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On TV, it’s a new old story

Steve Martin (left) and Martin Short in "Only Murders In The Building."Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

There’s been a lot of grumbling among young folks that the leaders of the political establishment, from President Biden on down, are just too darn old. They’ve got a point.

And now television is turning into a virtual gerontocracy as well.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But TV seems to be becoming grayer. Obviously there have always been older characters on television, but actors in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and even 80s are increasingly playing lead roles in sitcoms, dramas, and miniseries — and not just as grandmothers or grandfathers.

This is striking in an industry that has historically been unrepentant, even boastful, about its ageism. Intent on catering to the younger viewers coveted by advertisers, programmers have scheduled series that appealed to that demographic, often featuring youthful casts. When it came to ratings, viewers over 34, and especially over 49, did not exist.


But in today’s crowded and competitive environment, networks and streaming platforms are eager to find viewers, whatever end of the age spectrum they occupy. Also, advertisers are aware that the 77-million-member baby-boom generation has a heap of disposable income to go along with their longer life expectancy.

Whatever the reason, TV is now a playground for actors who are as likely to be members of AARP as of SAG-AFTRA.

On Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building,” 76-year-old Steve Martin and 72-year-old Martin Short are regularly proving they haven’t lost a comedic step. Ditto for that matchless pair of aces Jane Fonda (84) and Lily Tomlin (82), who just wrapped up a seven-season run on “Grace and Frankie” that made it Netflix’s longest-running series. Their costars were no spring chickens, either: Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, both now 81.

Laurence Fishburne (who turns 61 Saturday) and Jenifer Lewis (65) added a lot of humor to the long and successful run of ABC’s “black-ish.” At 70, Jean Smart has the role of a lifetime in “Hacks,” on HBO Max. At 67, Kevin Costner is the gruff patriarch at the center of “Yellowstone.” At 75, Larry David’s irascibility and irrationality remain uncurbed on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”


In ABC’s sleeper hit comedy “Abbott Elementary,” 65-year-old Sheryl Lee Ralph steals every scene she’s in. The legendary Rita Moreno, now 90, was a vital part of the recent “One Day at a Time” reboot. (Not to mention Steven Spielberg’s 2021 film of “West Side Story.”)

Ted Danson, 74, starred on the just-canceled NBC sitcom “Mr. Mayor” (and also, more happily, on NBC’s far superior “The Good Place”). At 77, Tom Selleck is still going strong on CBS’s “Blue Bloods.” Then there’s FX’s “The Old Man,” costarring 72-year-old Jeff Bridges, who proves he can still kick some serious butt in action scenes, and 76-year-old John Lithgow. Michael Douglas, now 77, and Alan Arkin, now 88, made an entertaining team on Netflix’s “The Kominsky Method.”

Stephen Colbert regularly mentions on the air that he’s 58 years old, something a late-night TV host in an earlier, age-conscious era would have been leery of doing. Maya Rudolph, who turned 50 this week, has the lead role in “Loot,” a new workplace comedy on Apple TV+. Viola Davis was in her 50s for much of the run of “How to Get Away With Murder” (2014-20).

“And Just Like That…,” the sequel to “Sex and The City,’’ was a mess in many ways. But at least the series — which featured Sarah Jessica Parker (57), Cynthia Nixon (56), and Kristin Davis (57) — tried to address some of the issues faced by women as they age.


It should be noted that virtually all of the older performers enjoying lead roles on TV were already big names by the time they landed those roles. So perhaps the next phase of TV progress should be measured by how many choice parts go to actors who are not just older but unknown.

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.