Television’s quiet gray revolution

New wave of dramas targets older audiences

For years the all-consuming emphasis on reaching adults under 50 has imposed dictatorial constraints on TV casting, prompting a “Logan’s Run”-like effect that expunged older performers. Look closely, though, and you’ll notice a new wave of dramas is producing what amounts to a mini grey revolution, virtually waged on the sly.

The boldest practitioner of grey power might be the second season of FX’s “Damages,” which with the stellar additions of William Hurt and “The Wire” alums John Doman and Clarke Peters — joining Glenn Close and Ted Danson in pivotal roles — features what amounts to an all-star cast of people close to qualifying for Social Security, or at least already receiving AARP magazine. And damned if those new arrivals — as well as Marcia Gay Harden, a relative child, albeit on the perilous edge of the 18-49 demographic — haven’t made the show considerably richer and more absorbing.

Still, “Damages” is just an extreme case of a sneaky trend rippling its way through primetime. A growling Ian McShane provides the beating heart of the modern biblical epic “Kings” — the most interesting drama NBC has engineered in awhile — while another kid birthed during World War II, Tom Selleck, returns next week as the rugged leading man in CBS’ “Jesse Stone” movie franchise.

Then again, those two are relative striplings compared to Harry Dean Stanton and Bruce Dern — the ruthless patriarchs (or if you prefer, really dirty old men) that propel much of the action in HBO’s sprawling ensemble drama “Big Love,” which has also produced juicy roles for those characters’ version of a first wives club, played with equal gusto by Grace Zabriskie and Mary Kay Place.

Indeed, for once the trend toward more mature players hasn’t completely omitted women, who had been forced to sit idly by while leads like of Sean Connery could be seen wooing decades-younger women like Catherine Zeta-Jones onscreen. Cable has rather showcased a number of actresses over 40, righting an imbalance that long existed between finding worthy candidates among men and women when award time rolled around — and again demonstrating that people like, really like, Sally Field.

Granted, there are still too many cliched older characters, fun as some of them are to watch, from Jean Smart’s ditsy mom in “Samantha Who?” to Susan Sullivan’s horny grandma (who claims to possess “graydar”) in ABC’s upcoming “Castle.” Yet it’s surely a happy development overall.

SO WHY is this happening? Rest assured it’s not out of benevolence or part of some master plan. Introducing older characters would appear to be one of the unexpected benefits of fragmentation — allowing programs with more ambitious narrative schemes to attract niche audiences, on channels that aren’t entirely dependent on Madison Avenue’s approval for their supper. With the front line of the baby-boom generation now in their 60s, sheer demographics might also have something to do with it, though that inevitable tide was certainly slow to yield progress in the past.

The bottom line is when you greenlight shows like “Damages” or “Kings,” there aren’t a lot of twentysomething corporate titans or rulers of mythical city-states (though MTV is probably working on that). It’s also an opportunistic use of available talent, beyond just Hallmark movies or scene-stealing guest stints on “ER” and “Boston Legal.”

At any rate, it’s a far cry from risible efforts like Fox’s 2005 series “Point Pleasant,” when 30-something Dina Meyer portrayed the hot mom of 20-something Cameron Richardson, herself playing a teenager.

THESE ADVANCES must be kept in perspective against an undiminished preoccupation with youth, illustrated by Oxygen’s press release boasting about how reality-TV brain-mushers “Bad Girls Club” and “America’s Next Top Model Obsessed” had reduced the channel’s median viewing age below 38. “Younger & Richer — Oxygen is Living Every Woman’s Dream,” the headline blared.

In “Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood,” a charming TCM documentary premiering in March, the genial “Looney Tunes” legend — interviewed at the age of 84 (Jones died in 2002, at 89) — insists that despite arthritis and other ailments he didn’t think of himself as old. “I just feel like a young man who has something the matter with him,” he said.

Jones’ words offer a reminder that with age comes wisdom. And not incidentally, talent.

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