THIRTYSOMETHING

U.S. Drama

Winner of an Emmy for best dramatic series in 1988, thirtysomething (ABC, 1987-1991) represented a new kind of hour-long drama, a series which focused on the domestic and professional lives of a group of young urban professionals-- a socio-economic category of increasing interest to the television industry. The series attracted a cult audience of viewers who strongly identified with one or more of its eight central characters, a circle of friends living in Philadelphia. And its stylistic and story-line innovations led critics to respect it for being "as close to the level of an art form as weekly television ever gets," as the New York Times put it. When the series was canceled due to poor ratings, a Newsweek eulogy reflected the baby boomers' sense of losing a rendezvous with their mirrored lifestyle: "the value of the Tuesday night meetings was that art, even on the small screen, reflected our lives back at us to be considered as new." Hostile critics, on the other hand, were relieved that the self-indulgent whines of yuppiedom had finally been banished from the schedules.

The show thirtysomething spearheaded ABC's drive to reach a demographically younger and culturally more capital-rich audience. Cover stories in Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly explored the parallels between the actors' and characters' lives, as well as the rapport generated with the audience, who were seen as sharing their inner conflicts. Michael Steadman, an advertising copywriter struggling with the claims of his liberal Jewish background, and his wife Hope, a part-time social worker and full-time mother are the "settled" couple. The Steadmans were offset against Elliot, a not-really-grown-up graphic artist who was Michael's best friend at Penn, and his long-suffering wife Nancy, an illustrator who separated from him and developed breast cancer in subsequent seasons. Three unmarried friends also date back from college days: Ellyn is a career executive in city government; Gary teaches English at a liberal arts college; and Mellisa, a freelance photographer, is Michael's cousin. While the two couples wrestle with their marriages and raising their children, the three others have a series of love affairs with outsiders to the circle. For Gary, after a quasi-incestuous relation with Melissa, fate holds a child out of wedlock with temperamental feminist Susanna, the college's denial of tenure, his life as a househusband, and finally--in one of the most publicized episodes--sudden death in a cycling accident.

The title, referring to the age of the characters, was written as one word (togetherness) and in lower case (ee cummings and the refusal of authority). "Real life is an acquired taste" was the network promo for the series, as its makers explored the boundaries between soap operatics and verisimilitude, between melodrama and realism. Co-creators Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (who had met at the American Film Institute) claimed a "mandate of small moments examined closely", dealing with "worlds of incremental change", loosely modeled on their own lives and those of their friends. Central to their sense of this fictional world was a high degree of self-consciousness and media awareness. "Very Big Chill", as one character put it, referring to Lawrence Kasdan's 1983 film. The movie was often seen as a progenitor of the series, defining a generation through their nostalgia for their fancy-free days before adulthood. The Big Chill focus on a "reunion of friends" in turn refers to the small budget Return of the Secaucus Seven made by John Sayles in 1980. And yet another cinematic touchstone for the ciné-literate makers was It's a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946), the perennial favorite of American movie-goers, to which homage was paid in the production company ("Bedford Falls") logo. Capra's political liberalism emerged in the series in the distaste for patriarchal and capitalist power (embodied in Miles, the ruthless CEO of the advertising company), while the film aesthetic carried over into the cinematography, intertextual references and ambitious story-lines, which occasionally incorporated flashback, daydream and fantasy sequences. This complex mixture of cinematic and cultural antecedents can be summed by suggesting that in many ways thirtysomething's four seasons brought the sophistication of Woody Allen's films to the small screen.

Although in the vanguard for centering on "new" (post-feminist) men, for privileging "female truth," and dealing with touchy issues within sexual relations, with disease and death, the series never really challenged gender roles. While the problem of the domestication of men, of defining them within a familial role without lessening their desirability and their sense of self-fulfillment was one of its key preoccupations, in the end the traditional sexual division of labor was ratified. Although it was the first series to show a homosexual couple in bed together, it posed very gingerly any alternative to the heterosexual couple. Nevertheless, the prominence of a therapeutic discourse, the negotiation of identity in our postmodern era, won it an accolade from professional psychologists.

The series was occasionally criticized, too, for its social and political insularity, for not dealing with problems outside the affluent lifestyle and 1960s values of its characters. Zwick and Herskovitz described it as "a show about creating your own family. All these people live apart from where they grew up, and so they're trying to fashion a new sense of home--one made up of friends, where holidays, job triumphs, illnesses, and gossip all take on a kind of bittersweet significance."

The series' influence was evident long after it moved to syndication on the Lifetime cable network and its creators moved on to feature film careers. That influence was evident in everything from the look and sound of certain TV advertisements, to other series with feminine sensibilities and preoccupations with the transition from childhood to maturity (Sisters), to situation comedies about groups of friends who talk all the time (Seinfeld). My So-Called Life (ABC, 1994), a later and less successful series produced by many of the same personnel, even extended the subjectivity principle to a teenage girl caught between her family and school friends. That series was perhaps an indication of a new shift in the targeting of "generational audiences," the new focus now on "twentysomethings", as television searched for a way to reach the offspring of the baby boomers.

-Susan Emmanuel

 


thirtysomething

CAST

Michael Steadman ...........................................Ken Olin
Hope Murdoch Steadman
...............................Mel Harris
Janey Steadman
.......................Brittany & Lacey Craven
Elliot Weston
.......................................Timothy Busfield
Nancy Weston
........................................Patricia Wettig
Ethan Weston............................................. Luke Rossi
Brittany Weston
..........................Jordana "Bink" Shapiro
Melissa Steadman
................................. Melanie Mayron
Ellyn..........................................................
Polly Draper
Prof. Gary Shepherd
...................................Peter Horton
Miles Drentell
(1989-1991)........................ David Clennon
Susannah Hart
(1989-1991)................. Patricia Kalember
Billy Sidel
(1990-1991)............................ Erich Anderson

PRODUCERS Edward Zwick, Marshall Herkovitz, Scott Winant

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 85 Episodes

ABC
September 1987-September 1988     Tuesday 10:00-11:00 December 1988-May 1991                Tuesday l0:00-11:00
July 1991- September 1991              Tuesday 10:00-11:00

FURTHER READING

Heide, Margaret J. "Mothering Ambivalence: The Treatment of Women's Gender Role Conflicts Over Work and Family on thirtysomething." Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal (Claremont, California), 1992.

Joyrich, Lynne. "All That Heaven Allows: TV Melodrama, Postmodernism And Consumer Culture." Camera Obscura (Berkeley, California), January 1988.

"thirtysomething: A Chronicle of Everyday Life." New York Times, 24 February 1988.

Torres, Sasha. "Melodrama, Masculinity and the Family: thirtysomething as Therapy." In, Penley, Constance, and Sharon Willis, editors. Male Trouble. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

 

See also Family on Television; Gender and Television; Melodrama