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Midseason Television Preview: TV Land courts stars of a certain age

Mature talents are finding a home at the network, which has been emboldened by the success of 'Hot in Cleveland' featuring Betty White.

January 09, 2011|By T.L. Stanley, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Wendie Malick, left, Jane Leeves, Valerie Bertinelli and Betty Whilte on the set of "Hot in Cleveland."
Wendie Malick, left, Jane Leeves, Valerie Bertinelli and Betty Whilte… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Whoever said women over 40 are invisible hasn't been watching much TV Land lately. The cable network, best known as the home of classic TV icons such as Sheriff Andy Taylor, Archie Bunker and Fred Sanford, launched its first scripted sitcom last summer starring three women of a certain age, plus octogenarian and current Hollywood "It Girl" Betty White.

The show, "Hot in Cleveland," became the top-rated cable sitcom of the year with an average 4.3-million viewers, helping propel a double-digit jump in TV Land's prime-time ratings. Its June premiere pulled in an audience of nearly 6 million — roughly twice the audience for last year's season opener of "Mad Men" — triggering a quick renewal for a second season with twice the number of episodes.

"Hot in Cleveland," which ended on a cliffhanger when White's cantankerous character was tossed into jail, returns Jan. 19 with costars and sitcom veterans Valerie Bertinelli, Wendie Malick and Jane Leeves. It's paired with the network's second original comedy, "Retired at 35," which marks George Segal's and Jessica Walter's return to series TV.

Both shows and three more in the pipeline are part of TV Land's strategy to cater to 25- to 54-year-old viewers who don't get much love on TV, especially when it comes to new comedies that reflect their own lives. Executives at the cable channel, hoping to break out of the vintage-series mold, are trying to become known for baby boomer-appeal sitcoms with a traditional look but a contemporary feel. The shows will be built around "mature" stars, some making a comeback, mixed with new faces.

"We want to tell stories about characters in their 40s and up who are reexamining their lives and starting new chapters," said Keith Cox, TV Land's executive vice president of development and original programming. "And we're casting comedic icons that we know our viewers already love."

The network, which is owned by Viacom Inc., has tried its hand at original reality shows aimed at adult viewers, with mixed results. "She's Got the Look," a modeling competition for women over 40, has aired for three seasons, and "Harry Loves Lisa," a six-part series that followed married actors Harry Hamlin and Lisa Rinna, scored big numbers last fall. "The Cougar," where twentysomething men vied "Bachlorette" style for a 40-year-old real estate executive, flopped after a single season. Coming this summer is another unscripted show called "Forever Young" that puts participants in their 20s and 70s together to explore the generational divide.

Broadcast networks routinely chase the advertiser-coveted 18- to 49-year-old age group, creating a void in programming for older fans, Cox said. Other cable channels such as TNT have recognized that midlife can be a fertile ground for scripted storytelling, as evidenced by its second-season dramedy "Men of a Certain Age," which made a number of critics' top 10 lists.

More are almost certainly on the way, like the one from "The Nanny's" Fran Drescher, who is writing, producing and potentially starring in a TV Land sitcom in development called "Happily Divorced" that mirrors her real-life relationship with her ex-husband, Peter Marc Jacobsen.

And since networks have scaled back their sitcoms in recent years, there's a wealth of over-40 writers and producers ready to create shows from their unique perspective, Cox said.

Suzanne Martin, executive producer of "Hot in Cleveland," said she wanted to write a modern-day "Golden Girls," showcasing a group of friends whose "lives weren't over" because they'd passed 40. She didn't bother pitching it to networks.

"It seems like they're all still chasing the next 'Friends,' with characters in their 20s and 30s," she said. "If a network had even been interested, they might've asked me to make the characters 10 years younger."

The fish-out-of-water tale centers on an unscheduled stop in Cleveland on the way to Paris, where dyed-in-the-wool Los Angelenos played by Bertinelli, Leeves and Malick decide to stay because, well, they're considered "hot" (as in "attractive") there. They rent a house that comes with White as its quip-ready caretaker.

The characters set about reinventing themselves, much the same as TV Land is doing by diving into the scripted comedy business. Its pilots in development, with a green light contingent on casting, are "Ex Men," about three divorced men living together in a building with an attractive female landlord, and "Rip City," a workplace comedy that pits older employees against a newly installed female boss. (She's young and hot, of course.)

"Retired at 35," also kicking off Jan. 19, centers on a young man who moves into his parents' retirement village in Florida after his corporate dream job becomes a nightmare. Chris Case, the show's creator who has clocked significant time at his grandmother's Sarasota digs, describes the setting as "like college, in slow motion."

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