The current U.S. television season has seen the introduction of two new network sitcoms with the same basic premise: Fox’s Dads and CBS’s The Millers both revolve around retired parents who, due to a change in their own circumstances, move in with their grown-up children – a situation that results in constant intergenerational conflict. In Part I of this article, I looked at the shows’ general setup as well as at issues of racial representation. Now I will turn to a central aspect the two sitcoms share, despite their differences in style and type of humour: both Dads and The Millers rely on ageist stereotypes for much of their comedy.
The term ageism was first introduced in the late 1960s by the American gerontologist and psychiatrist Robert Butler, whose definition is still widely quoted today: ‘Ageism can be seen as a process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish this for skin color and gender. Old people are categorized as senile, rigid in thought and manner, old-fashioned in morality and skills’ (Butler 1975, p. 35). According to psychologist Bruce E. Blaine, ‘general stereotypes of old people reflect low levels of competence’ (Blaine 2013, p. 176). Butler’s and Blaine’s observations clearly apply to the representation of the retired parents in Dadsand The Millers. While ageist portrayals are no new phenomenon in American sitcoms, the centrality of this theme in the two new series is unusual. The comedy in both shows largely results from the parents’ ineptness to cope with modern-day technology, their regular memory lapses and their frequently bizarre and irrational behaviour. The entire third episode of The Millers revolves around Tom Miller’s (Beau Bridges) inability to survive on his own: he almost sets the kitchen on fire when trying to make himself an omelette, floods the laundry room by putting too much soap in the washing machine; he destroys three brand new smartphones by dropping each of them in the toilet, and on the way to the phone shop he drops his son Nathan’s (Will Arnett) phone out the car window. ‘My phone would have been safer in the hands of a toddler!’ Nathan shouts when he finds out (‘The Phone Upgrade’, 1:3).
The Millers: Tom Miller makes an omelette (1:3)
The two retired fathers in Dads are represented in similar ways: when Eli (Seth Green) realises that his father, David (Peter Riegert), brought bedbugs into his home he asks: ‘How did you even get bedbugs?’ (‘Foul Play’, 1:7). David’s response illustrates his characterisation as irrational and unpredictable to the point of putting himself at risk: ‘Well, it may have happened when I tried on fur coats at the thrift shop, or when I took a nap on that couch near the dumpster or when I was shirtless on the bus.’ Warner’s (Giovanni Ribisi) father, Crawford (Martin Mull), is portrayed as equally irresponsible and a hazard to himself and those around him, as he repeatedly falls asleep drunk while smoking cigars. On one particularly drunk night, Crawford even urinates onto his son’s living room couch. When describing the two old men, Eli uses a similar comparison as Nathan in The Millers: ‘All they do is sleep, drink and go to the bathroom. They’re like drunk babies’ (‘Oldfinger’, 1:5). The resulting role reversal between retired fathers and their children is one of the main themes in both Dads and The Millers.
Dads: Warner and his wife find Crawford asleep on the couch (1:10)
This constellation can also be found in an earlier CBS sitcom, The King of Queens (1998-2007), which centres on the life of Douglas, ‘Doug’ (Kevin James), and Carrie Heffernan (Leah Remini), a working-class couple living in Queens, New York. After Carrie’s father, Arthur (Jerry Stiller), accidentally burns down his house, he moves into the couple’s basement. While his role in the show is less central than that of the parents in Dads and The Millers, he has a similar function in the narrative. Arthur is portrayed as eccentric, irritable and stubborn. (Jerry Stiller’s character on The King of Queens resembles his earlier role on Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-1998) as Frank Costanza, George Costanza’s (Jason Alexander) eccentric and choleric father). His frequent tantrums and absurd ideas are a constant source of stress and frustration for his daughter and son-in-law who, as a result, feel they need to supervise Arthur like a child. In one episode, Doug and Carrie even demand that their friends, whose children they have been babysitting, should babysit Arthur in return (‘Switch Sitters’, 6:14). ‘How different is my father from a child, anyway?’ Carrie asks, ‘I mean, he acts out; he screams when he doesn’t get his way’, and Doug adds: ‘When it thunders, he climbs into bed with us’. The explicit comparison of older fathers to young children has thus become a recurring motif in U.S. sitcoms. However, the fathers’ supposed need of supervision is not the only reason for this association. According to Linda M. Woolf (1998), the emphasis in American culture on productivity contributes to ageism in America: ‘Both ends of the life cycle are viewed as unproductive, children and the aged’; yet, while children ‘are viewed as having future economic potential […], upon retirement, the older adult is no longer viewed as economically productive in American society and thus devalued’ (Woolf 1998). This perception is also evident in the portrayal of the retired fathers in Dads and The Millers, as Eli’s above-mentioned comment shows. Tom Miller even says about himself: ‘the only thing I have on my schedule is eventual death’ (‘Miller’s Mind’, 1:12).
Interestingly, Carol Miller (Margo Martindale), as the only older female character in these two sitcoms, is not portrayed in the same way. Upon moving in with her son, Carol immediately resumes her previous role as de facto head of the family. Notoriously over-involved in her children’s and her former husband’s lives, she tries to control the other family members through constant meddling and secret manipulation. While Carol, unlike her male counterparts, is not portrayed as being ‘unproductive’, her character is not exempt from ageist stereotyping. First of all, Carol is portrayed as naively ignorant of new technologies. For example, when performing her first internet search, she introduces herself to the search engine by typing, ‘Hi Bing! My name is Carol Miller. I’m recently single and living with my son’ (‘Stuff’, 1:6). A similar moment is also presented in Dads when Warner’s father Crawford explains where he found a collection of comic books he purchased for his son: ‘I computered them. Turns out there is this guy named Craig who has this list with all sorts of stuff that he sells’ (‘Comic Book Issues’, 1:9). This common stereotype of older people as technologically inept – applied to both men and women – belies the fact that in the United States 88% of adults between 50 and 64 and 57% of adults aged 65 and older use the internet, according to the Pew Research Center. Furthermore, 45% of the latter group are also Facebook users. So, while some seniors may experience difficulties when learning to use modern technologies – or even refuse to do so -, the reality is that the majority of older Americans are online, and the numbers are constantly rising. Yet the image of technologically challenged seniors seems to remain firmly in place.
Another recurring ageist theme in Dads and The Millers is the negative portrayal of the parents’ ageing bodies. In a much-cited scene from The Millers’ pilot episode, Nathan suddenly asks his mother:
Nathan: Did you fart?
Carol (starts sniffing the air): Yes.
Nathan: Gross! Go outside or something.
Carol: Well, I didn’t know about it. You’ll see. This happens when you get older, they just slip out.
Nathan: Oh my God.
Carol: Oh relax, it’s a fart. Some people think they’re funny.
Nathan: When you can hear them they’re funny. Without sound they’re just gross!
Here, older people’s supposed lack of control over their bodily functions is represented as disgusting while at the same time being used as a source of comedy. In another episode, Nathan discovers that his mother has been using his face towels ‘to freshen up her under-boob’ (‘Stuff’, 1:6). The implied image of ‘sagging’ breasts is given an additional repulsive twist through Nathan’s complaint: ‘My face smells like under-boob!’ This type of ageist humour is also employed in Dads, for example when Eli says that whenever his father uses his towels ‘they wind up looking like they’re from a World War I hospital. I don’t even know what bodily fluids are those colours’, to which David replies: ‘It’s the black blood from my toes. You should be getting that in about six years’ (‘Dad abuse’, 1:10). The King of Queens also frequently played on this theme. Arthur, like Carol in The Millers and David in Dads, freely discusses his bodily functions and problems with his daughter and son-in-law, invariably causing them to display their disgust. In one scene Arthur is sitting in Doug and Carrie’s hot tub and convinces them to join him. Just before leaving the tub he announces: ‘I am in my birthday suit, so look away if you’re shy.’ Even though Doug and Carrie both cover their eyes, Doug still catches a brief glimpse of Arthur’s body and quickly turns away while letting out a sound of disgust, at which point Arthur responds drily: ‘It’s called gravity, Douglas. And it’s coming for you’ (‘The Rock’, 1:7).
The King of Queens: Doug and Carrie find Arthur in their hot tub (1:7)
Imelda Whelehan, whose research includes representations of ageing women in popular culture, suggests the following explanation for the negative portrayal of ageing bodies: ‘It seems that as a society we’re frightened of ageing to the extent that older bodies are portrayed as disgusting’ (Whelehan in Webb 2013). Yet, while critiques of racist and sexist stereotyping have found their way into public debates, ‘few people are challenging dominant discourses about ageing’, as Whelehan points out. This is also evident in the public criticism Dads has faced for its use of racial stereotypes (see Part I), whereas the show’s much more frequent use of ageist stereotypes has hardly been discussed by reviewers. Similarly, the ageist humour in The Millers has received little public attention.
However, there are not only negative stereotypes of older people. Blaine explains that common stereotypes of this group reflect low levels of competence but also ‘high levels of warmth’; in fact, ‘very few groups get higher warmth ratings than the elderly’ (Blaine 2013, p. 176). This is also reflected in Dads and The Millers: in both shows the retired parents, despite their frequent arguments, ultimately want the best for their children and often go through considerable trouble to help them achieve their goals or to make up for past mistakes. At the same time, Nathan, Eli and Warner each realise that when given the choice they want to keep their live-in parents in their homes. After all, the two new multi-generational, multi-camera comedies are but recent versions of the traditional American sitcom in two main respects: first, regardless of how many disagreements and misunderstandings the protagonists face, harmony is invariably restored at the end of every episode. Second, both The Millers and Dadspromote family cohesion as a key value. Nathan Miller describes his mother as ‘the best mom-slash-roommate a son could ask for’ (‘Driving Miss Crazy’, 1:13), and in both series parents and children regularly assure each other of their love. The main difference between the two sitcoms thus lies in their comedic approach. While The Millers is possibly the most mainstream sitcom on U.S. network television today, Dads is aiming for a compromise between offensive, rule-breaking jokes in the style of Family Guy and conventional network sitcom humour. Early in the television season Michael Landweber wrote in Pop Matters: ‘The Millers is definitely shooting for the lowest common denominator’. Yet, he also predicted that ‘with material like that, The Millers may have a long life among the other middling sitcoms that populate CBS’ lineup’. This season’s ratings prove Landweber right. Despite the many negative reviews the show has received for being ‘too broad’, The Millers has been an instant ratings success: in the first thirty weeks of the 2013-2014 television season, the show’s average rating of 11.19 million viewers per episode made it the second most watched sitcom after its lead-in, the hit show The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 2007-), and the 12th most watched programme of all network shows. At the same time, with an average of 3.5 million viewers per episode, Dads only ranked 100th among the 134 network programmes. Fox has reacted to Dads’ low ratings by cutting the season down from 22 to 18 episodes. Whether or not Dads will return for a second season is currently unclear, whereas CBS has already announced the renewal of The Millers for 2014-2015.
In a society obsessed with youth, The Millers’ success with viewers may not be surprising. Yet, as Sharon Webb points out: ‘That the cult of youthfulness in popular culture is becoming more firmly entrenched just as the majority of the population is ageing is a troubling contradiction’ (Webb 2013). After all, the difference between ageism and other forms of stereotyping, such as racism and sexism, is that ‘no one is exempt from at some point achieving the status of old, and therefore, unless they die at an early age, experiencing ageism’ (Woolf 1998). Considering the demographic development, it is only a question of time when the lobby against ageism in the media will be strong enough to pressure television producers to create more varied and less stereotypical portrayals of older people. Maybe then we will see a sitcom about retired parents who complain about their grown-up children moving back in with them.
Jamila Baluch is a PhD student in the Department of Film, Theatre and Television at the University of Reading. Her research is on representations of race in contemporary U.S. drama series.