Back when ABC was airing new episodes each Tuesday night at 10 p.m., I was firmly convinced that thirtysomething was the best show on television. I watched every week and came to identify so closely with the show’s protagonist—a Philadelphia advertising executive burdened by the pressures of work, marriage, and parenting an infant—that I began wearing suspenders in an effort to imitate the character’s signature look. This homage might have seemed a touch less odd had I not been a high-school freshman at the time.
When it came to my attention that the first season of thirtysomething is at last getting its release on DVD this week, I jumped at the chance to rewatch all 21 episodes. I couldn’t for the life of me remember why the show had so captivated my teenage mind. And I wondered: Would I find it even more compelling now that I’d actually reached my 30s?
In the fall of 1987, when thirtysomething made its debut, I was very clearly not in the target demographic. The intended audience was the vast baby boomer cohort, which was by then sliding into middle age with great ambivalence. The show followed the ups and downs of ur-yuppie couple Michael and Hope Steadman, attempting a nano-level dissection of the domestic lives of hypereducated white urbanites. The initial three episodes of the series: 1) Hope tries to find a nanny she trusts to look after her 7-month-old daughter. 2) Hope bristles at her parents when they make a weekend visit to see their grandchild. (The B-story in this one is literally that one character gets disappointed when another character cancels their game of squash.) 3) Michael pulls the plug on a home improvement project when it turns out that redoing the breakfast room will be more expensive than he’d planned.
Any one of these plots, played for broad laughs, might easily serve as the spine of a half-hour sitcom. But thirtysomething was an hourlong drama, and as such it treated story lines like these with the utmost gravity. That breakfast room renovation, for instance, gets explored from every conceivable emotional angle. Michael worries that he’s becoming too materialistic, Hope’s postpartum libido gets a jolt when the hunky contractor makes a pass at her, and so on.
The show’s creators, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, claim they set out to limn the epic, Joycean drama of everyday American life. Which is a fairly nutty idea for a television show. Other critical darlings of the 1980s ( Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, St. Elsewhere) relied on kinetic workplace dynamics to goose the action. More recent favorites ( The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men) boast cinematic techniques and grittier execution but in fact flow out of the same basic playbook as their forebears. As for the current slate of one-hour dramas on broadcast networks: It’s a smorgasbord of absurdity. Looking at thirtysomething now, it’s difficult to believe the show aired on ABC in weekday prime time. There’s no procedural story drive or supernatural concept. The characters aren’t teamed together at a hospital or in a crime scene unit. They’re not trapped inside a cruel sci-fi riddle. It’s just a tight-knit circle of friends who hang out and talk—earnestly, openly, in-depth—about their personal problems.
None of this sounds like a 14-year-old boy’s cup of tepid herbal tea. Yet the show’s writing and direction were so superb, I guess I never stopped to realize I couldn’t relate to the subject matter. The scripts took an aggressively literary approach, which must have appealed to the budding English major within me. Each episode is like a New Yorker short story, with overarching, interlacing, metaphor-laden themes. We snicker appreciatively at highbrow references to Beowulf, Sir Gawain, and Will and Ariel Durant. There was even a Rashomon-esque episode in which a simple night out at a restaurant is portrayed four separate times from different characters’ vantage points.
In one of the DVD special features—labeled “Cultural Impact”—it’s asserted that thirtysomething forever changed the aesthetics of American advertising. Most of the show’s scenes took place in kitchens and living rooms, and the directors were desperate to make these moments look more genuine than previous portrayals of home life. On the commentary tracks, thirtysomething’s actors recall the immense amounts of “business”—actor parlance for “messing around with props”—that were incorporated into scenes. The characters are forever eating cereal, washing dishes, and wrangling children as they hash out their neuroses. The show’s naturalistic staging came to be imitated by commercials all over TV—the kind in which a family buzzes around while mom cleans the countertops or cooks up a frozen dinner.
As thirtysomething’s first season stretched on, the show occasionally tackled slightly meatier topics. The female characters commiserate over work-life balance, biological clocks, and the bleak middle-age dating scene. Michael’s elderly father succumbs to illness. Elliot, Michael’s business partner and close friend, separates from his wife.
The scripts for these episodes are chock-full of emotional resonance. But it’s a very fine line between angsty introspection and indulgent moaning. Particularly when your characters are good-looking Ivy League graduates with perfect health and rewarding careers. The penultimate episode of the season seems almost designed to push the boundaries of our sympathy, detailing one character’s struggle to win tenure in his university teaching job and another’s tortured dilemma over whether to buy her apartment now that her building is going co-op. A typical episode of thirtysomething resolves when—after fretting for 45 minutes over the petty obstacles standing in the way of his happiness—a character realizes that his life is, in fact, totally awesome. “What makes it so impossible,” Hope at one point asks Michael, “for you to enjoy the things you have?” Excellent question. But without the whining, there would have been no show.
There’s still much to enjoy, watching thirtysomething now. Timothy Busfield and Patricia Wettig * give top-notch performances as a couple whose marriage is fraying. The late-’80s fashions are exquisite. (Whatever happened to square-bottom ties and high-waisted, quadruple-pleated trousers?) I also continue to harbor schoolboy crushes on Mel Harris, who played Hope, and on Melanie Mayron, who played Michael’s single, unlucky-in-love cousin.
But as I watched hour after hour of the show on DVD, I came to enjoy it less and less. The quality never dips, but the cumulative ordinariness of the show’s world gradually becomes unbearable. There’s always a crying baby in the background. Always some work project hanging over Michael’s head. It turns out I don’t want to flip on my TV on a Tuesday night to watch an excruciating exegesis of quotidian stresses. I prefer to watch the kind of story that takes me far, far away, into an unfamiliar universe—of mobsters, or Baltimore police officers, or, yes, even people stranded on a spooky island.
You know who loves to wallow in endless introspection and dwell on the teensy stumbling blocks of life? Adolescents. Which is, I now realize, why I adored the show when I watched it as a teenager. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that Zwick and Herskovitz followed up thirtysomething with My So-Called Life. Here was another TV show about self-indulgent whiners, this time set in their natural habitat: high school.
Correction, Aug. 28, 2009: The article originally misspelled the actor Patricia Wettig’s name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)