If television is a reflection of modern society, it’s pretty clear we all take older adults, especially seniors, for granted.
If this wasn’t the case, the somewhat surprising success of the Hulu series, Only Murders in the Building wouldn’t seem like such an aberration. To be sure, Selena Gomez (29) lowers the average age of the show’s main trio, but the other two lead actors of the mystery dramedy—Steve Martin (76) and Martin Short (71)—have been old enough to collect Social Security for years.
While Only Murders in the Building is a critical hit and has been a renaissance for two comedic legends, it is also a stinging reminder of how TV used to celebrate older actors. The history of American television is littered with fascinating characters who were typically 50 and older, but over the past five decades that’s slowly and dramatically changed.
The 1970s were full of rich and colorful roles played by mature leads. Characters like Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor in All in the Family), JR Ewing (Larry Hagman in Dallas), Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur in Maude) and Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx in Sanford and Son) were not only memorable, but pop culture phenomenons.
The trend continued in the 1980s. Murder, She Wrote was one of CBS’s biggest hits for 12 years and was nominated for 10 Golden Globes and 12 Emmy Awards. Series star Angela Lansbury was 71 when the series ended. The Golden Girls focused on the lives of four older single women between the ages of 52 and 79, and was an instant ratings hit. Dynasty,, The Equalizer, and The Cosby Show, which was the most popular TV series of the 1980s, are just some of the successful programs that had older actors as in leading roles.
So when did Hollywood decide being old wasn’t cool? How did we go from a world where septuagenarian Angela Lansbury is the biggest star on television to teenager Millie Bobby Brown? I blame Beverly Hills, 90210, which premiered in 1990.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love the Walsh clan. I thought Dylan McKay was cool, David Silver was an adorable nerd, and I wanted more than anything to dance at The Peach Pit After Dark with Kelly Taylor. I was roughly the age of most of the cast at the time (Except for Andrea Zuckerman, who even I thought seemed a little out of place in high school) and enjoyed the show’s plot lines, which could border on the ridiculous but could also touch on important social issues.
The success of Beverly Hills, 90210 became a template for every teen-centric series that followed. While it wasn’t a critical hit, its incredible popularity led to a series of copycats, as its harder edge proved there was an audience for its occasionally risqué content. From Beverly Hills, 90210, the evolution of the teen genre is easy to trace. The series begat Dawson’s Creek (1998), Freaks and Geeks (1999), The OC (2003), Gossip Girl (2007), and countless others. From there, the interest in dramas and comedies with teen leads only intensified.
With youth programming a must-have for every streaming service and TV network, a particular demographic was gradually left out in the cold. Sorry mature adults and seniors, but by 2021 you’ve been relegated to only parental roles—even if you’re not old enough to actually be the parent of your onscreen kid.
Gina Rodriquez of Jane the Virgin fame is only seven years younger than Andrea Navedo, who played her mother in the series. Michael Sheen is just 12 years older than Tom Payne, who played his son in Prodigal Son. And Elizabeth Rodriguez and Dascha Polanco were mother and daughter in Orange Is the New Black, despite only a two year age difference. These are just a few examples of how older actors have to play older than their real age, or how an actor is forced to age up.
Thankfully Only Murders in the Building provides a ray of hope. The series is a sign that mature actors, and seniors in particular, are an underutilized and under-appreciated segment of the acting community and can be more to a series than an occasional parental or grandparent stereotype. (Netflix has had a few older-skewing series like The Kominsky Method and Grace and Frankie, but they haven’t been cross-generational hits).
The turmoil that washed-up actor Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin) and debt-ridden theater director Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) endure packs an emotional punch. The duo are also damn funny. These characters, which are deep and layered, are the kinds of roles any actor, regardless of age, would love to play. But if Steve Martin weren’t the co-creator of the series, chances are the roles of Putnam and Savage would have gone to actors decades younger, Selena Gomez’s character Mabel would have been turned into a love interest, and the show wouldn’t be nearly as intriguing or entertaining.
There is further proof that mature actors should be given more opportunities. Jean Smart (70) just won an Emmy for her co-lead role in HBO Max’s Hacks, but across the pond there are dozens of other examples of older actors playing vibrant roles. From Downton Abbey to Broadchurch, mature actors are easy to find. Even the country’s most popular reality show, The Great British Baking Show, is loaded with mature adults. If the Brits, whose number one export to the United States now seems to be TV shows, can create successful dramas and comedies with older actors, why can’t we?
So network TV execs, take notice. An honest look at how age is portrayed onscreen is something US audiences would welcome, enjoy, and accept. Just be sure to thank Steve Martin and Martin Short for the reminder.
New episodes of Only Murders in the Building premiere Tuesdays on Hulu.
Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot and aspiring hand model.
When he’s not waxing nostalgic for the good old days, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado or watching his DVD collection of Magnum PI, the good one with Tom Selleck. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.
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