Conan O’Brien lost out to Jay Leno, Diane Sawyer has more viewers than Katie Couric, Brett Favre drew millions to the NFC championship and Meryl Streep is burning up the box office.
Is youth culture, like, you know, dead?
For years the all-powerful 18-25 demographic has held America captive, forcing things like Twitter, skinny jeans, vampire love and “The Hills” down our throats, threatening to upend art and media, to dismantle the networks and force everyone over 40 (except Steve Jobs) into cultural retirement.
So what’s with all the old people all of sudden? Between the David Letterman sex scandal (a sex scandal! At 62!); the brouhaha over Leno (59 to O’Brien’s 46); the defection from “American Idol” of Simon Cowell, who miraculously manages to be a pop czar at age 50; and the sheer inevitability of James Cameron and George Clooney, recent covers of Entertainment Weekly et al could be mistaken for the AARP magazine.
On television, Minnesota’s quarterback Favre may have lost the title game, but the sight of a 40-year-old outplaying men half his age made a game between two small-market teams a ratings winner. Meanwhile Fox News just became the reigning champ of cable thanks to its overwhelmingly (as in 69 percent) 55-plus audience.
And it’s not just “real-life” imagery that’s aging rapidly. The average age of TV characters has increased as well. With a few exceptions — “Glee,” for instance, and “Life Unexpected” — the shows debuting this fall and winter were a lesson in maturity, including “Cougar Town” and “Men of a Certain Age.” Even the wonderful “The Good Wife” is unapologetically much more fortysomething than thirtysomething.
At the cineplex, there’s a similar trend. While Streep is turning 60 into the new 30, the dreamboat formerly known as George Clooney plays a guy so far gone into late middle age that he shares the screen with the young and tasty Anna Kendrick without there being even a hint of intergenerational romance. “I don’t even think of him that way,” her character says at one point. “He’s old.”
Clooney’s not the only one. Jeff Bridges and Colin Firth likewise turned in gray and haggard Men of a Certain Age performances and Sherlock Holmes, entering his third century, re-emerged as an action hero, courtesy of Robert Downey Jr., who, at 44, is well past puberty himself. Even the phenomenon that is “Avatar,” for all its youthful appeal, is the vision of a 55-year-old.
It’s the boomers of course — it’s always the boomers — who, armed with Botox and Old Guys Rule T-shirts, continually threaten to redefine the idea of “old” while bankrupting future generations with the physical and mental realities of an aging population.
But frankly, they’ve been getting old for a while — the first wave started hitting 60 four years ago. So the fact that we are suddenly singing the benefits of the mature life may be more a product of social unease and economic fear than a generation’s determination to stay front and center.
We have a president who, though young in years, has created a persona that is calm, collected and emotionally conservative. During the recent State of the Union address, his rebukes to the feuding parties seemed more “Father Knows Best” than Angry Young Man and even his declaration that “We will not stop, I will not stop fighting” nodded more to Winston Churchill than JFK.
That President Obama has played up his “old soul” qualities from the beginning seems now almost prescient. Americans have watched the bottom drop out of the economy in a way that has every parental platitude we ever heard ringing in our ears: Don’t buy a house you can’t afford; if an investment seems too good to be true it probably is; you can’t get something for nothing.
Meanwhile, all the glittery gadgets that promised to make us the Jetsons have created as many problems as they have solved, including making things like identity theft and adultery easier, and collapsing the business models of journalism and the entertainment industry.
It’s a scary world out there, and suddenly all slacker angst and adolescent one-liners just aren’t funny anymore. Being an under-employed clerk at a computer store isn’t a joke (even Chuck now aspires to be a real spy) and stories about young things living the high life and trying to shortcut their way to success seem at best false advertising and at worse part of the problem (which may be one reason why “Melrose Place” just didn’t work this time around.)
“Grey’s Anatomy,” once the standard bearer of Bright Young Things, has entered the world of grown-ups, with almost every one of its original cast making some sort of step toward maturity this season. Even in the awards-friendly movie “An Education,” Carey Mulligan’s ingenue realizes that romance is a false god and freedom is just another word for “getting into Oxford.”
Just as “Mad Men” tapped into our collective unconscious and retrieved the sacred symbols of men in white shirts and women in clip-on earrings and sweater sets, the increasing presence of over-40s on our screens is a matter of simple reassurance. In times of crisis, it’s good to have a young and sassy computer whiz around, but you need a weathered and wary warrior leading the team. A Bruce Willis, a Sigourney Weaver, someone who knows their way around the weaponry and the adversary.
It’s not a coincidence that shows as diverse as “Fringe” and “Castle” and “The Good Wife” all feature not only full-blown adult main characters but also their parents, or that Ed O’Neill (“Modern Family”) and Craig T. Nelson (“Parenthood”) are anchoring the two big family shows this year.
If things are going to get zany, weird or dangerous, it’s nice to have a grown-up or two on hand to sort things out.