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Why American TV doesn’t like death and aging | COMMENTARY

Glenda Jackson stars in "Elizabeth Is Missing" on PBS. CREDIT: Brigitte Lacombe
Glenda Jackson stars in "Elizabeth Is Missing" on PBS. CREDIT: Brigitte Lacombe (Brigitte Lacombe)

When I was a much younger media writer, one of the first pieces of “wisdom” shared with me by a TV programming executive was that American audiences hate anything dealing with old age or death.

“Death is death on TV,” is the way the network programmer put it, thinking he was being clever. “Nobody will watch it.”

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Like many “truths” shared by network programming executives, there was no empirical data to support the claim. It was just conventional industry wisdom. And it was better than the other so-called truths some of them shared with young reporters like me ― truths that were often flat-out lies to support the latest show they were pushing.

Once I learned to follow the money in media reporting, I came to understand the real reason there was so little exploration of death in prime-time programming was that advertisers did not want their products associated with it, a connection that still drives some advertisers to pull their ads from news programs covering disasters and mass fatalities.

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Whatever the reasons, that belief resulted in few programs featuring realistic explorations of old age or death on American TV. And that, in turn, led to a more shallow popular culture than other countries, like Great Britain, for example. The visionary media critic Neil Postman described that American mindset best in his 1985 media classic about our excessive desire to be entertained above all else by television, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

But then COVID-19 came to America in 2020, and death is now being displayed and explored prominently in TV news programming from CNN and MSNBC to PBS “Frontline” documentaries. With more than 336,000 Americans already dead from the virus and countless family members, relatives and friends mourning the deceased, it would be hard not to explore the reality of what the virus has wrought at hospitals, where refrigerated tractor trailers serve as temporary morgues and front line medical providers are overworked and stressed out.

God bless those news outlets that are covering the deaths, feelings of loss by survivors and the acute mental stress and physical pain suffered by some of the most vulnerable older Americans. I believe that as a nation we have become more aware of death and our own mortality than at any time since, perhaps, the Second World War. Thank COVID-19 and the honest coverage of the pandemic by the more responsible TV news channels.

But where are the fictional explorations and meditations on old age and dying that allow us to feel the sense of loss and pain of death by coming to care about on-screen characters who are facing or experiencing those darker realities? That is one mark of a healthy popular culture: Its ability to reflect and speak to the concerns, fears and hopes of its audiences, their nightmares and their waking dreams.

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I have been on the lookout for that kind of programming, but I have not yet found much of it on American TV outside of the Netflix series “After Life,” a dark comedy series created by and starring Ricky Gervais as a community newspaper reporter whose wife dies and leaves him with the pain of trying to figure out whether life is worth living without her. I love this series. But it’s a British import, and there is nothing else like it on American TV at the moment.

That dearth of such programming is one of the things that makes “Elizabeth Is Missing,” a PBS drama starring Glenda Jackson, stand out. That and the searing, uncompromising performance by Jackson as a septuagenarian suffering from dementia who is trying to find out what happened to her best friend. If this isn’t TV’s dramatic performance of the year, it is close enough for me.

Jackson plays Maud Horsham, a grandmother living alone and battling the early stages of Alzheimer’s. One of her primary weapons in that fight are sticky notes that become the wallpaper of her life. From reminding her to lock the door when she goes out and that coffee helps memory, the notes illustrate her increasingly desperate attempt to order her thoughts and life as memory and organizational skills fade.

Maud gardens twice a week with Elizabeth (Maggie Steed), her 73-year-old neighbor, whom she refers to as her only friend. There is a particular joy in Maud when she and Elizabeth are in the garden up to their wrists in mud, chatting and teasing each other as only longtime trusted friends can.

Maud has other support from her daughter, Helen (Helen Behan), who works at a landscaping business, and Helen’s daughter, Katy (Nell Williams), who is very attentive to her grandmother. Between the gardening by Elizabeth and Maud and Helen’s landscaping business, there’s a lot going on in this film with multiple generations of women and their connection to nature and the Earth.

Almost everything starts in or traces back to the garden. It is where Maud and Elizabeth have their last meeting when Maud finds part of a compact case buried in the ground. The finding triggers memories of another disappearance that has haunted Maud for all of her adult life, that of her older sister, Sukey ( Sophie Rundle), who went missing and was never found when Maud was a teenager. There is a theme of women gone missing and the authorities not looking all that hard for them.

Maud finds herself with two mysteries to try to solve, and decreasing cognitive skills with which to do it. The two disappearances ― one from 1949 and the other 2019 ― keep merging in her mind and adding to her confusion, frustration and anger.

“Imagine you’re like a detective looking at clues,” Katy says to her grandmother with the optimism of youth. “You have to start at the beginning and you have to be logical.”

If only it were that easy for this brave woman who sometimes forgets where she was the day before and has trouble making it up the stairs of her home before she loses control of her bladder.

This is not spunky grandma teaches the young ones a thing or two, or Jessica Fletcher bopping around Cabot Cove on “Murder, She Wrote.” This is aging, mental illness and trying to hold it together in the face of the indignities old age can inflict on us.

The great power of this drama comes from Jackson’s vast range and ability to take Maud from a kind and loving grandmother in one scene to downright monstrous as she cruelly turns on Katy and devastates the teen with sneering, hateful words in another. Jackson, who in 2019 played Lear in a Broadway production of the Shakespearean tragedy “King Lear,” portrays a raging Maud with all the madness and fury of the aged king. You hold your breath watching a restaurant scene and fear she is going to explode and none of the china will be spared.

This is what dementia can sometimes look like ― no prime-time, American TV whitewashing here. And that level of truth, as unpleasant as it can be, makes “Elizabeth Is Missing” that much deeper and rewarding a TV experience in this horrible age of plague.

Both “Elizabeth is Missing” and the first season of “After Life” were made before COVID-19 hit. But in coming at death and the human condition from the angles they do, they speak ever so clearly to the effect the pandemic is having on many of us today. I am hoping when production of new programming becomes less problematic, we will see more American-made films and series doing the same. This is how art both deepens and comforts us with stories showing that we are not alone.

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“Elizabeth Is Missing” premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on MPT.

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David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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