TV REVIEW : 'Sunset Gang' Ripens With Age


Growing old has never been in fashion in a society that serves youth. Nowhere is this more evident than in movies and television, where the aged are usually irascible or endearing supporting characters who bear little resemblance to real people.

Most of us can count the exceptions on one hand (memories being short): the authentic old people in the movies "Cocoon," "On Golden Pond," "Driving Miss Daisy," and a little-known Melvyn Douglas gem "Tell Me a Riddle" (actress Lee Grant's directorial debut in 1980). Generally, though, storytellers patronize old age.

So what a television week this is turning out to be for the celebration of characters on fixed incomes. Earlier in the week came a spellbinding performance by Olympia Dukakis as an 80-ish actress in "The Last Act Is a Solo" on A&E;, and beginning tonight, and continuing for the next two Friday nights on "American Playhouse," "The Sunset Gang" realistically and delightfully animates life in a southern Florida retirement village (9 p.m. on Channel 15, 9:30 p.m on Channel 28).

The trilogy is adapted from a 1976 anthology of nine short stories by Warren Adler ("The War of the Roses"), whose fictional Sunset Village here is based on his parents' own retirement ghetto-condo in the real-life Century Village in West Palm Beach. The three hourlong shows feature different casts and stories that are all connected by the setting, a manicured bayside retirement community.

The production's backdrop--the card games, the schmoozing, the bike runs, the torpor, the spotless, glazed apartments and orange trees--is a sublime visual footnote that the alternating directors, Calvin Skaggs and Tony Drazan, catch with a piquant, ironic touch.

The themes are inter-related. These retirees are not rich by any means. They're bookkeepers and government workers and schoolteachers who live on pensions, but they do live a whole lot better than most people (aging or otherwise). They are not necessarily lovable retirees, and they're not cute or merely ailing. They are success stories and a shot in the arm for a growing group of people too long ignored.

Anybody who's dealt with parents or grandparents in the throes of resettlement will immediately connect with these vibrant senior citizens. And it's the adult children, over-solicitous and guilty, who squabble and act like the jerks, not the old people, who really want to be independent and left alone.

One of the characters (Harold Gould) in tonight's opening episode has the honesty to admit that he doesn't even like his own children, let alone love them. "Where's it written you have to love your children?" That kind of candor underscores the felicitous writing by adapter Ron Ribman.

There's humor and fireworks here, too. Tonight's show, "Yiddish," is the most dramatically daring. Gould plays a husband in his 70s, bored with his vulgar spouse (a wonderful performance by Doris Roberts), who falls in love with a married retiree (the dreamy, soft-smiled Tresa Hughes). Their love affair is propelled by their common bond of Yiddish (which they frequently speak and which is subtitled).

Next week's show, "The Detective," is lower key but poignant, co-starring a wryly taciturn Jerry Stiller and a sociable gadfly of a wife played by Anne Meara (who are married in real life).

The final episode, "Home" (April 19), features a sterling, rigorous portrayal by veteran actress Uta Hagen as a strong-willed widow who breaks a hip and whose real battle is with her brood of wrangling children (including a sweet performance by Ron Rifkin as her favorite child).

The ambience is marginally Jewish in all three yarns but the production's strength is that age is dramatized here as the great leveler, ultimately flattening out all superficial differences.

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