Older people form a large and much-loved part of British society, being venerated for their contributions to the country. Despite this, the elderly are under-represented on television and portrayals of them can be negative or lack depth.
Some characters on TV do stand out as fantastic depictions of seniors, though these are not commonplace. The series that successfully present elderly roles tend to use realism or humour to subvert stereotypes and recognise individuality.
These representations are vital for including and respecting a group of citizens who are highly admired in the UK. Therefore, in this post, Lottie delves into the most iconic old characters on TV shows, highlighting how they can be portrayed well.
In the classic British comedy show, Doris is the scene-stealing neighbour of Stacey’s mother Gwen. She appears at first to be a sweet, old lady but, once she begins to speak you soon realise this isn’t the case.
Doris subverts almost every stereotype about elderly women, talking openly about her romantic relationships and seeming to have a new suiter each time you meet her. Being something of a player, she even hits on Gavin during his engagement to Stacey.
It’s a refreshing way to see an elderly woman portrayed — independent and uninhibited. Despite being a supporting character and having relatively few lines, Doris makes an outsized impression and gets some of the biggest laughs in the series.
Usually referred to as ‘Grampa’, Abe is the often-ignored patriarch of the Simpson family. A WWII veteran, he resides in Springfield Retirement Castle and spends his time unsuccessfully trying to obtain the attention of his family.
The character parodies cliche portrayals of older people, being cantankerous, senile, and likely to launch into an irrelevant anecdote at any point. From diatribes about the way things used to be, to calling the President a “Demy-crat”, these traits are exaggerated to such an extent that Abe becomes an obvious caricature of elderly stereotypes.
Despite this humorous incoherence and indifference from his family, Abe is resilient and continues to try to connect with his loved ones. It's this grain of truth that ensures the character is endearing to viewers.
Fierce, intelligent, and ruthless – Olenna Tyrell is the senior matriarch of a powerful and wealthy family in Game of Thrones. She steers her house through the turbulent wars depicted in the series, scheming against their many enemies.
Also known as the Queen of Thorns, Olenna is renowned for her wit and sarcasm, although her strength runs deeper than words. She commands armies and commits shocking deeds, such as orchestrating the murder of a king at his own wedding.
Olenna Tyrell is an iconic elderly character because of this blend of action and humour. Rather than being a cowering or incoherent old woman, she is a razor-sharp leader and proves herself a match for any of her younger, male rivals.
Lucille Bluth is a bad person, but one that you can’t help but like. While we are often encouraged to view elderly people as senile or ignorant, Lucille is witty and devious.
As mother and grandparent, Lucille leads the untrustworthiness in this series about a family attempting to rebuild their previously luxurious lifestyles. Throughout the series, she double-crosses her loved ones, belittles her children, and is rude to most people she encounters.
Yet, the negativity of this character is not related to her age. The series skewers the delusion of wealthy people, which is what Lucille and the rest of her family are guilty of.
Every disagreeable action of Lucille’s is taken with a drink in hand and accompanied by a withering one-liner. It’s a unique portrayal of an elderly person that delights in allowing her to be funny and unkind.
Modern Family follows the lives of the extended Pritchett family, of which Jay is the patriarch.
Retired, remarried to a younger woman, and owner of a sports car, Jay sounds like the typical negative depiction of an older man. However, his character is well-developed and you see Jay's charm through his relationships.
The elderly are sometimes assumed to be less open minded and the show addresses this. For example, Jay struggles to know the right way to parent his gay son Mitchell, but ultimately tries his best and they maintain a strong, loving relationship.
This approach to a senior’s attitudes is refreshing and balanced. Jay's mistakes are not ignored but also don’t cause him to be vilified.
Played unforgettably by Dame Maggie Smith, the Dowager Countess is the standout character of period drama Downton Abbey. She is the grandmother and oldest member of the Crawley family, whom the series follows.
Cane in hand, Violet deals out acerbic barbs that have the other characters running for cover, as she forcefully attempts to guide her loved ones. Some of her best quotes include “don’t be defeatist dear, it’s very middle class” and “what is a weekend?”
Despite the Dowager existing in a historical time period, this pointed humour and advice make her relatable to a modern audience. She represents the formidable, older women that many people know as part of their families or lives.
Rick Sanchez is the adventurous, antihero of Rick and Morty. He is a genius scientist who travels through space, accompanied by his adolescent grandson, Morty.
For an elderly character to be positioned so centrally to a show and written to feel cool is unusual. As one of the two protagonists, Rick is the driving force behind the show, often being given the funniest lines.
The show does play up generational stereotypes, as Rick is grumpy and uncaring. However, he is also the smartest and most independent character – a break from common presentations of elderly people as infirm.
Featured on the long running BBC soap EastEnders, Dot Cotton is the chain smoking, motherly figure of the cast. An archetypal old woman role, Dot became one of the most beloved characters on the programme.
Although Dot’s hypochondria and devout Christianity nod to stereotypes of older women, she is not reduced to one. Throughout her run on the show, she was developed into a complex character, who addresses real life issues affecting people of age.
An entire episode of EastEnders was dedicated to a monologue from Dot, in which the character explores the difficulties of growing older and losing loved ones. The episode was acclaimed and June Branning, who plays Dot, became one of the few actors to be nominated for a BAFTA TV award for work in a soap opera.
With Victor Meldrew, One Foot in the Grave cleverly toys with fictional archetypes of old men. He’s irritable and unenthusiastic compared to the other characters in the show, but the viewer is encouraged to sympathise with his point of view.
Richard Wilson, who played Meldrew, is reported to have said that he’s a “normal man in a world full of idiots”. Indeed, Meldrew’s negativity is mostly in response to frustrating situations caused by or involving other people.
This inverts the stereotype about grumpy old men, rendering it as a reasonable response to an exasperating world. It’s a darkly comic representation of age that makes the character both relatable and funny.
The only duo to appear on this list, Grace and Frankie are both positive role models for elderly women. Grace is straight-talking and manages a successful business, while Frankie is a freethinking artist.
Forced to live together after their husbands reveal that they have fallen in love, Grace and Frankie make the best of a challenging situation. Although many elderly characters would be portrayed as resistant to change and set in their ways, the pair make the most of the freedom this unexpected upheaval brings.
Both maintain active social lives, romantic relationships, and even start a new business selling sex toys for older women. It’s a fantastic depiction of later life, presenting people who are happy and continue to embrace opportunities.
And that concludes Lottie’s list of the 10 most iconic old characters on TV shows. Whether humorously exaggerating stereotypes or subverting them, great portrayals of elderly people recognise their humanity and allow them to shine.