Ah, the joys of midlife. Last year, the television show, "Men of a Certain Age," premiered on TNT and just this month, it has entered its second season. Ads for the show when it premiered in early 2010 stated that "The best parts of life happen in the middle," but this upbeat byline is contradicted by the image of the three male stars trying to escape a glass that is half full (or half empty, depending on whether you're an optimist or pessimist). To reinforce this point, the facing page asks the question: "Are you just getting started or half-finished?" Clearly, the show was being billed as the next installment in Hollywood's continuing love affair with the mid-life crisis, Though the concept is discredited by research on adult development, including my most recent study, Hollywood is perpetually enamored of the notion that midlife means upheaval, particularly for those men "of a certain age" and this latest midlife myth machine continues in that derivative vein (see a recent review from the present season).
Never mind that the "certain age" is a deliberately sloppy term. Never mind that the term was borrowed from reference to over-40 or so women, further detracting from the show's potential originality. And most of all, never mind the illogic of men in their 50's being "in the middle." The middle of what? A life that will end at 110? This problem illustrates the sort of moving target that the midlife crisis has become.
Originally designated as a term to refer to 40-ish which is inaccurate enough given that the average life expectancy is about 77, people use the term to refer to almost any period of unhappiness from the 20s to the 70s. Unless the men on this show are the next generation of Jack LaLanne's (which I doubt given their apparent lack of physical fitness), there is a fundamental flaw in its very premise. Well, Hollywood is all about suspending disbeliefs, so we can let that one go by for now.
So for its opening episode, gritting my teeth, but trying to keep an open mind, I tuned in and was rather pleasantly surprised to see that, at least so far, the men on this show are not acting out midlife escapists fantasies, but instead are dealing with the more mundane issues of adult life. Though not as much fun as Nip/Tuck, whose male protagonists confront aging (their own and that of their patients) with scalpels and preposterous love affairs, these guys seem fairly normal, like the men you know from work, your neighborhood, or family gatherings.
The hype clearly didn't match the show's reality. What else is new? For me, the problem is the hype. I don't mind a show about coping with adult issues in an adult way. Though to be honest, I prefer Kyra Sedgwick's portrayal on "The Closer" of a middle aged woman struggling with trying to find her cell phone and reading the small print on a computer when she isn't staring down cold-blooded killers and rapists and forcing them to confess. In an interview with TV Guide, Ray Romano, one of the three stars, observes that the show "proves that I have a propensity to not be in total control and I am susceptible to a midlife crisis," as if that was a good thing.
What I liked about the show itself, though lacking in action (killing a possum in the road was the high point of the opening scene), was the fact that the three main characters are designed to show differing routes through midlife. Though all are unhappy (as critic Jeff Roush said, "Sad Men," not "Mad Men"), they vary in the pathways that led them to the current dilemmas and chances are, they will continue to do so. I was reminded of the participants in my study, whose complex life patterns took a variety of twists and turns.
However, none of the pathways taken by these men have so far led them to feel fulfilled, and if the series proves to be a flash in the pan, we may never see them reach a higher psychological state. Of course, there's no drama in fulfillment. Hollywood prefers to play on our fear of annihilation, as evidenced by the disaster of disaster movies, 2012.
But it is possible to get it right. In an insightful analysis comparing George Clooney's Ryan Bingham to Tom Cruise's Jerry Maguire, NY Times critic A.O. Scott shows us the wisdom of Hollywood writers who depict midlife men finding fulfillment by searching for the alignment of their outer success with their inner emptiness.
I suspect that for many, the attraction of the midilfe crisis is that it just seems so darn sexy. Get that flashy car. Ditch your boring family. Leave that tedious job behind. Drive away into that sunset (but don't run over any possums) and you will find happiness and eternal youth. When Hollywood gets it right, as they can, they show us that the path to fulfillment involves hard work, continual - though not obsessional- questioning of your identity, the courage to change when necessary and the courage to live with and accept your life for what it is.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2009
Farrell, M.P. & Rosenberg, S.D. (1981). Men at midlife. Boston: Auburn House Publishing.
Rubin, L. (1979). Women of a certain age: Fulfillment at midlife. New York: Harper & Row.