Next week brings the last episode of this Men Of A Certain Age half-season, and then the show disappears until the summer, following the split model of so many other successful cable shows. I can’t quibble with cable channels and TV producers doing what they feel they must to compete for viewers—and certainly MOACA stands so much stronger a chance in the summer than it has in December and January that it makes me wonder why TNT didn’t hold back all twelve episodes—but I do wonder if knowing in advance that they’d be working on a bifurcated season affected the writers’ thinking about how to tell stories in season two. Because with “And Then The Bill Comes,” it becomes clearer that these six episodes have really all been one extended story, with any repetition in themes and plot largely intentional. Season one ended with some fairly major changes in the lives of our three principles. Season two, so far, has been about whether those changes will stick.
And frankly, judging by this episode, everything’s looking a little shaky. As the new boss at Thoreau Chevrolet, Owen’s trying to put his own personal stamp on the place, by replacing the Muzak with his old funk and jazz records and by having his salesmen wear costumes for Halloween. He’s even figured out a way to relieve some of the tension between the sales force and the service department, which reaches an all-time high when one of the mechanics throws Lawrence into a dumpster. Owen doesn’t have much luck with his pep talk about how they’re all on the same side, in a war with customers, competitors, other countries, and the government. He does better when he comes up with the idea to expand the garage to take on body work, thereby allowing the repair guys and the sales guys to share in the profits. But when Owen, Sr., gets back from a long fishing trip, he pulls his son aside and explains that while the accounting ledgers may make it look as though the business has plenty of capital on-hand for expansion, the books are actually hiding a delinquent tax payment, prompted by an expensive piece of property that Owen, Sr., bought before the recession hit. So Owen has to abandon his plans for the body shop (and lose some credibility with his staff) and ends the episode staring at an empty lot. Is he making new plans? Is he looking at the property as a metaphor for his failure to build anything of his own? I imagine we’ll have to wait until next week for an answer to that.
Meanwhile, Terry seems to be thriving at Thoreau, so much so that when he picks up his first big paycheck, he buys new shoes and a new TV and makes plans to visit his successful brother Mark out in the suburbs, to bring presents for his nephew’s birthday party. Mark is wary, since he hasn’t seen Terry in a couple of years, and while Terry’s able to win over his other family members with his charm and his gifts—and is even able to soften up Mark a bit, by sharing some memories of their hard-ass father—his brother’s still not entirely convinced that the responsible, well-heeled Terry isn’t just another of the many phases that Terry’s gone through over the years. When Terry tries to give Mark a check to start paying him back for a Jeep that Mark bought him years ago, Mark refuses to take it, figuring that Terry will probably need that money again, sooner or later. Given how fragile Terry’s will can be, it’s possible that he may end up living down to everyone’s expectations. His one potential steadying force? His old acting pal—and new girlfriend—Erin, who dresses up as Lady MacBeth next to his Captain America for Halloween. “So much of life is an act, isn’t it?” they concede to each other.
Which leaves Joe, the man of a certain age that I’m most worried about right now. His business is doing well, especially with the Halloween rush, but we keep getting reminders that he’s not exactly on the steadiest ground. His employee Maria reminds him that people sometimes turn sour when they’re “old and don’t have a family.” He has a depressing video-chat with his sex buddy Michelle, who wears only her underwear and a monster mask. And perhaps most ominously—from a symbolic perspective anyway—he’s anxious about his eyesight, because he keeps seeing something in his peripheral vision.
In addition to all that, Joe gets a visit from Manfro’s creepy old mom, who tells Joe that his former bookie has cancer and could use a friend. Joe is honest and says he doesn’t want to drop by because he can’t be around gambling or gamblers. (Well, he’s partly honest; he doesn’t mention that he’s not really all that fond of Manfro’s company in the first place.) But after one of his compulsive “mind bets,” Joe does go by Manfro’s place, and within minutes, he’s stealing glances at the football game on TV and asking Manfro what the line is. Manfro tries to use Joe’s gambling addiction as a force for good by asking whether it’s worth it to undergo chemotherapy for a chance to raise his prospects for living from 69% to 75%. But it would be easier to laugh off Manfro’s jokes about Joe visiting “the lion’s den” if Manfro weren’t sitting in a chair draped with a striped blanket.
“And Then The Bill Comes” is a well-balanced, beautifully melancholy episode, suffused with decay—much of it supplied by the Halloween costumes and jack-o’-lanterns crowding the frame. But it’s not completely despairing. Each of our men can still thrive if they stay the course they’re already on—or if they heed the advice of Rick Nelson’s 1972 hit “Garden Party” and remember that “you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.”
- Lawrence complains that a mechanic called him “a dwarf,” and Owen replies, “What do you prefer? Little person?”
- I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love how Men Of A Certain Age grounds its conflicts in real-world detail. The mechanics at Thoreau aren’t just jerking the salesmen around as a power-play; they’re responding to the salesmen themselves, who can’t always agree on which job should get priority.
- Joe, fumbling with the camera on his phone: “Gotta get a picture of this… I know, I hit the… that’s a game… ever played that?… gotta kill the frog.”
- Another sad-but-true touch: Joe buying single-serving frozen dinners at the convenience store.
- This is probably too big a topic to get into during the last stray observation, but while I appreciate Owen’s efforts to shake things up at the dealership music-wise, I know from experience that Muzak has its place. I used to work at a video store—a chain, not a funky mom-and-popper—and I’d occasionally put in some kind of jazz performance video on our monitors, thinking that it’d be cool to have on in the background while we worked and while the shoppers shopped. But jazz—good jazz, anyway—isn’t really background music. I’d be trying to answer a customer’s question while Sonny Rollins wailed behind us, and it made the whole conversation a little more tense. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot lately, too, whenever I go out to eat with my family and we can’t hear each other over the loud, grating rock music playing—music that in any other context, I’d be digging. Anyway… maybe this is a subject worthy of a full blog post someday. For now, I’ll just chalk up Owen’s choice of tunes as another example of him making a superficial improvement without thinking it through.