, is a recently separated father who once dreamed being a golf star but now runs a party store. Andre Braugher as Owen is trying to find his niche in an environment where he works with his demanding father. And Scott Bakula is a single, struggling actor looking to finally make it. We originally had a deal with HBO, but when Chris Albrecht left and interest waned, we took the project to TNT.

Is working for TNT less stressful than a network? I wouldn’t say it’s less stressful, just very different. We only have an initial 10-episode order, versus the 23 or 24 we had for Raymond every season. So, there is more breathing space. We don’t tape in front of a live studio audience. But with fewer new original shows on, I think that gives us more of a chance to stand out from the get-go.

Did you follow your ratings when you did Raymond? Initially no because I don’t think there were any ratings. No one was watching! But it was a definite incentive when I knew people were beginning to respond. That juiced us all up. But my main concern is the show itself and putting out the best possible product, not how it is faring competitively.

What is your preference: comedy or drama? Listen, my preference is having a job. Drama is newer to me, so I’m still a bit out of my comfort zone. But this drama thing is not half bad. I wouldn’t mind eight or nine seasons.

Before you go, I just have to ask. What was your favorite episode of Raymond? Well, I loved Debra’s PMS episode…that seems to top everyone’s list. But I also like the show about the luggage, the one about teaching Ally the facts of life and the one where we all got caught in lies. We had a lot to choose from.

Check out a live interview with Ray from our correspondent Alan Frutkin on Mediaweek TV.