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An Unrecognizable Age: The Most Recalcitrant “Ism” of All

Norman Lear gave America its most beloved bigot, Archie Bunker, more than four decades ago in All in the Family. Yes, the subversive Mr. Lear, now 93, had some push-back from the networks, but that was all forgotten when the CBS show sat atop the Nielsen ratings from 1971 to 1976 and the Bunkers’ living room chairs were enshrined in the Smithsonian Museum.
Mr. Lear would follow that triumph with The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and Maude, to name a few of his programs that were watched by 120 million people a week at their peak — all educating the nation, with belly laughs, about sexism, racism, and other deep-seated biases. But now, it seems, Mr. Lear has met his match with the most recalcitrant “ism’’ of all: ageism. Which is surely relevant with the first of the 76.4 million Baby Boomers turning 70 this month.
I, as a second-year boomer, take Mr. Lear’s five-year struggle to sell a script for a sit-com called Guess Who Died? very personally. The title comes from a refrain among people of a certain age as they read the morning obituaries. At 68, I’m one of them.
And lately, in the space of a week, there have been a succession of dead people, famous and not, who are too close to my age for comfort. David Bowie at 69. Glenn Frey at 67. Alan Rickman at 69. A former New York Times colleague at 66. The daily stream of people known and unknown lost to cancer or taking their own lives in their 50s and 60s. The Facebook friends whose pages outlived them.

In the mold of Guess Who Died?, I want to see a smart network television show about a retirement community like the one my late mother lived in long ago. She’d tell me stories, and I’d beg her to takes notes. At The Horizon Club in Deerfield Beach, Florida back in the 1990s, men who could still drive were pretty special, but nothing compared to those who could still drive at night. My mom’s first friend there left abruptly for a similar location; she’d exhausted the limited supply of widowers and was going hunting elsewhere. My mom’s second pal kept burying her gentlemen friends. I asked whether I should offer condolences when we bumped into her with the dead guy’s replacement.

These stories spooled through my head when I read of Mr. Lear’s so-far failed venture. He’s way funnier than my mother, which is saying a lot, but network executives don’t seem to care. Mr. Lear complained that they “behave like one Betty White covered a whole demographic,” a reference to Golden Girls, a television show about four elderly women sharing a house in Miami. It ran on NBC from 1985-1992, remains ubiquitous in re-runs, and was ranked No. 69 in the Writers Guild of America’s all-time list of best-written TV shows, 65 places behind All in the Family.

Mr. Lear has no beef about the enduring popularity of Golden Girls, which in New York, on many nights, can be seen on Hallmark in back-to-back-to-back-to-back episodes filling the prime time hours. But Mr. Lear wonders why his script hasn’t had a single nibble. The network bigwigs told him the only demographic they care are about is those 18-39. Haven’t they gotten the memo that those young folks don’t watch “destination” TV? They are the cord cutters, preferring Netflix and Hulu.

The closest Guess Who’s Died? has come to public consumption is a staged reading that Mr. Lear organized at the Austin Film Festival in the fall of 2015. Watch it yourself, thanks to the marvels of digital technology:

Notice that everyone, despite advanced age, has IPhones and IPads. The comfort with technology among the residents of Mr. Lear’s fictitious retirement village in Palm Springs, California is striking given the recent way that employers practice age discrimination without getting ratted out to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

None would dare advertise a job for men only, or whites only — or specify an upper age limit.

So the term of art is “digital natives,’’ those who will get preference. Translation: You must be young enough that technology has always been a part of your life. Don’t tell that to Murray, Patricia, or the others who populate Mr. Lear’s script. And don’t tell it to Mr. Lear, either.

On his Facebook page, where he posts almost daily, he bristled at an article last month in The New York Times Magazine about the 80-year-old Dalai Lama nearing the end of life, which to Mr. Lear was a nice way of saying “circling the drain.” Identifying himself as a lifetime subscriber, Mr. Lear tells his 19,000-plus Facebook friends, “I take issue with my newspaper, however beloved, when it suggests I have been hovering at the brink for 13 years now.”

Mr. Lear wrote his first book, Even This I Get to Experience, when he was past 90. In it, he reveals both his difficulty recognizing the old man who has taken up residence inside his skin and, incidentally, his digital fluency.
“As I peck away on my computer,” Mr. Lear wonders, “what my father’s hand is doing hanging out of my sleeve.’’ As I wonder at my vein-y, age-spotted one that looks just like my mother’s.

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