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