20 years ago, one show captured us in our 30s


LONG BEFORE THE SOPRANOS was heralded as a ground-breaking television drama about family, thirtysomething was heralded as a ground-breaking television drama about family.

That was 20 years ago.

In September 1987, ABC unveiled a provocative new series that echoed The Big Chill, a movie about the reunion of college friends a decade later, still trying to find their footing in the adult world.

Thirtysomething -- "Real life is an acquired taste" was the network promo -- was a new kind of television. Somewhere between soap opera and realism. Creators Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz talked about "small moments examined closely" in the lives of eight friends living in Philadelphia.

But it was greeted with almost universal disdain. Yuppies whining, mocked the critics.

Though the show would never make it to No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings, it developed a cult following that had critics backpedaling. In 1988, it won an Emmy for best drama and it would win others for the actors and writers. When it went off the air in May 1991, Newsweek eulogized it as art on the small screen, reflecting our lives back to us.

I was part of that thirtysomething cult -- a career girl who found herself suddenly married and with two toddlers, stuck somewhere between part-time work and full-time guilt and fatigue. I was a lot like Hope, the lead female character in the show.

My husband was a sensitive, post-feminist guy, but he was driven to succeed at work -- in part because of his new dependents. He was a lot like Michael, Hope's husband.

But, as Hope's friend Ellyn once said: cute and all, but how much fun can it be to watch him come home at night and worry?

Hope and Michael had a community -- a kind of family they had cobbled together from childhood friends, college buddies, relatives and co-workers. And they talked all the time.

The critics hated the angst-driven chatter, but I loved it because they were saying out loud what I was thinking, only they were saying it better. I am pretty sure plenty of fights and a few divorces started with an episode of thirtysomething she had seen after the kids were in bed, but he had missed because he was still at work.

As difficult as marriage seemed on thirtysomething, what with infidelities of Michael's ad agency partner, Elliot, and the stunted artistic talents of his stay-at-home wife, Nancy, single life didn't seem very appealing either.

Melissa, Michael's cousin, wanted what Hope had, but she couldn't pull a dinner party together, much less her life. Workaholic Ellyn, Hope's best friend since grade school, was carelessly mean, but hiding great insecurities.

And Gary, an English professor with a Peter Pan complex and Michael's best friend, was someone every female college graduate recognized: the professor who drew the line at sleeping with students during finals week.

When Gary lost tenure and became a househusband -- the woman he loved wouldn't marry him just because she got pregnant -- those issues were brand new, not boilerplate. When he was killed in a bike accident, we endured the shocking death of a peer -- our first.

We were all the same in one way -- the characters and the Tuesday night thirtysomething faithful. We were trying to adjust to the surprising arrival of adulthood and the pressures and burdens and compromises we never thought would be ours.

Thirtysomething was the first of the reality television shows, before reality meant camping on a deserted island or learning to dance the samba. It spawned a whole series of shows, such as My So-Called Life, 1 / 4life, Once and Again, 7th Heaven, Brothers and Sisters and even Six Feet Under. They portrayed family life as dark comedy. Which it is, if we are going to be honest.

Thirtysomething had a second life on cable channels and its four seasons are available on DVD. People magazine recently brought the four female leads back together -- Mel Harris (Hope), Patricia Wettig (Nancy), Melanie Mayron (Melissa) and Polly Draper (Ellyn) -- to reminisce. They are all in their 50s now, and the conversation revolved around the age, weight, self-image, the challenge of raising teens and the complexities of marriage.

Just as their show captured the angst of my thirtysomething friends and me -- the challenge of combining work and children, the domestication of the post-feminist male, the limits and consequences of sexual freedom -- the People interview captured the preoccupations of fiftysomethings.

We are no less self-involved, I guess.


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