Trendspotting: Old-Age Romance on TV

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In the second season of Jane the Virgin, the title character’s abuela, Alba (Ivonne Coll), is disappointed when her first love interest in many years turns out to be a jerk. Her daughter, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo) tells her not to blame herself. “You got swept up in the romance,” she says. “Yes, that’s the truth,” Alba replies. “Plus, I was horny.” “Oh, my god, welcome to my world,” Jane (Gina Rodriguez) replies. Her blooming romance may have wilted on the vine, but the experience makes Alba realize she wants to start dating for real. As with many old-age romances on TV, the first step is admitting it.

Maybe it’s the intimacy of television versus the group activity of seeing a movie in the theater that accounts for so many recent TV series that eschew the “adorable-oldsters mode,” in the words of author and journalist Mark Harris, of films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. What’s remarkable about TV shows that feature older people falling in love and having sex isn’t that they’re so shockingly explicit or laugh-out-loud awkward or pruriently comical. It’s that they’re so normal.

Finding love late in life is often compared to the initial spark of passion we experience as teenagers. The feelings are new and exciting and a bit scary — and in both stages of life, it’s not easy to voice your desires. Late in the first season of Grace and Frankie — the Netflix comedy about two older women (Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin) who become close friends when their husbands announce they’re gay and plan to marry — Grace faces the prospect of sex with a new man for the first time in decades. When Frankie asks if Grace is worried about “vaginal dryness,” Grace responds, “I am now.”

When Grace later admits the sex was awkward (“Are you there yet?” “Where?” “Oh, never mind”), Frankie tells her she has to be, well, frank about what she wants in bed. But the freewheeling Frankie has trouble in this department herself, missing the obvious signs that her “yam man,” Jacob (Ernie Hudson), wants to do more than deliver her vegetables. Grace in turn advises Frankie to be more flirtatious.

Eventually the women cast off each other’s advice and go with their instincts: Rather than jumping right back into bed with her paramour, Grace leads him through a slow dance, instructing him to put his hand a little lower on her back (“Perfect”) and to move his body closer to hers. Frankie loosens up with Jacob the best way she knows how — by sharing a joint.

The episode illustrates how every woman has her own method of getting comfortable with a new man — her own version of foreplay — in a way that could really apply to a new relationship at any age. The idea of an older woman having sex isn’t comic fodder here, and the topic of sex between two people in their 50s or 60s or 70s isn’t simply treated with respectful discretion, either. In some cases, it’s presented no differently than hot sex between any two characters would be.

In Grace and Frankie’s recently released second season, Grace gets a new lover, Phil, played by Sam Elliott. (This is excellent casting: Somehow Sam Elliott is sexier at 71 than he was at 31.) The two get a hotel room for the night, where they share a deep, long kiss before jumping into bed for the first time. A slow, contemporary indie song plays (“It’s gonna take a bit of work/ But I think this will work”) as we see Phil and Grace grip each other passionately between the sheets in a sequence that focuses not on the novelty of their age but the power of their chemistry.

While the sex on Grace and Frankie is mostly hinted at, sex on Transparent is much more explicit. Perhaps the most remarkable sex scene in recent memory between two older characters on TV — hell, between any two characters — appears in the second season of the Amazon original about a man who comes out to his family as transgender late in life. In an episode titled “Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump,” Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) pleasures her ex-wife, Shelly (Judith Light) in the bathtub.

The scene is explicit even though we barely see any skin. Shelly is in the bathtub, covered with bubbles, and Maura sits on the edge of the tub wearing a women’s one-piece bathing suit. “We had some good times,” Shelly reminisces. She goes on, “You know that thing you used to do with your finger? Nobody could do that like you.” Maura starts to rub her foot, then moves her hand further down her ex-wife’s leg. The sound of splashing water indicates what she’s doing under the surface, along with Shelly’s reaction, which begins with a light moan and ends with a roaring, “Oh, god!” as she climaxes.

When its first season was released in 2014, Transparent was lauded not just for its groundbreaking depiction of queer characters but its exploration of how one person can drop a bombshell that reverberates through her entire family. Maura’s coming out causes her grown children to question their own sexuality. The same happens on the BBC’s Last Tango in Halifax, which premiered in 2012. (The title is a cheeky reference to the 1972 sex romp Last Tango in Paris.) The series, based on creator Sally Wainwright’s own life, centres on two former childhood friends who reunite as septuagenarians and decide to get married. (This really happened to Wainwright’s mother, who was widowed and then remarried at the age of 75; similarly, Transparent creator Jill Soloway’s father came out as transgender in his 70s.)

As on Transparent, the news causes a seismic shift within the families of both Alan (Derek Jacobi) and Celia (Anne Reid). After hearing about their impending nuptials, Alan’s daughter has sex with a much younger man whose advances she’d previously ignored; Celia’s daughter, who was married to a man, stops denying her feelings for a woman with whom she’d had a brief fling. In these shows, the discovery that their elderly parents have given into new and exciting feelings — not to mention sexual urges — makes the younger generation realize that life is short, and that feelings can only be kept below the surface for so long before they bubble up and spill over.

In the Season 2 finale of Grace and Frankie, the two women decide to go into business together to make old-age-friendly sex toys. (“They didn’t design these things for older women,” Grace laments, her wrist immobilized in a brace.) “We’re making things for people like us because we are sick and tired of being dismissed by people like you,” Frankie declares when she and Grace’s children express skepticism at the idea.

The same could be said about this wave of old-age romance plots on TV. Anne Reid noted in an interview that most TV writers are young and can’t imagine what it’s like to be 70, let alone to be sexual at that age. But at a time when TV shows are increasingly exploring new and untapped worlds, creators have begun to turn their attention to this oft-neglected and stereotyped demographic — sometimes mining the lives of their own parents, whom children often don’t think of as real people with needs and desires until they reach a certain age themselves.

In a piece penned for The Daily Mail when Last Tango in Halifax premiered in 2012, Wainwright wrote, “This isn’t about being old; it’s about love.” What makes these narratives so tender — and powerful — is the suggestion that the only difference between the sexual desires of a 25-year-old and a 75-year-old is 50 years.