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THESE ARE SOME OF THE TV ROLES "OLDER" ACTRESSES ARE PLAYING THIS SEASON

Stockard Channing is First Lady Abigail Bartlett on "The West Wing." She may have been 30 when she played a high school student in "Grease" 20 years ago, but the 55-year-old actress has never looked better. When Martin Sheen said to her on a recent episode, "I could jump you right now," many men in the audience probably concurred.

Margaret Colin has never before had a role as great as her voice. In "Once and Again" she hit the jackpot, playing the wife of both John Goodman and Eric Close. She also beautifully captures the challenge of mothering a teen daughter. It's always nice when mother roles are played by actresses who are actually old enough to bear children.

Sela Ward. Speaking of mothers, Sela Ward has become somewhat of a role model for divorced women. As Teddy Reed on "Sisters" she played the single mom as leather-jacketed family rebel, but the writing never matched her ability and the schmaltz was a bit too thick. Her character on "Once and Again" is another divorced mom of a teen daughter, but the only resemblance to Teddy is the leather jacket - which she still looks great in.

Dyan Cannon. It's great that Cannon balances out Ally McBeal's cast of Barbie dolls. (Hey, even Barbie is 40!) But casting older women isn't enough on its own -- you have to write for them as well and David E. Kelley's scripts treat her as a 20-year-old. She has no scope, no roots -- in fact, she's often just as flighty and cartoony as Ally & Co. One would think as a judge she would be a bit more grounded. And it's a shame, because if any show needs a grown-up, it's "Ally McBeal."

Holland Taylor. If you want a judge who combines depth with her sexuality, you have to watch Kelley's other show "The Practice," where Emmy winner Holland Taylor has more layers than a Vidalia onion. But then, what did we expect from Taylor, who spent the late 1970s stealing "Bosom Buddies" out from under Tom Hanks on a regular basis?

S. Epatha Merkerson. She's survived the many cast changes on "Law and Order" -- and she finally has more to do than to ask Jerry Orbach, "Did you canvass the neighborhood?" Last year, in her limited onscreen time, she filed a discrimination suit against the department and this year, she's having trouble getting her kid's computer assembled. Now that's reality.

Jane Kaczmarek. Like Margaret Colin, Kaczmarek has spent years improving any show she appeared on. If the press raves for "Malcolm in the Middle" result in a sustained audience, she may finally get the attention she has long deserved and be able to stop playing guest roles.

Lorraine Bracco shines as Dr. Jennifer Melfi on "The Sopranos." Last year, we saw her on dates, with her family, her neighbors, but the show's epicenter is the therapy sessions. In their blend of fire and ice, she's the perfect sounding board for the volatile Tony Soprano in beautifully and executed scenes. He told her last season that she's soft, like a mandolin, and audiences can't wait to see what kind of music they make together this year.

These actresses are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There's also Christine Lahti on "Chicago Hope" and Roma Downey on "Touched by an Angel." Helen Mirren of "Prime Suspect" Helen Mirren may have single-handedly started putting older actresses back into fashion. And when these actresses get into their 60s and 70s, there's still hope. Betty White always seems to be working and Della Reese is a major presence on "Touched by an Angel," one of the most-watched shows on television. And finally, the most complex female role on TV -- Livia Soprano -- belongs to the 70-plus Nancy Marchand.

Now, that's something for the "Dawson's Creek" set to aspire to.
-- Kathleen Rizzo Young

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