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‘Sunset Daze’ reveals bawdy reality of seniors

It took a full 10 years after “Survivor” made reality shows one of the hottest trends in show business, but older people  are finally getting a shot with this sometimes raunchy program.
/ Source: The New York Times

“Pedal to the metal, baby!” shouted Joanne Hauncher, 63, as she swerved wildly through traffic on a busy street in this Phoenix suburb. A truck driver slammed on his brakes and stared — she was driving a golf cart, after all — as Ms. Hauncher completed an illegal U-turn.

“Rules are made to be broken,” she muttered, arching a painted-on eyebrow. “I’m too old to be spanked. Wait. Scratch that!”

Ms. Hauncher, along with eight other retirees who live here, star in a new reality show on the WE tv network called “Sunset Daze.” How did the producers find her? “I was out with the Ho’s” — her term for her female posse — “and I guess we looked like fun,” she said. Her only stipulation for signing on? “I didn’t want to come off as a lunatic senior.”

Too late. “Sunset Daze,” which makes its debut on Wednesday night, pushes just that button as it tries to hold its own in the boozy, oversexed reality TV genre. The first episode has commentary on vibrators and going “commando,” slang for not wearing underpants. WE positions the series as “The Golden Girls” meets “Jersey Shore,” the ribald MTV series that spawned Snooki.

Forgotten demographicThe media business often overlooks the importance of older folks — here including the first of the baby boomers — with all of the talk about attracting young viewers and racking up huge ratings in the 18-34 demographic. Yes, “Gossip Girl” is fine. But in some ways, “Golden Girls” is even better. And the country seems to be in the midst of a senior revival, with Betty White riding a wave of Internet lobbying to become guest host on “Saturday Night Live,” Cloris Leachman becoming a “Dancing With the Stars” darling at 82, and the late Bea Arthur showing up in advertisements for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

It took a full 10 years after “Survivor” made reality shows one of the hottest trends in show business, but older people — Ms. Hauncher is a youngster compared to many of her cast mates — are finally getting their shot.

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Gail Liebowitz, a retired New York actress who wears her candy apple-colored hair in a giant flip (styled by her son, who calls the look “Lesley Gore on crack”), has high hopes for the series. It’s going to be a hit, she said over lunch, “I can feel it in my bones.”

“That’s arthritis,” said the son, Cary, who also appears on the show.

Little prodding neededOne-liners aside, “Sunset Daze” has already been hitting a nerve on the Web. Entertainment Weekly’s Pop Watch blog (, commenting on video promos, compared it with “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” the hit Bravo franchise: “Take the ladies of Orange County, jack their ages up a few (or 20) years, plop them down in a retirement home, and bam! Reality TV gold. Or something like that.”

On most reality shows, producers manipulate activities to ratchet up the drama. There appears to be a bit of that on “Sunset Daze,” whether it is Ms. Liebowitz attending a gay rodeo with her son (and becoming fast friends with two drag queens) or Jack Zells, 72, riding in a stunt plane — something that resulted in projectile vomiting. “Maybe in the second season they can ask me to do something easy, like unscramble an egg,” he said.

But these folks, who might not look out of place at a church picnic until they open their mouths, didn’t need much prodding. Other participants include LaWanda Price, 74, a California retiree who moved to Surprise and took up dancing. She goes by the nickname Hot Legs. Mr. Zells, a member of a local singles club, goes by Mr. Romeo and has a dirty sense of humor. Another cast member is an ex-nun who now enjoys drinking and sky diving.

The first two episodes revolve heavily around a sassy blonde named Sandy Miracle-Jones. A 68-year-old widow who retired from Oregon, Ms. Miracle-Jones goes on dates — set up by Ms. Hauncher — when she’s not busy drinking wine. (Her standby is a “double pinot grigio.”)

She’s also the founding member of the Ho’s and goes by the nickname Hi Ho, not for her wine consumption but because she is so willing to chat up strangers. Other members of the golfing clique are Ida Ho (from the state) and Slow Ho (hip replacement).

All are residents of Sun City Grand, a large restricted-age village in Surprise that features four golf courses, five swimming pools and an enormous array of activities, including ceramics, stained-glass classes and a cribbage club. “We’re here because it’s an active place,” Ms. Price said. “Retirement is just the beginning of a new life.”

Watching television is not especially popular with this bunch — except for Ms. Liebowitz, who records “The Young and the Restless” every day — and so their understanding of the reality show process was minimal. Mr. Zells, who arrived at an interview wearing a burgundy track suit, said he was startled, for instance, when he caught the camera crew taping him stepping out of the shower. One episode features his hernia operation.

Ms. Miracle-Jones’s reaction: “At least it wasn’t a vasectomy.”

This article, first appeared in The New York Times.