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.
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