What’s happened to older characters on TV? Grandpa has become a bumbling idiot rather than the repository of wisdom and sage advice he was in “Leave it to Beaver,” while grandma is a leering, lecherous cougar. An article last year in the New York Times decried how old people are now the butt of jokes on TV sitcoms. “A century from now,” Neil Genzlinger wrote, “youngsters in history class will sum up the lives of everyone who had gray or graying hair in the second decade of the 21st century with: ‘Oh, yeah; those were the people who were obsessed with their bowels and couldn’t work a smartphone.’”
Where are the older characters who refuse to be the butt of someone’s joke? Sometimes they pop up, but often not for long – and not in sit-coms. As a fan of Kathy Bates, I was thrilled a couple of years ago to see her play a maverick attorney on “Harry’s Law.” Overweight and in her 60s, her character even got a love interest. But despite a healthy audience of eight million viewers, the show was cancelled because those viewers weren’t young enough to satisfy advertisers.
That’s the bad news. Here’s some good news: Older characters in non-stereotypical roles are sneaking in all over the place, even on network TV. One place to find these shows is in original programming made for streaming by online companies such as Amazon and Netflix. Like cable, Internet TV apparently feels free to push the envelope.
Check out these bingeable shows with older characters who break the mold. Just don’t blame us if you turn into a couch potato.
A thrillingly offbeat original series made by Amazon, “Transparent” stars veteran character actor Jeffrey Tambor as a Los Angeles paterfamilias who is coming out as a transsexual because at 70-ish, he has found the courage to become who he always felt he really was. His three adult children, who have serious sex and boundary issues of their own, are forced to face some unpleasant truths about their lives when they find out dad is becoming a woman. Tambor, who looks like an elderly hound dog dressed in drag, somehow manages to tread the fine line between absurdity and pathos. The rest of the cast is equally brilliant. Happily, the show has been a huge hit for Amazon and has been renewed for another season.
Orange Is the New Black
Say “jail,” and most people think youngish male prisoners. While there’s been more coverage of the burgeoning older prisoner population lately, the idea of older women in jail is still surprising. That in itself makes “Orange is the New Black” a stereotype-busting show. Set in a women’s prison, its main character and most of the supporting cast are young, but a group of elderly prisoners who call themselves the Golden Girls appear regularly as allies of the character Red. The Golden Girls might look like your typical harmless old ladies, but these women are determined not to be underestimated. They calmly threaten Red’s enemies with homemade weapons and are taken seriously after one of them mentions that she’s in for a “real crime” – cutting off her husband’s penis. They have a softer side, too: the group cares for an elderly inmate with Alzheimer’s.
Stream on Netflix. Hint: Turn on captioning for this show since some of the slang is hard to understand.
NCIS Los Angeles
Flying a bit under the radar when it comes to elderly female stars, this show’s charismatic character actress Linda Hunt plays the NCIS Office of Special Project’s operations manager, the impressively tech-savvy Hetty Lange – a legendary former intelligence agent with a mysterious past. Hunt, at 4’9” tall and 69 years old, is half the size and twice the age of the rest of the young, hunky cast, but carries the role with her commanding voice and mesmerizing screen presence. She is the exception that proves the rule that old and homely can’t get a starring role on TV.
The show is in Season 6 on CBS, where you can watch some full episodes. Seasons 1 to 5 available to rent on DVD from Netflix; or stream on Amazon for $1.99 per episode with Amazon Prime. Seasons 5 and 6 are available for streaming on Google Play for $1.99 per episode.
Last Tango In Halifax
This British drama’s main characters, Alan and Celia – played by Derek Jacobi, 76 and Anne Reid, 79 – are a widow and widower, once teenage sweethearts, who reconnect through Facebook and fall in love all over again. Their truly tender romance isn’t smooth sailing, however. Jacobi’s character has a bad heart and almost dies, and both have neurotic, dependent daughters who aren’t totally ready to let go of Mom and Dad. The interplay of their two families – including daughters, grandchildren and alcoholic ex-husbands – creates heartbreaking, funny, quirky drama. Not only do they defy stereotype by falling in love in their 70s, but both elderly lovers rely on the Internet, Facebook, email, cellphones and texting just as matter of factly as the younger characters. Ya gotta love that. Go directly to Netflix and binge-watch it.
Again, the Brits get it right when it comes to aging. Maggie Smith, 79, the Dowager Countess, is the family matriarch and gets all the wittiest and most irreverent lines. Many viewers tune in just to find out what she’ll say this week. Formidable and stylish, she has an adversarial relationship with Isobel Crawley, her distant relative, a commoner played by Penelope Wilton, 66. Isobel, an inveterate do-gooder and champion of the underdog who welcomes approaching modernity (and who, by the way, has a love interest), tries to befriend the snooty Dowager and is repeatedly rebuffed. You don’t often see two female characters this age on hugely popular shows regularly get to have meaty confrontations about class difference and the meaning of life.
One of this iconic show’s more grotesquely funny subplots hinges on overturning our assumption that paralyzed, mute old guys in wheelchairs breathing from oxygen tanks are harmless. Hector Salamanca, despite being unable to speak or move, is the feared and respected patriarch of his family and the kingpin of the Juarez drug cartel. He communicates by ringing a bell, once for yes, twice for no. In the shocking final episode of Season 4, Walter White convinces him that he should give his death meaning by triggering a bomb with his bell to assassinate his archenemy Gustavo Fring. Salamanca goes out in a bold act of defiance.
Francis McDormand, 57, produced and stars in this powerful psychological portrait of the last 25 years in the marriage of a depressed, abrasive Maine schoolteacher and her temperamental opposite – an easy-going, soft-hearted pharmacist played by Richard Jenkins, 67. A four-part series adapted from a Pulitzer Prize winning book, it’s about how ordinary people make compromises in their lives – including marrying the wrong people – that define who they become as they age. McDormand was quoted in the New York Times as viewing Olive as “a subversive act.…We are on red alert when it comes to how we are perceiving ourselves as a species,” she said. “There’s no desire to be an adult …. No one is supposed to age past 45 — sartorially, cosmetically, attitudinally…”
Available on Demand at HBO with membership
Brainchild of Oscar-winning director, Guillermo del Toro, “The Strain“ is about a particularly nasty vampire who is infecting New Yorkers with undead bloodlust. British character actor David Bradley, 70, plays Professor Abraham Setrakian, Holocaust survivor turned New York pawn shop owner and fearless vampire hunter. He is pitted against Jonathan Hyde, 66, as an elderly billionaire invalid driven to obtain immortality. Actors Bradley’s age don’t generally get to run around with silver swords while complaining about their aches and pains; they usually play the old guy who doles out advice. “The Strain” really is great fun if you have a strong stomach.
Do you have any favorite shows featuring stereotype-busting older characters? Please share them with us in the comments section.