Boomers’ Tastes Define the Prime Time of Life


The taxicab pulls up in the driveway of a rambling, ivy-covered, two-story Cape Cod home painted picket-fence white.

Leaves are falling from ancient oaks and elms as a young woman gets out of the cab, looks at the house and takes a deep breath.

“Enjoy your visit,” the cabdriver says as he pulls away.

“Not visiting,” the woman replies. “I think I’m home.”

The scene is from the pilot for “Providence,” the surprise hit of last season. The drama about a plastic surgeon in her 30s who chucks her lucrative Beverly Hills practice and Southern California lifestyle to return to her hometown of Providence, R.I., and a low-paying job in a community clinic is such a hit that it has inspired copycat dramas such as “Judging Amy” on CBS this fall.


“Amy” features a 35-year-old attorney who chucks a lucrative corporate law career and Manhattan lifestyle to return to her hometown of Hartford, Conn., and a low-paying job as a family law judge. Like “Providence,” it is a hit, the highest-rated new dramatic series in a fall full of successful new dramas.

Although much has been written about the commercial success of the two series and their leading characters, Dr. Sydney Hansen (Melina Kanakaredes) and Judge Amy Gray (Amy Brenneman), the cultural implications have been little explored. When a series cuts as directly against the grain of what’s gone before as “Providence” did, then single-handedly inspires a programming trend, it’s a fairly safe guess that something is up.

This was supposed to be a network season geared to twentysomethings living in New York and oversexed teenage boys not coming of age in their parents’ basements. But the crash and burn of series like NBC’s “The Mike O’Malley Show” and ABC’s “Wasteland,” set against the tremendous success of “Providence,” “Amy” and several similar series, has sent the networks scrambling to find what makes Sydney and Amy run.

Ultimately, the answers are found among baby boomer viewers and the fantasies the series offer them, starting with the promise that you can go home again, a theme both series hit hard in Thanksgiving episodes.

“I think you’ve got to go home at some point in your life,” says Brenneman, who stars as the judge and single mom who returns with her daughter and moves into the family house with her mother, Maxine (Tyne Daly), and brother (Dan Futterman).

“I know for me a lot of my 20s was about going off and proving that I wasn’t like my mother: I was so different, I wasn’t going to be anything like her. And, then, you fall flat on your face, because you’re exactly like your parents. I think the appeal is connected to that process, which involves going back, which all of us go through.”


John Masius, creator of “Providence,” explains the appeal: “It’s the idea of people being able to reestablish relationships with their families and the fantasy of being able to go back and live at home again. I just think that people are reexamining what is important to them. Family and roots seem to be important.”

Barbara Hall, who wrote the pilot episode of “Judging Amy,” also believes the appeal of the series is connected to Amy returning home. As she sees it, “At 35, Amy has to go home to sort of finish growing up, to learn some lessons she might have missed.”

Gender is another important aspect of these characters. It’s noteworthy that both are professional women and that their journey back home seems to go directly against the dominant narrative for prime-time women, which started with the CBS sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1970.

The “Mary” story line featured a career woman leaving her family and hometown, going off to the city and finding a new family in the workplace.

There was a connection between the success of that show and shows like it in the 1970s and women entering the work force. The question is whether there is a similar connection between the success of the returning-home narrative today and what women are feeling.

Independent Women Returning Home

“Given television’s seeming inability to show a truly independent woman, you have to wonder why it is only women who return home in these shows,” said Shirley Peroutka, chairwoman of the communication and media studies program at Goucher College in Towson, Md., near Baltimore. “But in terms of what it might be reflecting in a more direct way, I would look to the idea of adult children returning home with several generations living under the same roof.”


Hollywood producers and media analysts say another aspect of generation must also be considered: the relationship between television and baby boomers. They note that new dramas featuring female characters in their 20s and aimed at younger viewers--like NBC’s “Cold Feet,” ABC’s “Wasteland” and Fox’s “Time of Your Life”--are foundering in the ratings or have already been canceled.

“God knows Hollywood and this country worship youth, but the baby boom generation is also getting older and older, and what they want to see on TV is important to the discussion too,” said Marshall Herskovitz, co-creator of “Once and Again,” a drama about two single parents in their 40s who fall in love.

“Once and Again,” starring Sela Ward and Billy Campbell, is the second most popular new drama of the network season.

On one level, the success of the older characters might be simply a matter of baby boomers wanting to see people like themselves on the screen, as in “Once and Again.” But Herskovitz and his partner, Ed Zwick, believe it goes deeper than that.

“The baby boom generation, as we know, was the first generation to ever go to college,” Herskovitz says, poking fun at the boomer-centric viewpoint that has driven so much of popular culture since the 1960s. “So we redefined that. And the first generation ever to have children. And now we’re going to be the first generation ever to get old.”

“So it’s going to become very hip to be old,” Zwick adds.

Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, agrees that baby boomers are behind the latest trend.


“You have a generation that was defined by its youth and rebellion, that peaked very early during the Vietnam War when the youth movement and campuses were front-page news,” he said. “And then, all of sudden, they’ve got these kids and they’re the parents, and they’re the establishment that their kids are rejecting.

“And we see all this played out in these shows. In ‘Judging Amy’ and ‘Providence,’ it’s having to come back home but within this context of being the child. In ‘Once and Again’ they’re dating again.

“We’re seeing essentially the pathology and neuroses of a generation played out in drama. And isn’t that what art is all about?”