25 August 2009


The television series thirtysomething (1987–91) is being released on DVD at last, with the complete first season arriving in U.S. stores today. For fans of the show, the wait has been exceedingly long, while dozens of lesser series glutted the market. The reason most often given for thirtysomething’s slow start out of the gate is music rights: the soundtrack is fundamental to the environment of this show, but rights were granted in pre-DVD years, and had to be renegotiated. I never quite bought that excuse, but I’m prepared to be mollified, now that the show is available again.

Initial reviews, in the New York Times and elsewhere, already are calling the show “dated,” because it centers on yuppies. This isn’t fair, as anyone can attest who remembers thirtysomething’s inception, because yuppicentrism has always been a critical charge leveled at the series; in truth, only a few of the principal characters (Michael, Ellyn, arguably Elliot) can be construed as true yuppies, and all of them were ambivalent about their status — Michael especially. For daring to suggest that yuppies might have inner lives, and connections to our lives, the show received its share of scorn. Jay Leno wasn’t entirely off-base, and very much in-line with popular opinion, when he said of the show’s navel-gazing approach to drama, “He’s saying, ‘What about my needs?’ and she’s saying, ‘What about my needs?’ And I’m saying, ‘What about my needs?’”

Look! They’re celebrating my 30th birthday!
(I took this show much too seriously.)

I was very much a fan of the show, which concluded its four-year run just a few weeks prior to my thirtieth birthday. thirtysomething seemed in many ways a blueprint for me and my twentysomething friends to follow, and we watched the series communally, in a group not unlike the tight-knit circle of friends depicted in the series itself. Some of us did live out variations on the characters’ lives; indeed, in the fall of 1991, I became what most people would call a yuppie, albeit every bit as conflicted as Michael Steadman, and I would be one for the remainder of the decade. Many are the times I have (like the show’s cast) regretted that there was no fortysomething, for just as the actors found that age even more challenging than their thirties, so have I.

But fandom doesn’t often age well. Certain entertainments I loved as a kid — The Sound of Music, Star Trek, The Waltons, many others — may retain some part of their power to move me, yet they can seem awfully corny now. I don’t regret having been caught up in them, yet I wonder how that was ever possible. Will I want to immerse myself in thirtysomething again, to bathe in its bathos once more, to lose myself in Hope and Michael’s house as I used to?

I suspect that the answer is yes, and one reason has little to do with nostalgia and a great deal to do with respect for craft. Watched again on YouTube, the shows aren’t quite as well-written as I’d remembered, their snappy dialogue too artificial to be natural and too mundane to be stylized. But the plots hold up, particularly after the first season, when the producers seemed to agree with market surveys that accused the characters of whininess. Beginning with the second season, the characters’ problems become all-too real.

Michael and Elliot lose their ad agency and must find work, winding up the squirming pawns in the hands of the demonic Miles Drentell; over the course of his years at D.A.A., we come to see that Michael and Drentell are locked in a struggle for his soul, and Michael must strive to regain it — or simply to be true to himself once more. Elliot leaves Nancy, then reconciles with her just in time for her to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Minor characters — and, in the final episodes, one principal character — die, and adult responsibilities have to be faced. And Michael’s cousin, the artsy Melissa, realizes that she’ll have to face those responsibilities alone.

Written out like that, the plots seem soap-operatic, and they may be: this was serial television, after all. But it was done artfully, and a couple of the actors delivered, week after week, performances that can take your breath away, if you watch them closely. I’m looking forward to reviewing the scene in which Polly Draper, as Ellyn, breaks up with her (married) boyfriend over the telephone. She’s just emerged from the shower, and wearing only a towel to which she clings nervously, she keeps her back to the camera for the entire, unbroken scene — using only her voice and her shoulder muscles to convey her emotional rawness. The moment is so powerful, you wonder whether you could bear to see her face; as it is, you can’t take your eyes off her.

In some cases, I’d like to go back, merely in order to hear the words again, particularly that phenomenal speech, late in the series, in which Miles Drentell (David Clennon) attempts to bring Michael back into the agency. Drentell describes advertising not merely in terms of seduction (as he himself is trying to seduce Michael), but also in terms of assimilation — a sore spot for Michael, a non-observant Jew with a shiksa-goddess wife — and the American Dream. Having laid out for Michael exactly what advertising is, and why he and Michael are good at it, Miles remarks, “I thought you knew that.”

Clennon: A really good Bad Guy

Well, Michael knew, but he didn’t want to admit it. Unlike some of us (namely me), he had the advantage of a boss who would tell him so unambiguously what it was he did for a living. Clennon’s performance is so surprising, so electric that the producers brought him back, still as Miles Drentell, in another series, Once and Again.

Not all the actors are of this caliber, notably series regulars Peter Horton as the carefree academic Gary, and Mel Harris as Hope. The cards are stacked against Harris somewhat, because she’s supposed to be an especially brainy graduate of Princeton: often you can see the actress has no idea what esoteric cultural references her character is making or how to pronounce them. (Couldn’t somebody have coached her? The other cast members never have this problem.) Harris is, however, gorgeous, and what’s fundamental about Hope and her relationship with Michael — that either would sacrifice everything for the other, though neither understands the other’s torments — shines through consistently.

Some of the supporting players are superior, including such veterans as Shirley Knight (as Hope’s mother), Phyllis Newman (as Melissa’s mother), the great Sylvia Sidney (as Melissa’s grandmother), Eddie Albert (as Elliot’s father), my beloved Jack Gilford (as a rabbi too good to be true), and Paul Dooley (as a business associate of Michael’s). And two recurring characters are noteworthy: David Marshall Grant (Russell) and Peter Frechette (Peter) shared the first same-sex bed scene in network television history, and each of them used to work out at my gym.

Grant’s Russell gets the most screen time, helping to define the plight of Melissa’s singledom (she’s a fag-hag), but his is more than a plot device, it’s a winning performance, one of the first gay characters on television in whom I could see myself and my friends. Nowadays, Grant writes and produces Brothers and Sisters, another series from Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz.

Tough mama: Patricia Wettig

Patricia Wettig’s characterization of Nancy earned her more critical acclaim and awards than the rest of the cast got; what’s striking about her work is that she never seems to give a damn whether we like her. That’s a rare quality in any actress, especially in television, but Wettig seemed to exult in Nancy’s rough edges; she remains abrasive even when Nancy’s undergoing chemotherapy. Frechette follows her example when he returns, late in the series: AIDS can’t make a soap-opera victim of him, and just as Nancy refuses the others’ pity, Peter refuses Michael’s anguished attempts to help him (and his righteous liberal guilt, too).

The two greatest performances come from the actors playing the characters with whom I did and do most closely identify: Michael (Ken Olin) and Melissa (Melanie Mayron). Both cousins are trying to wed their art to commerce: Michael’s a writer, Melissa a photographer. Both will be forced to make compromises, and Michael will rationalize his in terms of responsibility to his family. But only Melissa winds up alone. Her raucous sobs, following the death of that principal character — the moment she knows she’ll always be alone — are unlike anything I’ve ever heard in a television drama.

Both Olin and Mayron act with their eyes, a wise choice in a medium that thrives on close-ups, and both invest the gaze with pain and sadness. (Mayron’s crooked smile helps suggest that, even when she’s happy, she knows she’s missing out on something.) One season concluded with a shot of Michael, newly ensconced in his executive office at D.A.A., looking up and seeing the approach of his aptly named wife. Yet as she nears his desk, Olin’s eyes go completely dead. (You knew right then that Hope and Michael’s marriage was in trouble, as the next season would confirm.) That’s breathtaking control of an actor’s instrument, and it’s something I have seen another actor do — namely Laurence Olivier, in The Entertainer. Neither Olin nor Mayron has ever had another role of such depth and scope, before or after thirtysomething; both are now directors.

The eyes have it: Ken Olin

My friends and I used to watch and discuss each episode, analyzing the details with even greater gusto than the characters themselves could muster. (You may want to take into account that I’ve written all this without recourse to notes: the show is etched in my memory. Like it or not.) To understand it in historical context, as the Times tried to do in its review, one may need more objective distance than I possess: I’m not very good at putting another great soap opera, George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, in perspective, either. (On account of I’m so much like Will Ladislaw, and all.)

Yet just as Middlemarch invited me into a fully realized world, so did thirtysomething. Only a few television shows (and only a few more novels) have managed that feat. I know the floor plan of the Steadman house as surely as I know that of my grandparents’ home (which is as surely as I know the layout of the bridge of the starship Enterprise or the kitchen of 165 Eaton Place), and for a long time I’ve yearned to go back to Hope and Michael’s, much as if I were homesick.

The flip side is that I’ve resisted watching other, more recent television shows produced by Zwick and Herskovitz not only because serial television no longer suits my schedule or my temperament, but also because I don’t want to see them rent out my old bedroom to strangers. The house in My So-Called Life was nearly identical to the Steadmans’, and probably just down the street from it, and the shows’ viewpoints and approach were similar, too; likewise, Once and Again and Brothers and Sisters have appeared too close for my comfort, and I’ve stayed away altogether.

I don’t know what I’ll find when I come home to thirtysomething. I’m older now, not younger, than the characters, and I’ve lived out several of their experiences. My perspectives will have changed, while theirs have remained what they always were. I expect I’ll give the thirtysomething DVDs a try — maybe by Netflix, instead of by purchase.

And if I’m not satisfied with the show, I’ll whine about it. They taught me how, after all.


Elaine Fine said...

Oh Yes! This post brought back memories. Perhaps I might also (some day) give the DVDs a try, but I fear that it might be like going to a class reunion (I have never gone to a class reunion). It might have been the last prime-time major network program that I actually watched (and watched religiously) while it was being broadcast.

Girl From Texas said...

I think I enjoyed the comraderie of discussing each episode with friends after it aired almost as much as watching it. I can't think of a show that has aired since that has inspired so much discussion and analysis.

Traci B said...

What a thoughtful, well-written review of a much-beloved show. I concur with what you said. I adore the show - I see its occasional flaws and outdatedness, but overall, think it's the finest piece of "art" on t.v. I'm enjoying savoring the episodes on DVD and can't wait for the following seasons. Thanks for your insight!
A new "fan" of your blog,

carole (TruCarMa) said...

Such a fabulous post -- I couldn't have said it better! I'm enjoying watching the DVDs -- hope you are, too.

BTW, I found your blog while trying to do a search for a photo of the Steadmans' front door. I'm in the midst of remodeling, and for 20 years, I've longed for that door minus the giant decorative hinges. If you know of anywhere I can find such a photo, let me know!

Esther said...

I'm watching Season 1 on dvd right now and it's great! So much better than most of what's on tv now. And I can't believe what a hunk Ken Olin was in his younger days. ;-)

Nat said...

I watched thirtysomething in the 80s when I was fortysomething. Now, at sixtysomethng, I've watched the DVD of Season 1 and am now in the early weeks of Season 2. The series started out feeling dated but the more you watch the less the date matters. Sublime is a word that often comes to mind as I finish an episode. The Christmas episode in Season 2 when Michael comes back to his faith via fantasies of his family and friends in a fifties sit-com (with laugh track) . . . well, it's the highest form of soap. Do pick this series up again and give us your reactions twenty years on.
You won't be disappointed.

An extremely interesting blog by the way.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, Nat! That holiday episode is special to me, because the "Old Gentleman" is played by a friend, Jack Gilford, about whom I’ve written several times here. And since his widow declared me “an honorary Jew,” there’s one more reason I identify so closely with Michael Steadman: the Gilfords brought me back to his faith, too.

Nat said...

You're lucky in your friends. I am a big Sondheim fan. I recently had an opportunity to compare Nathan Lane's 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' with the Mostel original. The Mostel version is superior, especially in Gilford's version of Lovely. Gilford throws himself into being a woman with Jack Lemon-like gusto. It's funny every time one listens and it will always be there.