Emmy Edition: Best Depictions of Aging on TV

On Sunday, the Television Academy will reward the industry’s best with Emmy Awards. It is likely that viewers in their golden years will represent the largest audience for this annual presentation of golden statuettes. According to Neilson, adults 65 years and older watch more traditional TV than any other age group. In their honor, we’ve asked Caroline Cicero, an expert on aging and popular culture at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, to give her own awards for the best portrayals of issues relevant to primetime’s prime audience.

Best Depiction of Retirement

Ed O’Neill, Modern Family

70-year-old O’Neill plays Pritchett patriarch Jay, who retired from running his closet company last season with designs to spend his days on the golf course. By May, Jay was getting antsy and decided to return to work.

 “Jay reflects the changing realities of retirement, where many people are able and choosing to keep working. With the baby boomers nearing retirement, this is an evolving issue as to how increasing numbers of healthy seniors will decide to spend their next 20-40 years,” says Cicero.

Best In-Laws

Jennifer Lewis and Laurence Fishburne, Black-ish

At 59 and 55 years old, Lewis and Fishburne play older than they are in real life as Ruby and Pops, the amicably divorced, and ever-present, parents of Anthony Anderson, who plays their screen son Dre. Through their characters, says Cicero, viewers are exposed to relevant story lines around sexually active seniors, intergenerational living environments, the importance of health care, and financial planning.

“Though divorced, Ruby and Pops’ presence in and out of the Johnson house displays complexities of families balancing work-life issues including childrearing, caring for aging parents, and in-law roles,” says Cicero.

Modern Family and Black-ish are household comedies the viewer tunes into to laugh at and empathize with parents and children facing humorous versions of our own family experiences,” says Cicero. “The genius of both shows is that we identify not only with the antics of raising school aged kids, but also with adult children and grandparents facing pressing issues related to today’s intergenerational families. The best episodes make us laugh throughout but close by pulling at our heartstrings, reflecting on what’s important in life.”

Best Transgender Senior

Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent

In Transparent, 72 year old Golden Globe, SAG and Emmy winner Jeffrey Tambor portrays Maura Pfefferman, a transgender older adult transitioning from a fatherly figure into a motherhood role in Amazon’s original comedy.

“Tambor’s portrayal of Maura mirrors society’s growing awareness and comfort with transgender issues, but it’s about much more. The character suggests that lifelong psychological development is not predetermined by the age at which we master identity, intimacy, love, and self-actualization. The transitions we face with aging may include issues of sexuality in addition to multiple simultaneous transitions in work roles, family relationships, health status, and living arrangements. Coming to terms with ambiguity and ambivalence may be necessary for us to age successfully and to maintain open relationships with our adult children and partners,” says Cicero.

 Best Depiction of Newly-Single Seniors

Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, Grace and Frankie

Lily Tomlin, 77, and Jane Fonda, 78, play free-spirited Frankie and classy Grace in Netflix’s own comedy about two women emerging onto the dating scene following divorces from their newly-outed gay husbands.

Grace and Frankie is a fun show with honest, compelling aging characters. Fonda and Tomlin transform stereotypes that aging women are depressed and lonely. As unlikely housemates, they illustrate a growing trend in shared living arrangements among non-family members. Their evolving friendship highlights the need for strong female connections later in life while also showing us that relationships require more acceptance as we age,” says Cicero.

 

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