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Fall TV Preview: Whacked-out grannies, is that the best TV can do?

Women of a certain age were all but invisible. Then shows began churning out drink-swilling, profanity-spewing older ladies. Grandma deserves a break.

September 07, 2012|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Andrew Rannells, Ellen Barkin and NeNe Leakes in "The New Normal."
Andrew Rannells, Ellen Barkin and NeNe Leakes in "The New Normal." (Trae Patton / NBC )

In recent years, our TV screens have been assailed by vampires, werewolves and zombies. All of which pale when compared to the latest army on the rise: the whacked-out grannies. Here they are, in comedies and dramas, women of mature years and supportive undergarments, swilling cocktails, dropping F-bombs and taking names.

Though still true to the beloved archetype, personified for years by Granny from "The Beverly Hillbillies," the modern grandma reflects certain changes in the genre and societal concerns. Many of them are drunks, most are extremely sexually conversant and/or sexually active and all are unfailingly outrageous.

They are also, it must be noted, played, to a woman, by some of our finest actors.

TIMELINE: Fall TV premieres and trailers

Over the summer, we met Ellen Burstyn's Margaret Barrish, the grand if often drunken doyenne of "Political Animals," who was more than willing to say whatever was on her mind, especially when it was ill-timed and inappropriate. For those who felt that perhaps this was a waste of the glorious Burstyn (message in a bottle: Someone write this woman a show of her own because she's also figuratively though not literally wasted in the upcoming "Coma" too), well, the networks are just getting started.

In September, Ellen Barkin comes to the small screen as a racist and homophobic harpy in "The New Normal." Lily Tomlin, fresh off her expletive-preferring, anger-motivated grandma on "Eastbound and Down," dons a Southern accent and joins "Malibu Country" in November. And later this year Elizabeth Perkins will sip from the requisite wine glass as the free-spirited Elaine on "How to Live With Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life."

They join an already star-studded battalion that includes Cloris Leachman's Maw Maw on "Raising Hope," Susan Sullivan's Broadway diva on "Castle," Glenn Close's Patty Hewes on "Damages" and Betty White's Elka on "Hot in Cleveland" (OK, technically she's not a grandma, but at this point, White is the People's Grandma).

TIMELINE: Fall TV premieres and trailers

Though only Patty lingers in the swirling dark madness of Grace Zabriskie's Lois on "Big Love" or Nancy Marchand's Livia on "The Sopranos," none of these gals is dispensing fresh-baked cookies or home-spun wisdom. Individually, and as a whole, they make the hectoring and guilt-inducing Marie Barone played by Doris Roberts from "Everybody Loves Raymond" look like a holy saint.

Barkin's Jane is perhaps the worst, as a perfectly coiffed, pencil-skirted Realtor whose real purpose in life appears to be giving voice to the hateful prejudice that still clings, like cankers, in the depths of the American soul. "I feel like I ate a black and gay stew for dinner and this is a nightmare," she says at one point.

Sullivan's Martha is the most likable — as the show progressed, "Castle's" writers toned down her narcissism and turned up her empathy. But all embody Self Will Run Riot, perfectly positioned to make their offspring look good while offering an instant explanation — terrible parenting — when they might look bad.

Which is fine, of course, because we mothers live to serve, in one way or another. More alarming is the collective state of mind of the characters — if they are not genuinely crazy, like Maw Maw, then they're reaching for that third cocktail or unleashing a profanity-laced critique of some poor guy's sexual possibilities.

Why, oh, why do TV writers find old women swearing and talking about sex so darn funny? One can only hope it is not the assumption that any woman past 60 is incapable of true righteous rage or sexual passion, but I deeply fear it is.

I blame Betty White because, frankly, isn't it time for a Betty White backlash? Certainly she revitalized her now-legendary fourth act with her frank ways and salty phraseology, and now every woman of a certain age is expected dish about her vajayjay and swear like every show's a cable show. Yes, raunch has increased in general, but if some media studies graduate student were to do a survey, I think she would find that, character for character, it has increased more for senior women than any other group.

This is both empowering and limiting. For far too long, women, and the characters they played in American TV and film, were defined, if not by biology, then certainly by biochemistry. Post-adolescence, they began losing relevance in direct proportion to diminishing collagen; by the time they stopped ovulating, female characters were consigned to the far corners of narrative, if not out of the picture entirely.

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