'4 TV shows every 40-something woman I know is watching'

If television is a lens through which we can view ourselves, most of the women my age seem to be watching these four very bingeable series — and for good reason.
Image: Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Kristin Scott Thomas
From left, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Kristin Scott Thomas appear in "Fleabag"Amazon
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By Vivian Manning-Schaffel

Recently, a New York Times essay caught fire about how the author, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, binge-watched all of “Thirtysomething” (an early 90s show about "adulting") as a forty-something to gauge how it influenced her formative opinions about relationships. Oddly enough, not a week prior, I’d mentioned that very same idea about that very same show to my best friend, who shared my obsession with “Thirtysomething” in our early 20s. As it seems I might be a good decade older than Brodesser-Akner, she saw the show through a slightly different lens in that she was just considering what it meant to be in a relationship while I’d already started having them. Yet, today, her current opinion of the characters and storylines fall closer in line with my own reflection of them.

It got me thinking about how age can influence our perception of the shows we’re obsessed with. “As people age, they develop more interest and ability to process more cognitively complex storylines,” says Pamela Rutledge PhD, MBA, behavioral scientist, director of the Media Psychology Research Center and Media Psychology faculty at Fielding Graduate University. “They seek out storylines that resonate with them and characters with whom they identify. Young people may be watching media to see examples of how to navigate the world — not as direct lessons — but as further expanding the database. Older people may watch thinking more about what it would have felt like, or what they would have done.”

This certainly explains part of my big “Fleabag” fetish — there’s something validating about watching a phase of life you’ve already lived — even if you lived it differently. “The ability to appreciate a good story does not change with age. Good narratives are good narratives,” Rutledge explains. “They provide us with an escape into another world, the chance to feel empathy and experience a new perspective. Some of it is the pleasure that comes from reflecting and making meaning out of narratives, exploring how they relate to our lives, goals, dreams and aspects of self.”

“Thirtysomething” may not be easy to access but these four relationship-driven binge-worthy dramedies will definitely sate your streaming urges without seeming dated (yet).

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Mj Rodriguez as Blanca Evangelista, as the fierce queen Mother of the House of Evangelista on Pose.FX

Back to the 80s and the AIDS/HIV crisis: 'POSE'

No matter where you lived, coming of age during the height of the AIDS epidemic affected GenXers deeply. And those of us who lived in New York City at the time are forever changed by watching the people we knew and loved struggle with or fall victim to this merciless plague. Centered in the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis as experienced by trans women of color in the 80s/90s New York City ballroom scene, POSE explores the dynamics of chosen families, enchanting viewers with sharp character sketches and powerful performances (Mj Rodriguez, Billy Porter). Season two plops us down in 1990, when Madonna’s “Vogue” put ballroom onto the charts and a modicum of hope into our heroines' hearts, as friends and lovers fall dead to the disease consuming them. Relevant cameos (Broadway royalty Patti Lupone, comedian/actor/podcast queen, Sandra Bernhard) enliven carefully researched storylines.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge appears in "Fleabag"Amazon

A romp through your early 30s and a brief (sweet) glimpse into 60: 'Fleabag'

Impeccably written and portrayed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag is a wry British depiction of an early thirtysomething who funnels overwhelming grief and guilt into less than savory sexual urges. And there’s something in it (other than cringe-laughing) for those of us who may have been there and done that. Featured in a memorable cameo, the brilliant Kristin Scott Thomas dispenses wisdom about what it’s really like to be on the other side of where Fleabag is: “Your entire pelvic floor crumbles and you get f***ing hot and no one cares, but then you’re free, no longer a slave, no longer a machine with parts. You’re just a person in business.” At once raw, real and absolutely hilarious.

Linda Cardellini and Christina Applegate in a scene from "Dead To Me."Saeed Adyani / Netflix

Coping with death and middle-age friendships: 'Dead to Me'

The week "Dead to Me" came out, five friends of varied ages and genders admitted to binging this show in one or two sittings. Using dark humor to forge an honest exploration of loss and bonding, this show resonates deeply with anyone who's suffered the horrific pain of an unanticipated loss—the worst byproduct of middle age. Jen (Christina Applegate) and Judy (Linda Cardellini) strike up an unlikely friendship after the accidental death of Jen’s husband and Judy’s own loss. Through outstanding writing, poignant performances, and character chemistry, each episode explores truths uncovered in the wake of loss, as it leads you toward the surprising ways fate drove these women toward each other

Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern in season 2 of HBO's "Big Little Lies."Jennifer Clasen / HBO

Parenting and marriage in middle-age: 'Big Little Lies'

This big-deal small screen adaptation of the Liane Moriarty novel about the complexities of middle-aged women (and the men that don't love them) was designed to be consumed voraciously. Fueled by a female-driven narrative and a megawatt superstar cast (Reese Witherspoon, Zoe Kravitz, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern), the protagonists emote about the perils of parenthood (and death, and rape, and abuse, and infidelity...and...) against a lush, cinematic Monterey backdrop most of us can only envy. Season two brings “the Monterey Five” back to school, united in their quest to shake off suspicion after the (sort-of) accidental death of Celeste’s (as Nicole Kidman) husband, Perry. Meryl Streep joins the cast as Mary Louise, Perry’s suspicious, blunt, peculiar mother, who’s out to expose the five’s secrets while (probably) harboring a few of her own.

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