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New Fall Shows Try Nuanced Take on Generation Gap

Apple TV Plus this month moved off a project in which Richard Gere was set to play a Vietnam veteran whose life is upended when the woman he loved 50 years ago dies in a car crash. According to the logline for the shelved series, her death leads to his and another character’s “lifelong regrets and secrets” colliding with their “resentment of today’s self-absorbed millennials.” The duo then “go on a shooting spree.” The very next day, Netflix announced a series order for a Kevin James comedy in which the actor plays a NASCAR crew chief who “finds himself at odds with tech reliant millennials” when they start working in his garage.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Apple decided to move on from the Gere project, as a shooting spree partially motivated by hatred of millennials seems hardly in keeping with the tech giant’s general message. However, the two shows illustrate both TV’s willingness to tackle the difference between baby boomers and millennials (an odd term to use given that many millennials are heading into their 40s), and also its mixed success in doing so.

A show like “Last Man Standing,” recently renewed for a ninth season, has successfully cultivated an audience with a grouchy old man who has the term “millennial snowflake” at the top of his vocabulary at its heart, while another in CBS’ “The Great Indoors” struggled to take off with its main gag consisting of poking fun at millennials’ propensity to stay inside and stare at their screens all day.

As multiple shows tackle the challenge this season, showrunners are conscious that alienating millennials and Gen Z’ers, who are making up an increasingly large proportion of viewership, may not be the best way forward.

“Carol’s Second Act” showrunners Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins sought to make sure there was an “equal exchange of viewpoints” between the central character Carol (Patricia Heaton), a retired divorcee teacher entering her second act as a doctor, and her younger intern peers in the hospital.

Rather than viewing the difference between the two sides as a “sparring match,” the duo wanted to show that Carol’s life experience and age is her strength, as exemplified by her empathetic bedside manner and ability to put some of the older patients in the hospital at ease.

“We didn’t want to privilege one view point over the other, if anything it’s the older character that gets jerked about a bit, but we also didn’t want to be the show that makes avocado toast jokes,” says Halpern. “We think both sides bring something valid to the table.”

“It’s important for us to define that it’s not that the kids are nuts, although they may seem to be sometimes, it’s just a different world and parts of it may not mean anything to me, but it means something to them,” adds “The Unicorn” executive producer and co-creator Mike Schiff.

Schiff’s new CBS series centers around Wade (Walton Goggins), a middle-aged man who is left to take care of his 12 and 14 year-old daughters when his wife passes away. The series is based on the experiences of Grady Cooper, who is listed as a co-creator alongside Schiff and Bill Martin, and sees the main character “trying to find his way back into the world.”

While the temptation might have been to portray Wade as a “cranky old man” as Schiff puts it, the EP says he instead drew on his own experiences having children to make the character more nuanced.

“When talking to a four-year-old who says there’s a monster under the bed, you can say that’s silly, and it is, but it isn’t silly to him, it’s super important to him, and I think the same way about writing our 12 and 14-year-old,” Schiff says. “What doesn’t seem important to Wade, is important to them.”

Throughout the first couple episodes, Wade is concerned that his older daughter Grace (Ruby Jay) is sneaking out behind his back, but Schiff says he eventually discovers she is in fact traveling from Instagram wall to Instagram wall in an effort to maintain the all-important followers-to-following ratio on her social media.

“Somebody my age is like you’re crazy, what are you talking about? But to my own teenage daughter it means something,” Schiff says. “They’ve decided it means something and I have to take that seriously and in the show, we try to find the balance between something that’s baffling to Wade, but is legitimately meaningful to his daughter.”

Schiff admits “full disclosure” that he may be “a little crankier” than the character he created, but recognizes that neither his frustrations at his children’s behavior, nor their frustration at his, is “a failing” on either’s part.

“You live in the time you are born. My kids have never known a time before cellphones, they’re baffled by it, if somebody wanted to get in touch with you how would they do it? That process is alien to them, it’s just the world has changed, as it has changed for me and what my parents and grandparents experienced. You have to not sneer at it but accept that things change and that sometimes you have to play catch up,” Schiff says.

All of that isn’t to say that grouchy older characters don’t always fit the bill. One need look no further than how audiences react to Tim Allen’s character in “Last Man Standing” expressing his honest opinions about young people today.

But as the vertiginous rise of streaming continues and the broadcast networks see their viewership skyrocket in digital, there may soon come a time when having woke millennials and their social media ways be the butt of the joke simply doesn’t bring in the viewership it once did.

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