LAST WEEK'S "thirtysomething" demonstrated th capriciousness of life and death, even as it showed that artists have a control over their fictional characters that reality rarely allows.
In the episode of this ABC series that focuses on the relationships among a group of friends of the same age but different stages in life, Nancy Weston, the character played by Patricia Wettig, had "second look" surgery to check on the condition of the ovarian cancer that was discovered last season.
The news was good. The original surgery, a hysterectomy and months of chemotherapy had done their job. She appeared cancer free. But, as this group gathered in the hospital to celebrate, they learned that one of their number, Gary Shepard, played by Peter Horton, had been killed in an accident on his way to join them.
"When we decided to give Nancy cancer, we purposefully had it discovered in a very early stage," Ann Lewis Hamilton, who wrote last week's episode, said over the phone from Los Angeles.
"The doctors we talked to said that the recovery rate if it was discovered then was about 80 percent, but that if it was found later on, it could be very bad. By having it discovered early, we kept our options open. We could decide what would happen to the character and still be realistic."
Dr. J. Norman Woodruff of the Johns Hopkins Hospital obstetrical and gynecological department, said that the "thirtysomething" scenario certainly sounded plausible.
"Obviously the mortality rate from ovarian cancer is not 100 percent," he said. "You have about 20,000 new cases a year and about 12,000 deaths. So the survival rate is around 40 percent.
"Early detection is crucial. If you can get in there when the cancer is still completely encapsulated in the ovary, then the general prognosis is excellent."
Woodruff cautioned that there are no real symptoms or warning signs for ovarian cancer, so any sort of abnormality should be checked out. Nancy's cancer was discovered in tests after a routine gynecological exam.
Woodruff also noted that occasionally a "second-look" surgery is an unnecessary intrusion that can introduce medical problems of its own.
The early diagnosis left the way open to save Nancy without a medical miracle, but the "thirtysomething" producers still wanted deal with the issue of mortality, not just of a father, as they did in several episodes, or a business, another story line from a previous season, but of a contemporary.
"Marshall and Ed had always talked about the possibility of killing off a major character," Hamilton said. Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick are the show's creators and executive producers. "When we sat down last summer we discussed who we should kill and how to do it."
Life and death was in the hands of the artists. The decision was to cure Nancy and kill Gary, the show's never-quite-mature college professor who, though recently married and suddenly a father, was back to living the single life as his wife had moved to New York and taken the baby with her.
"We decided that was best in terms of story and so we took the idea to Peter Horton," Hamilton said. "He said, 'Sure, kill me.'"
The fact that Horton was chafing at the bit over Gary's limited role in "thirtysomething" and wanted to get along with his budding directing career certainly had something to do with his reaction, but Zwick said it didn't influence the decision.
"Absolutely not," he said over the phone from the show's Los Angeles offices. "It made it easier, but it's not the reason we did it. We could have written him out of the series in a lot of different ways if he wanted to leave."
Always the plan was to put the two disparate events -- Nancy's cure and Gary's death -- in the same show.
"In my experience and in Marshall's and in the lives of a lot of people around here, we find that the best and worst things often happen simultaneously," Zwick said of the juxtaposition.
"I think it reveals something about life, that there is no design, there is no form or pattern, there is just life."
It was a risky move for "thirtysomething," not necessarily in having a character die -- that seems completely in keeping with the series' eagerness to deal with difficult and complex emotions -- but in placing it in this good news-bad news scenario. There was a danger that the move would be seen as manipulative, almost a bait-and-switch tactic, that would cause the show to descend to the level of melodrama.
"People are always accusing us of having nothing happening in our shows," Zwick said jokingly. "So we decided to have everything happen in one episode."
"Death is always so melodramatic," Hamilton said of trying to write the script. "What I tried to do was keep the scenes very small and private. It was not like you saw Gary die on screen."
Instead, the audience learned when Michael Steadman, Gary's best friend, played by Ken Olin, who directed the episode, took a phone call on the pay phone at the hospital in the midst of the celebration over Nancy's news.
There was confusion over the circumstances as Gary was supposed to be riding his bike through the snow to the hospital but turned out to have been killed in a car accident on the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia where the show is set.
There were the never-a-good-time-for-this awkward scenes as one after another of the group was told of the death. There was the inevitable interaction with the well-meaning but appropriately uninvolved members of the health and government bureaucracy, including a shot in the hospital morgue, not the pristine stainless steel room you would see on most television shows, but a cluttered, under-repaired almost-forgotten corner that seemed to be used for storage.
"The responses were individuated," Zwick said.
"Next week will allow us to have some mourning," Hamilton said of the episode that will be on Channel 13 (WJZ) at 10 o'clock tonight, indicating that these friends will share their feelings about the fragility and unpredictability of life.
"What has happened will reverberate in the lives of each of these people," Zwick said of tonight's show. "But life will go one, informed by these events."
Though tonight's hour will focus mainly on the reaction among the group to Gary's death, the presence of Nancy's cancer will not disappear along with the cells removed by surgery or killed by chemotherapy.
"It's not something she's just going to be able to put behind her," Hamilton said. "It will be with her for the rest of her life. We'll be dealing with that in later episodes."