Twentysomething Years Later . . .

After getting back into town last night, The Mrs. and I finished watching the first season of thirtysomething on DVD. Back in the day, it was the first TV show we’d ever seen that was about people like us—more attractive, wealthier, and with more extensive educations, yes, but otherwise close enough to be contemporaries—who were facing issues that were becoming familiar to us.

When thirtysomething debuted in 1987, we were in our late 20s, so the characters on the show would have been like older siblings. Watching the show again nearly 23 years later, we’re the older siblings of Hope and Michael and Nancy and Elliott and Ellyn and Gary and Melissa. We’ve grown familiar with some of their issues, and we’ve gained more experience with life than they had at the time. And so the dialogue between the modern-day version of us and the late-80s version, and between how the characters lived then and how they might face the same issues today, is mighty interesting. We’re forever stopping the DVDs and talking about what we’re seeing.

The show’s creators, Marshall Herskowitz and Ed Zwick, didn’t really want to make thirtysomething in the first place, preferring to make movies, and they set out to tank the commitment they had made to the studio to pitch an idea. They were sure that that their idea for the pilot would be rejected, and once the pilot was made, they were sure it wouldn’t be picked up, because it had tested so poorly with audiences. But one top ABC executive believed in it, and stuck with it even after the initially negative reaction it received from critics. And as the first season unfolded, the show’s quality became apparent. At the end of its first season, thirtysomething won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, chosen over L.A. Law, St. Elsewhere, and Beauty and the Beast. (It would be nominated without winning for each of its three succeeding seasons.)

In the first season, the show manages to hit nearly every issue that might eventually be of concern to people in their 30s: career choices, career conflict, aging parents, divorce, child care, sex, dating, the biological clock, money—all of which reflected the ongoing, real-life concerns of the show’s producers, writers, and eventually, the actors themselves. There’s not a single clunker among the episodes—every one of them is extremely well-written, superbly acted, and beautifully shot. The producers, writers, and actors had clearly figured out who each character was before filming began, because there’s no sense that anyone’s flailing around trying to “find” their character.

Each episode runs about 48 minutes, which is several minutes longer than present-day hourlong shows, but the episodes seem even longer. Because they viewed themselves as filmmakers and not TV producers, Herskowitz and Zwick paced the show in a leisurely fashion, with long takes, cinematic shots, and occasionally, long silences. (There’s little incidental music in the show; so little that it really sticks out when it occurs.) In general, thirtysomething is a quieter show than we’re used to seeing now. It was a quiet show by late-80s standards, too—according to Herskowitz and Zwick, deliberately so.

In its time, thirtysomething was maligned for being the avatar of baby-boomer narcissism. Twentysomething years later, its introspection doesn’t look so self-indulgent. Today, thirtysomething plays like an indie film, a closely observed study of people and relationships that tries to find big truths in small things. (This, too, was one of the goals of the show in its time.) It doesn’t always succeed in finding those truths, but in our daily lives, neither do we. It doesn’t mean we never will—only that we need to keep looking.

(If you’d like to comment on this post, be advised that there are spoilers for succeeding seasons of the show lurking there. Click at your own risk.)

4 thoughts on “Twentysomething Years Later . . .

  1. Chuck Small

    I’ve been watching the show with the same sort of fascination, having been in my 20s when it was on TV and later 40s now watching it. It only gets stronger with each succeeding season. One thing I thought the show was brave in doing was taking their principal couple — Michael and Hope — and gradually peeling away at their marriage until by the end, viewers were less optimistic about their future than about Elliott and Nancy, the couple that seemed at the beginning to be on the rocks. I think it was an honest reflection of the fact that no one’s relationship can be judged accurately from people on the outside of it. (For that matter, maybe Michael and Hope would have made it after all.)


    My wife has never forgiven me for not liking this show. It wasn’t that I hated it, it’s just that there were plenty of times I found it grating. These folks were never allowed to have a single happy moment in their lives. In the same episode, after Nancy finds out she has won her battle with cancer, and everyone is ecstatic, Gary immediately dies in a car crash. Not one of them had a good relationship with their parents and every problem these people had was supposedly caused by their elders. I also remember how much these characters felt sorry for themselves and that it was often their self-centeredness that created their suffering. I know life has it’s up and downs but thirtysometing was ridiculous. Yet at the same time I appreciated it for its excellent writing and its groundbreaking nature. However, do I want to see it again? Not really!

  3. jb

    @Charlie: I agree that the juxtaposition of Nancy’s remission right on top of Gary’s death was jarring. Life happens like that sometimes, although television generally does not. (One of the things I learned from the DVD extras is that Peter Horton, who played Gary, was promised that he would be killed off in the fourth season so he could return to directing, which was his preferred career.)

    And I share your exasperation with the way TV shows and movies–not just “thirtysomething” but literally dozens of others–assume that parent/child relationships are always dysfunctional and it’s never the child who’s at fault. One of the many things I like about “Seinfeld” is that Jerry has a fairly normal relationship with his parents. They’re nutty and do things he doesn’t understand, but there’s never a sense that he blames them for anything or doesn’t love them unconditionally.

  4. Steve Elders

    This series started not long before I met my future wife, and once we were together, we watched every episode together through its four-year run. By the show’s end, I was less optimistic than Chuck appears to be in his earlier comment — I don’t think Michael and Hope stayed together. At least that’s my memory from 19 years later. I’ve been getting the DVDs for each season as they come out (and the fourth and final season is due Sept. 7), and I expect my wife and I will watch it all the way through again to see how our perspectives have changed more than two decades later. I must also mention that my favorite character ended up being someone who didn’t enter until the second or maybe third season: Miles Drentell, the mysterious boss of DAA, Michael and Elliot’s rival company that they eventually go to work for. David Clennon was fabulous in the role — cerebral, irritating, intellectual, fun. He played Miles to perfection.

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