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12/12/2013 10:58 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

What Betty White Wrought: TV's Troublesome Depiction Of The Elderly

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Old people have long had a hard time finding dignified representation on television. "Kaye Ballard and Eve Arden were being annoying on The Mothers-in-Law back when Lyndon B. Johnson was president," Neil Genzlinger wrote in an essay, "TV's Problematic Portrayal of Aging," in the Times last month. There was Sideshow Bob's rueful discovery in 1995 that Vanessa Redgrave, then almost 60, had been drafted onto the small screen and given a catchphrase: "Let's haul ass to Lollapalooza!" And there was Mona from Who's the Boss in the 80s, the kooky grandma who always had a double entendre ready to quip.

Of course, there have always been exceptions, especially on CBS, whose median viewer age recently climbed to 58.2, where you can find older people like the 62-year-old Mark Harmon solving crimes on NCIS. Old people have always liked to watch older people: Matlock, Columbo, Dick Van Dyke on Diagnosis: Murder (which aired on CBS in the 90s). But in comedies, as the deliverers of crude punchlines, it's only gotten worse for the elderly. I blame Betty White: in 2010, the campaign to have her host SNL reached its peak and we decided as a culture that it was funny to hear her say anything about sex because she had become famous playing a golden ager and now was even older. The smut-talking grandma wasn't a new character-type, but White transformed it into an archetype.

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