In the 1960s, Bill Cosby proved an African-American could lead a hit show with his Emmy-winning role on “I, Spy.” In the 1980s, he presented one of television’s first prosperous African-American families, changing a generation of TV stereotypes.
Now he will break another barrier: The 76-year-old, who will star in a just-announced NBC sitcom, is more than a decade older than any of “The Golden Girls” were when their show premiered in 1985. That show was lauded at the time for presenting older people with rich, active lives.
But Cosby is dramatically increasing the visibility of older Americans at a time when they are often portrayed as doddering, racist fools — if they are portrayed at all. The insulting portrayals of older people is one of the most obvious ways television panders to the 18-49-year-old demographic most desirable to advertisers.
Fox’s “Dads” is based around two retirement-aged fathers who can’t seem to speak without saying something offensive. The recent “New Normal” featured 59-year-old Ellen Barkin as a grandmother who routinely fired off racist, homophobic remarks. Often when older people are portrayed on television, they represent the backward views that the cool, younger stars are supposed to wince over and attempt to correct.
Cosby’s new show may be a sign that that is changing. Another NBC show in the works, Amy Poehler‘s “Old Soul,” will feature Natasha Lyonne as a woman working with seniors as she tries to find herself.
Cable arguably has a better record of presenting older people. TV Land has become a haven for actors who qualify for the AARP: TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland” features “Golden Girls” star Betty White, one of the few older actors who is as celebrated now as she has been at any point in her career.
The 92-year-old’s schtick is that she is often sharper, more outrageous, and even more sexually voracious than people two generations younger, and NBC built a prank show around it. On “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers,” older people shock younger ones with their wild, unpredictable behavior. The show has since moved to Lifetime.
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Cosby’s new show is built around family, not the novelty of old folks still having a blast. It’s especially significant because NBC is currently television’s top network — at least in that beloved 18-49 demo.
The most-watched network overall, however, is CBS — which also happens to be the network with the oldest audience.
It seems like TV may finally be taking note.