In an era when prime-time TV seems to have forgotten the ordinary family, Ray Romano has carved an incisive career out of exploring us with our loved ones.
Where his CBS hit "Everybody Loves Raymond" played that for laughs, tinged with sentiment, Romano's acclaimed TNT hour "Men of a Certain Age" takes life's transitions seriously, spiced with laugh-out-loud irony. His character, a party-shop owner with dreams of being a pro golfer, battles a gambling addiction and post-divorce uncertainty, at the same time his teen son and daughter face their own growing strains. Also in change mode is his second "family": the tight trio he forms with lifelong buds played by Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula, each charting a new path into the second half of life.
Romano knows about family ties. He created "Men of a Certain Age" (which begins its second season Monday night at 10 on TNT) with "Raymond" writer Mike Royce, and they hired many of that show's staffers. Meanwhile, the Forest Hills native remains so close with his blood family that they're never far from mind, either.
You used the name "Scarpulla" for the auto dealership that competes with Andre Braugher's family firm.
Yeah, that's my wife's maiden name, Anna Scarpulla. And the kids [on the show] are named Lucy and Albert - that's after my mom and dad. Did you know my dad passed away? Yeah, last February. That's him in the logo at the end, Papa Al Productions, that you see in the garage door for a quick second when the end credits run.
So you're saluting real life again, like on "Raymond," where the brother and three kids were named after your own. (Romano's fourth child, Joe, provides the name of his "Men" character.) But for TNT, you're even more hands-on. You wrote the scripts for the first-season finale and second-season premiere.
Yeah, with Mike [Royce]. This year, I was supposed to write also this finale with Mike, but we did 12 episodes, instead of 10, which I didn't want to do, just for this very reason. I'm wearing every hat - I'm in the editing room, in casting, in the writers' room, and I'm on the stage acting, and it catches up with you. By the time of [shooting] the finale, there was no way for me to find time to write it with Mike. I guess when you're not acting in it and can delegate jobs to other people, and you're not so anal and controlling that you allow that, you can do it. But it's hard for us. It's me and Mike's thing, and we want to make sure it never evolves into a different type of show.
"Men" has lots of laughs, yet it cuts so deep into these characters' dreams and fears. The stories could go to some really dark places.
Our tendency is to write what's funny first, 'cause Mike and I, that's where we come from. Deep down, though, we want the drama to be the most important thing. TNT, I think they would be a little happier if we had a little more comedy in it. But I think the critics are responding to the dramatic side of it.
That must be satisfying, exploring that different tone after nine years on a live-audience sitcom.
I can't say it's more satisfying, but it is more satisfying for me now, at this point in my life. It's fun to be able to act and internally express what you're feeling. In the sitcom, everything has to be bigger and broader. When it's film you're doing, the subtleties can come up. There's more depth to it. For me, it's a bit of a stretch. And I like it.