Sharp writing, intriguing characters and fresh takes on everyday situations set “Middle Ages” above the usual run of television dramas. It’s the baby boomers’ answer to “thirtysomething,” without the whining and with wider appeal thanks to older characters.
Ensemble drama revolves around Walter Cooper (Peter Riegert, at his nebbishy, neurotic best), a traveling salesman who works in Chicago and lives in suburban Winnetka with wife Cindy (sympathetic Ashley Crow) and two kids. He’s the realistic member of his trio of friends, trying to deal with hitting 40, undergoing a corporate merger that threatens his job, and wondering what happened to his youth.
The friends, Walter, Terry (William Russ) and Ron (Michael O’Keefe), had a band as kids, until singer Jill (Holly Gagnier) dropped some acid and tried to fly off a building. Her death killed the band.
But Terry isn’t willing to give up that dream quite yet. The idealist of the group, he toils at the family novelties business he inherited, longing to give music another try.
When he spots Blanche (Amy Brenneman) singing at a club, he’s convinced she’s Jill reincarnated. Walter and Ron like her style, but aren’t willing to go as far as Terry, who’s determined that with Blanche he can form a hit band. She, however, isn’t so sure.
Cynical Ron is the third member of the group. O’Keefe originally joined the cast in the third episode, but was so impressive that co-creators/exec producers Stan Rogow and John Byrum shot additional footage and made him a regular. He gets one of the best of many excellent speeches in the preem, talking about his generation as “one big lump of baby boom moving through the intestinal tract of history.”
Byrum’s script is outstanding throughout, filled with clever locutions and touching situations. His and Rogow’s story line presents characters rather than introducing them, and allows events to unfold naturally, so they feel unforced. Director Sandy Smolan frames actors in unobtrusive manner, and encourages visual reactions as much as vocal ones.
Outside the main trio are other important characters, mostly at the sales firm where Walter works. These include Walter’s father-in-law, Dave (James Gammon, the poor man’s Robert Mitchum), who at 60 has been laid off from his job as a salesman by smarmy new managing director Brian Conover (quicksilver Kyle Secor).
Abandoned by his wife, astounded that he’s suddenly old, Dave decides it’s time to start living. After a chance encounter with a wise cleaning lady (delightfully dignified Ruby Dee), he takes a job he’s always wanted–cabbie.
Also impressive are Maria Pitillo as ambitious secretary Robin, who’s quick to hook up with manipulative Brian; Lisa Zane, who makes Brian’s wife, Nora, less of a stereotypical snob than she first appears; and Albert Collins, briefly seen as guitarist Lefty.
Although the situations and dialogue in “Middle Ages” are consistently fresh and intelligent, preem falls into trap of setting up what is quickly becoming Hollywood’s favorite cliche: the stream of wildly inappropriate musicians auditioning for an increasingly bemused audience. First seen in “The Commitments ,” it’s getting old fast.
Another minor flaw: Casting director Francine Meisler has a fondness for women with masses of curls atop their heads, which tends to make them look alike. Nora is the only prominent female character with straight hair, presumably to emphasize her differentness.
However, “Middle Ages” overall is a winner. This intelligent, adult drama will enrich CBS’ schedule.