In defense of the aging frat boy

Offensive? Obnoxious? Sure, but "The League" and "Men of a Certain Age" prove these dudes are entertaining, too

Published October 29, 2009 12:29AM (EDT)

Joe (Ray Romano) and Terry (Scott Bakula) of "Men of a Certain Age." Right: Ruxin (Nick Kroll) of "The League"
Joe (Ray Romano) and Terry (Scott Bakula) of "Men of a Certain Age." Right: Ruxin (Nick Kroll) of "The League"

Little-known fact: Frat boys get softer and more lovable as they age. The very traits that make them so odious when they're young -- their masters-of-the-universe overconfidence, their high-fiving, wedgy-giving bluster, their myopic unwillingness to consider other people's feelings -- are replaced by self-doubt and dread in the face of middle age. As cocky dudes and swaggery ass-slappers reach their 40s and 50s, their exaltation in trivia like online poker and fantasy football leagues and who rolled whose ball hairs into a joint back in the day starts to look obstinately coltish instead of flatly uninteresting. Their ogling of hot-bodied younger women feels more understandable as aesthetic appreciation rather than self-deluded horndoggery. Their unrelenting mutual derision -- the "Eat me's" and the "Screw you, butt nuggets" and other faintly homoerotic allusions -- can be greeted as a particularly aggressive flavor of nostalgia, rather than a clear reflection of frustrated homosexual urges.

And while it's still unnerving to observe the casual arrogance of a gaggle of young men in their prime -- their baseball caps molded into the perfect C shape, their boxer shorts peeking out above their low-slung jeans, the almost prissily self-aggrandizing set of their broad, hairless shoulders -- watching that same smug spirit butt stubbornly from within the cramped confines of adult life can be surprisingly poignant. Because even as the older guy's guy accepts the responsibilities and burdens of demanding wives, pesky children, gigantic mortgages, tedious jobs and arthritic knees, even as he gives in to the perils of prostate checks and surrenders to the burden of acknowledging people's feelings and succumbs to the unbearable reality of neurotic teenage offspring and little motorized devices that yank the stray hairs out of his nose, there's some small part of him that is never completely at peace with this shackled, neutered state. Something deep inside him can still feel that tacky, spilled-beer floor under the soles of his shoes, some part of him can hear the faint strains of "Louie, Louie" playing on some quad far, far away, some stubborn cells at his core can still smell the Polo cologne and the cup-a-noodles heating up in the mini microwave.

FX's new comedy "The League" (premieres 10:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29) introduces a fantasy football league made up of overgrown boys who find themselves in the early days of their surrender to adult responsibilities: Their jobs are demanding, their wives are unnervingly powerful, their children are young and therefore highly inconveniencing. In the true spirit of the frat boy, all of these stressful duties -- and pretty much anything involved in being a mature, contributing member of society -- are cast in emasculating terms. For these men, picking up diapers for their wives or working late for their bosses are cast as the rough equivalent of getting ruthlessly manhandled by an enormous, hairy cellmate. You sort of have to feel for these guys for that reason. Because, while hiding out from your family in the bathroom so you can talk on the phone with your friends might not seem all that horrible or oppressive for you or me, for the aging frat boy, it's a sign of his waning virility.

In case the degrading nature of Pete's (Mark Duplass) bad marriage is lost on us, we learn that nothing turns on his overbearing wife more than, well, borderline sodomizing him while shouting "Give it up" and "I'm the boss!" Ignoring Pete's pleas to stop, she has her way with him, afterward slapping him on the butt and grumbling, "Good show, old boy," before heading off to the shower with the self-assured strut of an offensive coordinator. Nonetheless, Pete derides his friend Ruxin (Nick Kroll) for not having had sex with his wife for months in the wake of her pregnancy. Her body is back to fighting shape but, much to Ruxin's chagrin, the baby relishes all of that exquisite real estate, leaving him high and dry. Desperate, he takes to masturbating to online videos of big-breasted women stress-testing their bras. Their friend Kevin (Stephen Rannazzisi), on the other hand, is considered a wuss because he lets his wife, Jenny (Katie Aselton), make crucial decisions about his fantasy football team for him. In one scene, Jenny meets with Ruxin and threatens to tell his wife about the bra-test wanking. What does she want to buy her silence? Peyton Manning.

With its complete immersion in the screwy subculture of man-children, FX's "The League" would be intolerable if it didn't do its damnedest to demean and humiliate its characters at every turn. This is, after all, why the aging frat boy is increasingly lovable: He can admit now that he always was a somewhat limited animal, controlled by his libido, consistently blind to the needs and wishes of others. The vaguest whiff of humanity -- an ability to have a serious conversation or address one's emotions in a straightforward manner -- is treated as sacrilege by the other guys or, worse, snuffed out at the first glimpse with comments like "Ladies, ladies. Make a pick, or get a room and rub dongs." With friends this one-dimensional, it's not hard to see why these men have invested so completely in their wives -- and, in most cases, yielded most of their power to them while they're at it.

Divested of his top-dog status, unburdened by the impetus to make major financial or logistical decisions (that's his wife's realm now, thanks to his repeated tendency to forget to affix postage to bill payments or to get too distracted by online porn to engage in careful retirement planning), the graying dude becomes -- paradoxically enough -- a very pragmatic animal. Instead of being led around by his sex drive or his emotions like he once was, he develops a resigned (but perhaps realistic) view of how inconvenient it would be not to have someone as mature, efficient and effective as his wife around.

Pete: You don't ever think about divorce?

Ruxin: I've thought about it. But I would never do it.

Pete: What, you have like a moral stipulation ...

Ruxin: No. If Sophia and I split up, 50 percent of my time I would have to spend 100 percent of my time with my kid. Right now, I'm rocking like 50 percent coverage 30 percent of my time, you cannot beat those numbers. Also? If we got a divorce? She would get half of my money, making me ostensibly poor, yet still paying her to just get pounded by other dudes, which will happen because she is still smoking hot, whereas I look like a Nazi propaganda cartoon of a Jew.

Did I mention that "The League" is occasionally pretty funny? Forget that it's basically a Bud Light commercial stretched out to fit a half-hour of broadcast time. After all, we may not like to acknowledge it, but what Will Ferrell vehicles and movies like "Old School" and the continued survival of Vince Vaughan make clear is that elderly frat boys are more often than not pretty entertaining. Not only that, but there's something irresistible about their brand of self-congratulatory, mutually derisive rapport. When Pete calls Andre a "sweet, gullible little sucktard"? You almost wish he was saying that to you, in spite of yourself.

Speak for yourself, you say? Come on, now, we all like to be emasculated and demeaned every now and then. Maybe it's because we're all petulant and annoyed with each other under the surface, but we're never allowed to express it with outright aggression. Women might reveal the intricate fabric of their emotional experiences to each other, but occasionally wouldn't it be nice to call each other pathetic douches, give each other brutal wedgies and shave each other's eyebrows off while we're sleeping instead?

While FX's "The League" explores the odd customs of a bunch of guys who stubbornly refuse to grow up, TNT's drama "Men of a Certain Age" (premieres 10 p.m. Monday, Dec. 7) reflects the reckoning that takes place when men move past middle age and realize they can't put off growing up any longer. Joe (Ray Romano) is navigating a new life in the wake of a divorce, struggling to move forward despite missing his wife, who seems to have left him in part because of his continuing gambling addiction. Terry (Scott Bakula of "Quantum Leap") is an actor and part-time temp who still manages to date pretty younger women but has less and less drive to endure the demeaning grind of auditions and the fun but relatively empty repetition of the carefree single life. Owen (Andre Braugher) is desperate to quit his job working at his dad's Chevy dealership, thanks to his dad's dismissive attitude and tendency to disparage him in front of his colleagues, but he's got three young kids and a wife to support. The impossible trap of Owen's role as breadwinner is outlined clearly when he confronts his wife, Melissa (Lisa Gay Hamilton), about his desire to quit his job.

Owen: I'm not going back to that place.

Melissa: Well, what are you going to do?

Owen: I don't know what I'm going to do, but I've got to do it! I mean, I'm 48. I'm 40 mother shit 8!

Melissa: OK, listen. If you want to take some time off from the dealership in order to try to figure things out, then I completely support you.

Owen looks happy.

Melissa: Ooo, that's not true! It just came out. Listen, you just, you gotta keep working, because we just had a baby, and we're renovating the house ...

Owen: OK, maybe not right this minute, but in a month or two ...

Melissa: Owen, the private schools have just started. We can barely get through as it is. I mean, I could get a job but then it would just go straight to the nanny.

Owen: Well then maybe ... when the house is done in the middle of August.

Melissa: The house is not going to get done by the end of August. So listen. You just have to keep on working, honey, you know ...  Me and the kids? It's kind of what we're doing, right? You work, and we grow old together and we're happy because we have money, because you never quit your job when you were 40 mother shit 8, right?

Owen: Yeah.

Not only is this scene beautifully performed and laced with nuanced humor and understated tension, but Lisa Gay Hamilton is just transfixing as Owen's good-natured but pragmatic better half. Likewise, from its first hour-long episode, "Men of a Certain Age" manages to take ordinary issues for middle-aged men -- dealing with health problems, facing down old age, dating younger women -- and mine them for fresh perspectives and jokes. When Joe learns that Terry's new girlfriend is much younger than him, he warns, "You're gonna have to see all the 'Twilight' movies!" 

Later, when Terry almost gets hit by a speeding SUV, Joe offers to take a picture of the guy's plates with his cellphone. "Oh, wait, that's us. I had it backwards," Joe mumbles.

"Oh god, is that me?" adds Owen when he sees the image, sounding crestfallen. "This jacket's too tight. Why didn't you tell me?" Next Joe tries to take a picture of Terry's shirt, stained by his coffee when the SUV almost hit him, and hits the calendar function instead. It's a pitch-perfect moment of understated comedy -- and let's face it, anyone who can reimagine the "Old people don't understand new technology" joke and make it funny deserves our respect.

Although "Men of a Certain Age" is a little dreary and maybe just a wee bit amateurish in the manner of a rambling, late '90s-era indie film (as many shows on the cable frontier are), there's still so much to enjoy here. Like the gathering gloom of middle age itself, the mood alternates between glum and lighthearted. The pace of the show is patient and the dialogue saunters between mumbled complaints, emotional asides, manly rationalizations and good-natured ribbing. While you might suspect that Ray Romano doesn't have the acting chops to pull this off, I love him in this role. His stuttering, self-doubting, understated neuroticism and compulsion is just low-key enough to be believable. Romano, who co-created this drama with former "Everybody Loves Raymond" writer Mike Royce, just as he co-created "Everybody Loves Raymond" with Phil Rosenthal, brings the same perfectionism and commitment to realism to his new project. Aside from one odd supernatural subplot in the pilot involving road kill, everything in this story feels organic and believable, from Joe's online poker habit and job as the owner of a party store to Terry's uncanny appeal to women 20 years younger than him. Even when Terry runs the plates on the guy who almost ran him over in the street, hoping to track him down and kick his ass (with the help of Joe and Owen), the mood stays grounded in reality.

Terry: We're pushing 50 here! We've been dealing with dicks all of our lives, and guess what? The dicks are winning. So now we've got a chance to do something about it, and you guys are gonna let it slide, again? Just let the dick off the hook one more time?

Joe: Yeah.

Owen: I told you, I got things to do.

Joe: It's ridiculous.

Terry: OK, OK, forget it. I guess I'm the dick.

Owen: There you go!

Joe: Yeah! Run your plate!

The scene embodies one of the peculiar charms of "Men of a Certain Age," namely, that even while the dialogue echoes the central premise -- the search for meaning and maybe even vengeance in the face of old age -- these characters never take themselves too seriously. Under the press of unexpected existential crises, health scares, marital woes and loneliness, these men are ultimately soothed by their uneven camaraderie. Together, they face down the grim realities of their lives with courage, some resignation and, most of all, a good sense of humor.

But what else can they do? Owen, Joe and Terry may wish they were young again, that they could still play around whenever they felt like it, that the world was still their oyster, but that's not how life plays out at 50. They may not be invincible anymore, but they are much more lovable.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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