MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE. 10 tonight, TNT.

IN THE years since HBO's "Sex and the City" first became a cultural phenomenon, I've sat through more pilots than I care to think about for shows that wanted to do with men's friendships what Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha had done with women's.

The only thing funny about most of those shows was that their creators didn't seem to realize that part of what made "SATC" interesting in the first place was that it showed women behaving the way only men on television usually did.

Still, men are interesting enough in their own right that I figured sooner or later someone would find a way to make the idea work.

Although I didn't expect it to be Ray Romano.

But as TNT's "Men of a Certain Age" premieres tonight, right after the return of the Kyra Sedgwick hit "The Closer," it's the "Everybody Loves Raymond" star, who co-created the series with a former "Raymond" executive producer, Mike Royce, who's the biggest surprise.

Oh, he still looks and sounds a lot like Ray Romano, whose Ray Barone never felt like enough of a stretch to get him, perhaps, all the credit he deserved as an actor (though he did win an acting Emmy). If anything, his "Men of a Certain Age" character, Joe, seems an even better fit for the persona Romano generally projects: sweet, insecure, mildly obsessive-compulsive.

Still, Romano may be digging a little deeper for this hour-long dramedy, in which he plays a man who's recently - and apparently reluctantly - separated from his wife (Penelope Ann Miller), is living in a hotel and spending a lot of time with his two best friends, Owen (Andre Braugher) and Terry (Scott Bakula), both of whom he's known since college.

Not that the setup doesn't feel a little contrived at times. Bakula's character, a Lothario and lately largely unemployed actor, has little in common with the two family men. All three characters are in their 40s but don't necessarily look like contemporaries. (Of the three stars, only Braugher is actually reported to be under 50 and it's worth asking why men and women who truly are "of a certain age" are so often considered dead to TV.)

If Terry is so far less compelling, perhaps it's because he's a type most often found in Los Angeles. And even there he probably pops up more frequently on television than in nature.

But in the five episodes of "Men" I've seen so far, the writing for Joe and Owen only seems to get better, no doubt in part because the characters have been given connections that go well beyond one another.

Braugher's Owen is a car salesman working for a dealership owned by his difficult father (Richard Gant) and married to Melissa (Lisa Gay Hamilton), with whom he has three children. Diabetic and a bit out of shape, he's fighting, sometimes not very effectively, to hold on to what he has.

Joe, the owner of a party store, is battling at least one personal demon while trying to stay close to his kids, particularly a son who may share some of his own anxieties (as well as his - and Romano's - love of golf). Their relationship in particular comes off as achingly real. Another, so far unscheduled episode, in which Joe goes on a date for the first time since his separation, is as touching, and as funny, as anything I've seen in a while.

Like its characters, "Men of a Certain Age" isn't perfect, and maybe not everyone who loved "Raymond" is going to love it.

But this show about men who are, as TNT puts it, in "the second act of their lives," isn't a bad second act at all for Romano. *

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