'Middle Ages' paints bleak portrait of white, middle-aged men

September 03, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Did somebody at CBS say, "Let's put on a show just to totally bum out aging baby boomers -- show them how bad life in a downsized America can truly get for them?"

Because they sure have one in "Middle Ages," a limited-run series that starts its tryout at 9 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11). The two-hour pilot paints life for fortysomethings in a darker shade of bleak than anything in prime time since Michael and Elliot had to go to work for Miles Drentell and be treated like dogs week in and week out on the late, great "thirtysomething."

The characters in "Middle Ages" range from about 25 to 60, from the barely tolerable to the truly pathetic. But the main players are the fortysomething white men.

Peter Riegert, who was sublime as the Pickle Man in "Crossing Delancey," is the central character, Walter, a fortysomething who's barely tolerable. He's a salesman for a personal electronics firm, and his existence makes Willy Loman's seem positively charmed.

Walter is supposed to sell digital, computerized everythings to octogenerian general store owners, who don't know a memory byte from a spider bite, in towns like Peoria and Sioux City.

Walter's best friend, Terry (William Russ), runs a novelty business that he inherited from his father. He sells things like Colin Powell Commemorative Desert Storm plates. But what Terry really wants to do is start a rock band or, more precisely, re-form the band he had in high school.

Here's where we edge into the truly pathetic, as the Eric Clapton wannabe tries to pick up a girl singer, get her to quit her job, "get on" his payroll, and move in with him -- all in about 48 hours. See, she reminds him of the girl singer in his band in high school. That girl singer jumped off a building one night high on LSD and life has never been the same for Terry, Walter (who played bass guitar) or anyone in this show, it seems.

There are two other male characters around whom the series is built. They are all going through crises and, except for Walter, don't seem to have a clue.

The catalyst for all the angst tonight is the sale of the small Chicago company where Walter and his father-in-law work. The big corporation that bought the firm is talking "downsizing." One of the first salesmen to get downsized right between the eyes is Walter's father-in-law. Walter spends the rest of the two hours waiting anxiously for his number to be called.

This is the stuff of real, first-rate drama, as our continuing empathy with Willy Loman and fascination with "Death of a Salesman" suggest. But the characters in "Middle Ages" are self-absorbed and self-pitying to the point where they lose empathy and start to grate.

Creator Stan Rogow, the producer responsible for the short-lived but brilliant "Shannon's Deal," refuses to acknowledge that Walter, Terry and the others made choices that brought them to the places where they are today. They bear responsibility for their sorry plights. Rogow also fails to see life in any dimension other than the tunnel view of middle-aged, white male.

As a result, the women in "Middle Ages" include some of the worst kinds of male constructs. There's the one-dimensional wife who's "there" for her husband, but doesn't really understand what life is like out there in the jungle. When Walter tells his wife he thinks he's going to lose his job, she invites him to watch an old movie on TV with her. There's the woman-as-cardboard-figure in the person of an office secretary who seems to have written the book on using sex to get ahead. And there's the rock singer Terry obsesses over -- woman as madonna. Did I mention the good-hearted prostitute?

The worst stereotype, though, is the one the wondrous Ruby Dee finds herself in. She's cast in the role of the wise domestic worker -- the one who understands what these poor, suffering white, men are going through.

Some white, middle-aged guys are going to think this series is a lot better than it is. They are going to think the characters are mourning some important change in America from a land of post-war plenty to a downsizing of the dream. I think what's troubling these characters is that they find themselves in an America where being white and male no longer guarantees you privileged status or a job.

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