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Elders on Television

Young people are watching less and less television or, perhaps, watching it more on computer screens and the average age of viewers these days for the major broadcast and cable channels ranges from mid-50s to mid-60s.

Maybe that has something to do with what I'm writing today - or not. I don't know.

I've complained here in the past about the negative portrayal of elders on television. If the critique is confined to commercials, there are a lot of old folks, they all suffer from some icky bodily malady and they are remarkably happy about it - well, happy about whatever nostrum is being touted.

But I have noticed lately, that older characters in dramas are quite nicely done. It's not that I've made a thorough survey. This is just some anecdotal observation in a handful of police procedurals that I indulge in when I want to veg out.

Dann Florek, now 61, has been playing Captain Don Cragen on Law & Order during the early 1990s and on Law & Order SVU since 1999. He rides herd on his detectives who tend to skirt the law in apprehending the bad guys, and is the voice of reason, as grownups should be.

Sharon Gless, who will be 68 at the end of this month, plays Madeline Weston, the mother of the former spy Michael on Burn Notice. She's a chain-smoking retiree living in Miami who, while always worried for her son's safety, helps him out with his cases when needed and wheedles him into chores and errands she needs done.

She's a bit flaky, but strong on family and keeps her son grounded. It's a nice portrayal of the ambivalence there often is between a parent and adult child.

In a new series, Harry's Law, 62-year-old Kathy Bates plays a former patent attorney who opens an office in a dilapidated shoe store in a ghetto area of Cincinnati and now handles mostly criminal cases of which she has no prior experience.

Without precisely making a reference to it, the show follows Harry as late in life, she makes a dramatic change in her career – something lots of old people know about these days. The “kids” in the cast help her understand her new surroundings and she passes on some useful life lessons in return.

Mark Harmon, 60, plays Leroy Jethro Gibbs, the no-nonsense boss of a criminal investigative unit on NCIS. I like how age-appropriate Gibbs is. As many elders do, he's had some trouble adjusting to new crime-fighting technology (it took several seasons for him to master a cell phone) but he eventually learns and learns its value while refusing to give up old ways – particularly gut instinct - that still work.

My latest favorite is Linda Hunt, age 66, who plays operations manager Hetty Lange in NCIS LA. A former agent with a mysterious background - sort of like Q from the James Bond series - she is fluent in many languages, holds multiple false identities, may have had a romantic past with the likes of Frank Sinatra and George Hamilton and is accomplished in many fields.

Hetty is fiercely protective of her young agents who find her intimidating but their respect for her is unbounded, as hers is for them. I like how she is certain of her skills and lives as she chooses.

Never, in any of these series, is there a hint that the old characters are less than competent. At the same time, there is a lot of assertion that years of experience are both valuable and pay off in ways that even intelligent youth cannot yet do.

All in all, these shows – all quite popular - do a terrific job of representing elders. Week after week, old people show up and do their jobs successfully proving that age is no hindrance and can often be an advantage. This is good for our reputation.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Susan Gulliford: The Twice Pink Kitchen


Comments

As infrequent tube watchers, we found "Harry's Law" quite by accident. Kathy Bates is wonderful in the lead role.

I don't watch any network tv; so hadn't seen these shows but like some of the actors a lot. Linda Hunt, who was great in Silverado, was a prime example of an actor I always enjoy and like the idea she's having this success.

I watched a good movie from Netflix this week, The Golden Boys, starring three senior guys (Bruce Dern, Rip Torn and David Carradine). The hard part is that Carradine died several years after making it; but in the film they are such wonderful examples of dynamic actors as old men with a lot of humor in the story as well as showing them as being quite capable of still being heroes even when openly aged. They play former sea captains living on Cape Cod in 1805. Mariel Hemingway was also good in it as their hoped for mail order bride. A lovely women but of an obvious certain age. Her character is middle-aged, not as old as them, but quite believable as a woman who might choose to do what she has. It's a comedy and romance and would make a good addition to your Geezer Flicks

ooops typo-- 1905

Yes, I'm noticing it too. There's Tom Selleck in Blue Bloods, too...and his father.

ALL the actors/actresses you mentioned are favorites of mine and I enjoy that they are still active and keeping me entertained.

Ronnie, Thanks for the rundown on the shows. I haven't seen any of them and will definitely check out Harry's Law with Kathy Bates. I love her.

I meant to say the other day regarding the wiki article that ANYONE can edit that site. All you need to do is sign up with WIKI. As a graduate student, I have written and edited several sites having to do with historical figures. On each site there is a "history" tab where you can see who made what changes when. (How our professor knew what we had done) Who knows what sour puss wrote that review about ATGB?

I don't have a TV anymore, so I haven't seen any of those shows; however, it's nice to know there are more, fully developed roles for older actors, especially women. About time!

I used to watch the Golden Girls, but the seemingly endless sex jokes didn't ring true for me. As if sex must be mentioned in order to prove the characters are actually alive. Hooey!

Let's hope there will be more TV shows and movies that depict older adults—especially women—as we actually are, and not as caricatures thrown into the storyline here and there for cheap laughs.

Writers and producers ... are you listening?

Thank you for mentioning all my favorite actor's over fifty. I'm right there after 8pm cheering them on. :)

And don't forget Judge Judy....what ever you think of her.

Does anyone remember the episode of Law & Order where someone has been shot in a "drive-by" shooting and Lenny (Jerry Herman) is questioning an old lady who witnessed the event.

"Did you recognize the car,Maam?"

"No, Officer, I don't know anything about cars."

"What color was it?"

" Blue or black. No,wait! maybe green."

"What kind of car was it? Did it have 2 doors or 4 doors?"

"I don't know."

"All right, thank you, Maam" says Lenny, walking away.

"The old lady calls after him."Wait, Officer, Don't you want the license number?" I got the license number."

That made the old lady look pretty smart, and Lenny had a sheepish smile on his face.

Nancy - Jerry Orbach, not Herman.

Don't forget my favorite show, "Men of a Certain Age" starring:

Ray Romano 54
Scott Bakula 56
Andre Braugher 49

I got not exactly "hooked" but became an occasional viewer of all those show because an 81 year old relative introduced me to them.

I think we're the target audience. Works for me.

I rarely watch TV, and I assume most of these are on after 9, when Im tucked in bed. But I love linda hunt and havent seen her around. In The Year of Living Dangerously, I thought she was great. Some of these shows sound okay.

Movies sometimes do a better job though of giving older actors roles. Remember Ruth Gordon? and Jessica Tandy. And many others. the Brits are especially generous in giving older folks roles both movies and TV.

Recently I, a book reader, have been longing for some fictional characters in a novel (literary) who are older and perhaps seeking how to make that change of persona in the world , if any of yr readers have suggestions I'd welcome them. NO romance novels please. Ta, Suki

Herman vs.Orbach....Just testing you,Ronni, to see if you really read these comments!

Now, if you believe that, I have a bridge I want to sell you!

It's a happy circumstance when TV shows (or books) contain good writng, great production and finely drawn characters played by excellet actors. No wonder the shows you mentioned are among the only ones I will watch on TV.

Susan, I just found a book (a mystery) you might like -- Death In Good Compny" by Gretchen Sprague. It's about a retired trusts and estates attorney who, as a New York City widow at loose ends, finds a new career as a volunteer in the down-at-the-heels West Brooklyn Legal Services.

There are loads of over-50 detectives in the mystery genre -- think of Poirot, Miss Marple, Mma Ramotswe in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, and hundreds more. And they are all wonderful. Enjoy!!

Although I don't have a TV for the last 4 1/2 years, you made my day with this bit of good news of how we're being portrayed on TV shows nowaday. Sounds like some peers I know.

Susan, Maybe you (and others) would like "Emily, Alone." by Stewart O'Nan. It's an introspective portrait of a woman in her early seventies, a year or two after her husband died. Emily's character is so well-done, I could swear I know her. Read the reviews on Amazon for more.

And Miki, I'll be looking for "Death in Good Company." No TV in my house--mostly online Netflix, very cheap, very convenient.

I still watch some TV, and my best favorite is "New Tricks" on PBS. British, BBC. There's seven "series," whatever that is and described as a crime drama, and comdedy. There's a new season for 2011. It stars James Bolam,75, Dennis Waterman, 63, and Alun Armstrong,65. All familiar faces if you're a BBC fan. their boss well played Amanda Redman, who is 54. I think the Brits have a good deal more comfort with actors of a certain age, and stories to match. And, you can get it on Netflix.

New Tricks is indeed entertaining and was one of the British ones I was going to mention. (A series is a season in US parlance.)

Another one is based on the Wallander books by Henning Mankell. The British version stars Kenneth Branagh (born 1960) while the two Swedish versions starred Krister Henrikkson (born 1946) and Rolf Lassgård (born 1955). The Henrikksson stories are especially worth watching if you like police procedurals.

BBC TV seems pretty good at providing good roles for older women and even the parts for younger women don't demand the sort of impossible beauty that you see in so much US TV.

Jenny Agutter, (b. 1952) Brenda Blethyn (b. 1946), Amanda Redman, Joanna Lumley (b. 1946)and Julie Walters (b. 1950) have all had good meaty parts in recent years.

I must confess to having a youthful crush on Jenny Agutter, who WAS incredibly beautiful in Walkabout and on Joanna Lumley.

"Olive Kitteredge," which won the 2009 Pulitzer for fiction, is a fine read with an older woman protagonist. Another is "Consider This, Senora," by Harriett Doerr; one of the main characters is 79 and Doerr was in her 80s when she wrote it.

For those who like murder mysteries, dark and gripping, try "Waking the Dead" on PBS Thurs. eves. Characters include some older types in leading roles. And, there are no commercials!

Thanks for pointing out the more positive portrayal of mature people in TV programming. I hadn't picked up on it. I do love Hetty and Gibbs.

I'm a night person, so I stay up and watch all of those shows you highlighted. I sit and knit and relax and am entertained. Not all network shows are brain sludge.

The other day, my daughter was just saying that she loves Gossip Girl. So I asked which channel in Singapore was it being shown. She said she caught it on some website, and was hooked to her laptop since.

Hmm, I used to have a crush on Mark Harmon. I just didn't realize that he's now 60 in NCIS! I've aged too (eerrr...early forties now) and he doesn't have that much appeal to me anymore. Sorry!

This is interesting - like some others I no longer have a TV but this is heartening. I wonder if British television is likewise bringing older actors in from the cold.
I know we used to have a series (I forget what it was called) that was specifically about an older couple, but it's good when you get diversity of characters - just like in real life.

Great wrap up on interesting issue..all the shows you mention are great, as well as others folks are watching too..BBC station always worthwhile to have on cable..funny who thinks who are "elders." hope I never have to give up my tv..great way to escape the world for few hours before bedtime..Linda Hunt is excellent & Mark Harmon could probably be elected President on write in vote at this point in his career..think writer's show about couple may be AS TIME GOES BY..PBS BBC with Judi Dench & famed British hubby, who I never knew, but liked the show a lot...nice we all chuckle at same things..much like every age group said the sociologist in my brain...thanks for opening up good discussion..will keep my eye peeled/pealed (sp) for interesting shows/characters/stories of interest...tata as Judi Dench would say..

Thanks to Arlene, Miki and Lee for the book recommendations. I have jotted them down, although I have read Doerr and also Olive Ketteredge. I look forward to Emily Alone and death in Good Company.

Yeah, I enjoy Kathy Bates character and the show after they got past the beginning episodes in which she didn't do her best work.

Enjoy Linda Hunt, too. They have some occasional older guest characters on another favorite show -- The Good Wife.

A couple interesting older characters on "In Therapy."
Wold like to see some older folk on "Mad Men." (I don't have cable so did catch-up on these shows by viewing DVDs.)

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