What Betty White Wrought: TV’s Troublesome Depiction of the Elderly

12/11/2013 11:20 AM |

derek tv show ricky gervais

Old people have long had a hard time finding dignified representation on television. “Kaye Ballard and Eve Arden were being annoying on The Mothers-in-Law back when Lyndon B. Johnson was president,” Neil Genzlinger wrote in an essay, “TV’s Problematic Portrayal of Aging,” in the Times last month. There was Sideshow Bob’s rueful discovery in 1995 that Vanessa Redgrave, then almost 60, had been drafted onto the small screen and given a catchphrase: “Let’s haul ass to Lollapalooza!” And there was Mona from Who’s the Boss in the 80s, the kooky grandma who always had a double entendre ready to quip.

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Of course, there have always been exceptions, especially on CBS, whose median viewer age recently climbed to 58.2, where you can find older people like the 62-year-old Mark Harmon solving crimes on NCIS. Old people have always liked to watch older people: Matlock, Columbo, Dick Van Dyke on Diagnosis: Murder (which aired on CBS in the 90s). But in comedies, as the deliverers of crude punchlines, it’s only gotten worse for the elderly. I blame Betty White: in 2010, the campaign to have her host SNL reached its peak and we decided as a culture that it was funny to hear her say anything about sex because she had become famous playing a golden ager and now was even older. The smut-talking grandma wasn’t a new character-type, but White transformed it into an archetype.

Which brings us to today. “On television these days, if a character is yacking about flatulence, making randy remarks to a member of the opposite sex or being baffled by simple things, that character is likely to have some gray hair,” Genzlinger wrote. “Somehow, it seems, the TV gods have decided that characters old enough to have adult children need to be vulgar, inappropriate or moronic. Or all three.” His evidence: Margo Martindale and Beau Bridges on The Millers, Allison Janney on Mom, James Caan on Back in the Game, Ellen Barkin on The New Normal, Martin Mull and Peter Riegert on Dads, Garrett Morris on 2 Broke Girls, and so on. And that’s just this season and last.

But there is a new show treating the elderly with dignity and respect—for the most part—and that’s Ricky Gervais’s Derek, exported from the UK to our shores by Netflix (though available elsewhere on the web for those without an account). The mean-mouthed Golden Globes host plays a possibly autistic staffer at a small nursing home in the UK; the other main characters are the home’s fix-it man and its nurse. Always in the background though are a sea of white heads: the home’s residents, knitting, playing chess, reading, passing the days placidly until they die. And die they do: I’ve watched the first four (of seven episodes), and already two residents have gone gently into that good night.

Before they do, though, Gervais takes great pains to humanize them. In Episode 4 (or 3, if you don’t count the Pilot as Episode 1), one of the resident’s daughters, a “gobby cow,” impatiently waits for her mother to die so she can inherit her wedding ring; but the staff make sure to ask her questions about it: how did your husband afford it? How did you feel when he told you? Which lead to sweet, heartwarming answers about young love and the things it makes us do.

More notably, in the previous episode, a raucous dance party ends with the residents drifting off to sleep, their dreams of their bygone youths depicted in super-8: smoking pipes, diving off a high board. Accompanied by Radiohead’s “Bones,” the bit plays like a Literal Version music video, showing off Gervais’s worst instincts on the show for the mawkish and earnest, what Mike Hale dismisses as “consistently, numbingly sincere.” Still, given the way the elderly have been so written-off by so many television programs, particularly lately, you could forgive Gervais the excesses of his corrective.

There’s often a real jolt to these moments: it is easy for young people (say, under 50?) to write off the elderly, whether as individuals or in groups, as “old people.” In real life, our grandparents (or elderly parents) aren’t always the ones with a randy comeback—in fact, we often don’t really know them at all outside of their roles as benign caretakers, and so we can lose sight of their sharing in ordinary human experiences: that they loved, had sex, worried about money, cried, washed sand out of their hair, looked at stars, felt autumn breezes and wasted afternoons. (Everyone of course has different families, some without grandparents, some with horrible grandparents. I’m writing from a mix of personal experience and cultural stereotype.)

Genzlinger suggests that the way we portray old folk now is the revenge of a younger generation sick of hearing that their culture doesn’t measure up to the baby boomers’. But I think it’s simpler: we don’t know our old people—either because we haven’t asked, or because they don’t want to tell—so we imagine it’d be funny if secretly they were just impudent foul-mouths. Derek takes the opposite tack—it imagines what they might really be like, finding pathos and leaving most of the yuks to the young.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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