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NBC embraces older crowd

The only problem is, `Twenty Good Years' may not appeal even to the over-40 set it hopes to attract.

October 11, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"Twenty Good Years," which premieres tonight on NBC, is a loud, limp situation comedy about two old friends (John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor, playing characters with their own first names) who experience a kind of late-life crisis.

John is a self-centered and self-satisfied surgeon who on his 60th birthday is rotated forcibly into "semi-retirement"; he shows up drunk at the party being thrown for him by Jeffrey and proposes that, as Old Time is still a-flying, they should gather rosebuds while they may. Jeffrey, who is an indecisive judge -- an oxymoron that could be the spine of a pretty good vaudeville routine, if there were such a thing anymore -- takes this as a cue to publicly dump his pushy girlfriend (Judith Light, of "Who's the Boss?").

Later, John's daughter (Heather Burns) has a baby, making him a grandfather; John moves in with Jeffrey, making them the Odd Couple; and John and Jeffrey run into the Atlantic Ocean (played by the Pacific Ocean) on a cold day, making them wet.

Co-created by Marsh McCall ("Just Shoot Me!") and Michael Leeson (a veteran of "The Cosby Show," "Taxi," "Mary Tyler Moore" and, yes, "The Odd Couple"), the show has been cited as evidence of a new trend, or trendlet: a growing willingness of TV networks and the sponsors that make them possible to look beyond the 18-to-34 demographic they have worshiped with unshakable ardor for more than a decade.

The Entertainment-Marketing Complex has apparently wakened to the fact that not only do older people watch more TV than younger people, but that there are also more of them, period, and they have more money to spend. Now, in the same way that real estate agents assign new names to old neighborhoods in order to dignify them -- and jack up prices -- the over-40 target audience is being reconceptualized as a "new power demographic."

It may be true, as television producers seem to think, that given the choice people will prefer to watch television shows about characters who look like themselves and superficially share their concerns. But if this is the face of No Longer Young America, you can have it.

Tambor has been great as recently as "Arrested Development," and his Hank Kingsley, from "The Larry Sanders Show," is one of TV's greatest creations. But his character here, though he scores with a couple of nice throwaway lines (distractedly leaving a courtroom, he waves the rising court back into their seats, mumbling, "Oh, that's very nice") is too much of a nebbish to really register; Felix Unger at least was aggressively passive-aggressive.

As for Lithgow, though he does not work on me at all, he collected three Emmys out of six nominations for "3rd Rock From the Sun," so somebody likes him, and viewers pining for his Master Thespian shtick -- there is a joke made here about his "English accent" -- will perhaps find relief here.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the premise, either, which is open-ended enough to accommodate all manner of strange or meaningful ends. But what's been done with it, on the evidence of the pilot, is weak, and slightly embarrassing to watch, the way that it's embarrassing to watch a drunk old uncle tell dirty stories or to be asked by an aged aunt if you can get her some pot. Not two minutes into tonight's pilot, Jeffrey has been hit in the crotch by a racquetball; later we get to see Lithgow in a Speedo.

The enterprise threatens to runs perilously close "grandma on a skateboard" comedy -- making an older person act like a younger one in order to elicit Big Laffs.

But such a strategy just makes older actors seem even older. Only Ruth Gordon -- from "Harold and Maude" and elsewhere -- ever managed to pull off this senior-citizen-seizing-the-day gracefully, and she was just playing herself.

Jake Sandvig rounds out the cast as Jeffrey's son. All he has done so far is show his father a jeans ad he appeared in.


`Twenty Good Years'

Where: NBC

When: 8:30 to 9 tonight

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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