Sick of Watching – Try Shows about Strong Older Women
A column on what to watch in lockdown should be obsolete. But as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you mutates and tries again. If for any reason you are not vaccinated, please stop reading this and go do it now. But even those of us who are vaccinated are the stars of a real-life rerun, spending more time at home by the electronic hearth, a la2020.
To ease this odd interval, I wanted to share the shows that got me through the first pandemic peak or are getting me through this one: Series that feature strong mature women and may provide a laugh or two. And why are such shows hard to find? A study by the Geena Davis Institute found that older women are rarely portrayed as strong lead characters — and TV series likely follow the same pattern. Not surprisingly, many programs that showcase feisty crones are British. How appealing is a society that values the power of older women! I could live there. I know how to make fish pie.
But all is not lost here in the US, where shows about older women played very well in this year’s Emmys. Kate Winslet (another English actor, though playing an American), who insisted that the camera show her midlife belly in her sex scene in “Mare of Easttown,” took home a statue for her role as the lead character. Another midlife actress, Hannah Waddingham, won for her compelling supporting role in the comic series “Ted Lasso” (Waddingham is an another English stage actress, and the show is set in England).
Maybe what we need is more mature American women writing shows. You can start your writing by taking one of my FREE classes – your script might be headed for glory.
But whatever their provenance, check out these great shows to watch even when you’re sick of watching.
Sex Education features Gillian Anderson (“the truth is out there”) as a beautiful post-midlife sex therapist with commitment issues and a teenage son. Ms. Anderson is such a joy. Her every move conveys barely contained sexual energy, and her attempts at intimate relationship are touching and evocative. Meanwhile her son, who absorbed a lot of information about sex while growing up with his therapist mother, launches his own informal sex therapy practice in an abandoned building at the high school. The results are funny and poignant, and make for great television.
Cold Feet is a long-running British series that began telling the tales of three young couples in the 1990s. After a hiatus of more than a decade, the show resumed in 2016 with the same cast, now well into middle age. The wise passion of women in later life is a driving force of the new seasons in this comic and dramatic series. The characters change partners, face life-changing illness, and maintain their lifelong bond of friendship with honesty and humor. Fay Ripley (Jenny) plays a woman dealing with breast cancer with touching candor while Hermione Norris (Karen) guards her independence in a most engaging way. The children of these couples are teens in the latest series; the next generation has discovered sex and their parents never forgot about it.
New Tricks is a BBC series about a senior woman detective who manages a squad of four retired male detectives in the London Metropolitan Police Department. Their charge is to reopen and solve cold cases from years earlier, some of which the men worked on themselves when the cases were fresh. On revisiting the cases, they bring the full weight of their wisdom and experience to bear. In contrast with the grit and gristle of many detective series, New Tricks is deliberately lighthearted. This works well, in part because the cases are from years earlier, and in part because the caliber of the acting is first rate. The show ran for twelve series and the cast changed over time, but the opening cast starring Amanda Redman as Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman was especially effective.
Hold the Sunset features Alison Steadman as Edith and John Cleese as Phil, her neighbor and admirer. The premise is that Phil wants to marry Edith and spend their retirement in a glamorous foreign locale. But just as Phil proposes, Edith’s middle-aged son moves back home and complicates matters. The son has just walked out on his wife and teenage children, clearly preferring the life of a deferred teen himself. The series is light and amusing, with a refreshing focus on the love lives of older people; the amorous pursuits of the younger generation are treated as an irritating side note.
By now, most of us know that Grace and Frankie is an American show starring actual American actresses: Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as older women whose husbands and business partners fall in love with each other. Theirs is an odd pairing of Fonda as a style queen and Tomlin as an aging hippie, and the development of their friendship is the driving force for the show. In the course of the series, the characters develop and launch a sex toy especially designed for older women, a refreshing twist indeed. The seven series of this program have earned critical and popular success.
If you are up for more serious television, Mare of Easttown is a terrific choice. Kate Winslet stars as a “middle-aged, imperfect, flawed mother,” as she described the role when she accepted her Emmy. Winslet’s character is a detective in a small Pennsylvania town who is friends with everyone—including the suspects in her cases. She balances police work with a complex family life, finding time to engage with her erotic nature as well. It is a full portrait of a multifaceted woman.
Another serious detective series is Unforgotten, a show that slows down the process of solving a crime and spreads one case over half a dozen episodes. Experienced actress Nicola Walker stars as the engaged and caring detective leading a team of younger officers. As in New Tricks, this team reopens cold cases, but the focus on helping families who have long been grieving for missing relatives gives this series a wonderful depth.
Please enjoy them all, then go write your own. And for more takes on great shows featuring older women, here are links to other folks’ lists.
What are your favorites? Please let me know below in the comments.
And happy watching!
Thank you so much for these suggestions! Here in New England where I live, we have lots of snow storms to ride out at home, with plenty of time to watch TV. I know my library has some of these DVDs, so I’m keeping this list in my wallet for those long and quiet winter days.
I’d add Prime Suspect, another British import, starring the fabulous Helen Mirren, to this list. There was a short-lived American version with the same name.
Thank you, Donna! Prime Suspect is terrific.
And I would now add “Mozart in the Jungle” for an honorable mention. Bernadette Peters is incredibly sexy as the Chairwoman of the Board of the New York Symphony. Although she is not the lead character, she lights up the screen whenever she appears.