How TV Is Embracing Late-in-Life Coming-of-Age Stories – The Hollywood Reporter
For as fecund as Peak TV has been during the past decade, the glut hasn’t exactly yielded boundless perfection. In between all the flavorless revivals, franchise extenders, true-scandal dramas and star-studded gimmicks, this season I found myself grasping for simple shows that radiated unaffected warmth and vulnerability. I wanted sincerity. I wanted quietness. I wanted friendships.
This spring, I faithfully clung to a few comedies that drew me in with their incomparable leads, all actresses in later middle age whose characters undergo artistic rebirths in the second half of their lives. Few shows this year have offered me greater viewing pleasure than Somebody Somewhere, Better Things, Julia and Hacks because it’s delightfully invigorating to just watch women of a certain age being themselves, no apologies necessary. These series are as nourishing as they are funny, which makes them irresistible in a fragile time when the art we consume has to become part of our self-care routines.
The protagonists at the heart of these midlife coming-of-age shows are just beginning to carve out identities beyond “caregiver.” On HBO’s semi-autobiographical half-hour dramedy Somebody Somewhere, executive producer and real-life cabaret performer, the spiky and endearing Bridgett Everett stars as Sam, a listless woman who has spent the past several years in her small Kansas hometown tending to her dying sister. Now that her sister has passed on, her house is devastatingly silent, much like the formerly bustling L.A. home at the center of FX’s long-running comedy Better Things. Pamela Adlon’s lovable yenta-mama, Sam Fox, has defined herself for the past couple of decades as a single mother of three daughters and barely knows how to cope as she faces down a slowly emptying nest.
Such transformations don’t have to be defined by loss, as proved by the heroines of two HBO Max series. Julia‘s plucky Julia Child (Sarah Lancashire) has been a devoted wife to a diplomat for so long that when she is ready to step into the spotlight herself — literally, as a celebrity TV chef — she lies about her financial contributions to the production so her husband will put aside his misgivings and support her endeavor. While Hacks‘ comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) was never the most instinctually maternal type, she has to make hard choices in season two about how to mentor her protégé (Hannah Einbinder) so both women can achieve higher heights in their shared profession.
These series underscore the power of leaning into creativity, regardless of age or status. Somebody Somewhere‘s Sam, bored stiff by her job as a standardized test grader, finds meaning when she rediscovers her love for singing, a passion she put away after she left high school. When she befriends a group who have formed their own underground open-mic cabaret in a nearby church, she relearns how to use her voice to communicate what’s lurking in her beleaguered soul. Joyfully, the stakes remain medium-low. While you can sense in the season finale that Sam may eventually grow into the persona of the brassy, bawdy songstress Everett embodies in real-life, the character doesn’t need to be wildly ambitious in order to “make it” in our eyes. She’s just doing her thing. It doesn’t need to be for profit or fame, but expression itself.
The protagonists of Better Things, Julia and Hacks, of course, are careerists. But their own creative renaissances are similarly more about self-fulfillment than achieving the next boss level. Adlon’s Sam has been in the public eye her whole life, first as a child star and then as a voice artist and character actress. In Better Things‘ final season, which wrapped in April, the character finally steps into her own as a TV and short film director and does something she never had the chutzpah to do before: Reject a perfectly good (and decently paying) acting job simply because she doesn’t want to wear a corset. Sam frets about this gut choice, but it ultimately becomes a symbol to herself that she’s ready to make her own decisions about her creative life and not be driven by fear anymore.
Julia and Deborah get their own respective “fuck you” moments that crystallize their confidence, Julia winning the battle against the network when her unexpected popularity offers her bargaining power and Deborah eschewing lowball offers on her introspective new stand-up special to self-distribute instead. It’s not about the money anymore for any of them. It’s about the self-respect.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.