How Characters of a Certain Age Are Getting Their Due in Primetime TV

CAROl'S SECOND ACT - Patricia Heaton
Sonja Flemming/CBS

NCIS‘s Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Grace and Frankie‘s Grace Hanson and Frankie Bergstein. Blue Bloods Frank Reagan. What do these popular TV characters have in common? They’re all over age 50, and viewers can’t get enough of them.

While shows focusing on families and young adults dominate, more and more writers are zeroing in on mature characters. It’s a wise move since, according to a 2018 Census Bureau report, by 2030 one-fifth of the U.S. population will be 65 or older. And according to Nielsen, viewers over 65 watch more TV — nearly seven hours a day — than any other age group.

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The gloves come off when these shows go head-to-head this fall.

“There’s such a wealth of stories to be told in this demographic,” said producer Brent Miller (One Day at a Time) at the June 9 “Better With Age” panel during Austin’s ATX Television Festival.

Netflix streams two successful dramedies about later-in-life adults. Grace and Frankie, recently renewed for Season 6, follows 80-year-old Grace (Jane Fonda) and her BFF, 76-year-old Frankie (Lily Tomlin), who have no time to sit in rocking chairs knitting because they’re busy creating businesses, dating, and, yes, having sex.

Grace and Frankie (Ali Goldstein/Netflix)

Their goal, according to Tomlin: “to bring light to some of the things that [older] women are up against in the culture, from sexuality to looks to everything else.”

Last year the network debuted The Kominsky Method, starring Michael Douglas as an acting coach and Alan Arkin as his agent.

“First and foremost, [the show] is about getting older and all the things like health issues, mortality, losing loved ones, [and] feeling estranged in this culture,” executive producer Chuck Lorre said at a pre-Emmys event earlier this month. The series is resonating with viewers; it won two Golden Globe Awards last year and Season 2 premieres in the fall.

Lorre’s CBS sitcom Mom also mines laughs from the mature set. Recovering alcoholic grandmother Bonnie (Allison Janney) gets some of the best jokes. On ABC’s black-ish, feisty grandma Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) is often at the center of family conflicts.

Filthy Rich (Skip Bolen/FOX)

This fall, Patricia Heaton stars in the CBS comedy Carol’s Second Act, as a 50-year-old divorcée who pursues a new career as a doctor. Executive producers Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins love the theme about starting over. “We’re a youth-obsessed culture, but people are living longer, having multiple careers, and taking on new adventures later in life,” says Halpern.

More upcoming programs with mature leads are NBC drama Bluff City Law, starring Jimmy Smits as a seasoned attorney, and Fox’s Filthy Rich, with Kim Cattrall playing the matriarch of a Southern family.

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Sums up Haskins, “If we don’t have characters over 50 represented, we’re missing out on a lot of interesting stories.”