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Editorial: Hip (Replacement)Television

When networks roll out their new shows, you can usually count on one group or another complaining about being underrepresented. It goes without saying there will be cries that there are not enough transgendered or gay or disabled characters (though Gleemay be singlehandedly addressing those deficits).

This season was no different. Despite a Hispanic Supreme Court justice, an Asian-American detective, a pair of African-American CIA agents and a multicultural South Asian call center, to name a few of the diverse faces in evidence this season, there were still complaints that the schedules were too Caucasian.

Fair enough. Even criticism speaks to the importance of TV in people’s lives and its impact on the culture.

But one complaint that can’t be made about TV today—or yesterday, for that matter—is that it does not prominently feature senior citizens.

OK, Betty White has become almost a caricature of new age hip for the hip-replacement set, hosting Saturday Night Live and becoming a cultural literacy reference for a generation whose parents were not around when White first started in the business. But it is also kind of neat that she connects with kids.

And she has plenty of company. Dancing With the Stars has featured octogenarians Buzz Aldrin and Cloris Leachman, and this season includes the wide-eyed and well-preserved Florence Henderson. They may not last long on that show, but they get their shot and viewers seem to get a kick out of it.

Leachman, meanwhile, can be seen on Fox as the wacky great-grandmother in Raising Hope. True, laughing at senile dementia is a bit of a stretch, but TV has few sacred cows these days, young and old, having decided even they can be milked for laughs.

William Shatner may be pushing 80, but that has not stopped him from co-starring in a hit drama and returning in a sitcom hip enough to have the Parents Television Council’s knickers all in a twist over the title. Doris Roberts, who hits the big 8-0 just in time for November sweeps, has been all over the tube in promos for her reunion with Everybody Loves Raymond costar Patricia Heaton on ABC’s The Middle. And Lone Star’s Jon Voight, in his early 70s, can still be a TV star, though perhaps not on that show.

It’s hardly a new phenomenon, which does not make it any less worth celebrating. Boomers will remember that back in the day, as Pawn Star and grandfather Richard Harrison would say, character actor Burt Mustin used to get regular work into his early 90s, including a role at 92 on Phyllis, which starred Leachman to bring the reference full circle. Thin, owl-faced and balding, Mustin was a TV star and one of the busiest character actors in the business. The Golden Girls, which included White, featured older women as sexy and competent, and folks watched it in droves.

It is worth noting that programmers can be pretty age-blind when it comes to deciding whom people want to watch, which is even more worth saluting in the midst of advertiser worship of 18- 34s and 18-49s.

So, it’s still true that on TV, what is old is new. And that doesn’t get old.