Judge Brendan Babish was tensomething when he last saw this one.
In 1987 we were introduced to a group of couples, of friends…of "thirtysomethings."
In 1987, ABC aired a new television show that so spoke to its demographic that its title became shorthand for said demographic: thirtysomething. For these erstwhile hippies and disco dancers, their thirties were the time in which priorities shifting from hanging out and having fun, to careers, children, and, for those who didn't manage to get hitched in their twenties, the slow-festering dread of growing old alone and childless.
Twenty-one episodes on six discs make up thirtysomething: the complete first season:
Facts of the Case
Seven characters form three different case studies of life as a thirtysomething. There is the high-functioning couple, Michael and Hope Steadman (Ken Olin and Mel Harris, respectively), who are pushed to the limits by a new baby, new mortgage, and career pressures. There's the dysfunctional couple, Elliot and Nancy Weston (Timothy Busfield and Patricia Wettig), whose relationship sags under the burden of two kids and the requisite mortgage and careers. Then there are the single people: Ellyn Warren (Polly Draper), a careerist and Hope's best friend; Gary Shepherd (Peter Horton), an aging ladies' man and Michael's best friend; and Melissa Steadman (Melanie Mayron), a anxiety ridden bohemian and Michael's cousin. All three share to varying degrees the dual pressures of trying to find a life partner and establish a career.
It's not just the subject matter that makes thirtysomething compelling viewing. In fact, the subject matter is, if anything, a liability. A couple discussing financial worries is hardly considered great drama. On a similar note, the difficulty of finding a meaningful relationship is hardly a novel idea for television drama. However, as its dedicated fan base evinces, there is something special about thirtysomething.
To start, the writing is first-rate. Creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick (who would later become executive producers on My So-Called Life) both have long careers marked by high-quality projects, and thirtysomething is one of their crowning achievements. It's not just the portrait of a particular aspect or situation common to young adults; thirtysomething is a tapestry that almost entirely encapsulates this life stage, at least for middle-income Americans.
Michael and Hope are the anchoring characters of the series, and they are probably the most relatable as well. Michael seems to be constantly seething about some combination of his crumbling house, his fickle career as an ad man, and his family's finances. Hope, who left her job to take care of their newborn daughter, shares Michael's fears, but has far better coping skills, though not when it comes to anxiety over her child. The couple do fight, but are usually able to talk things through before any permanent damage is afflicted.
Though Elliot and Nancy share less screen time, they make for more dramatic viewing. They're both decent people, but with two young kids and a passionless marriage, their demons come out on a regular basis. What makes their interactions so compelling isn't just each individual's volatility, but how both seem to be valid in their frustrations—which only highlights the difficulties of maintaining a healthy romantic relationship with the omnipresent pressures of modern life. The scenes of Elliot and Nancy going at each other in their therapist's office are riveting, heartbreaking, and as good as anything you've ever seen on television.
The single characters are mostly moons that orbit these couples' planets, but they provide valuable support. Melissa is the most compelling, partly due to Mayron's performance (along with Busfield, probably the best in a universally strong cast) and partly due to her open wound of a character. Melissa is a glutton for romantic and professional punishment, and her pain and perseverance make for inspirational viewing. Like many career chasers, men and women, Ellyn is sometimes inscrutable as she forsakes human relationships for an ill-defined and perhaps illusory goal. The skirt-chaser Gary is the shallowest character, but still effective for brief moments of comic relief.
In total, these seven characters create one of the most unflinching portraits of young adult, middle class life ever depicted. This portrait includes heavy doses of joy and sorrow, as well as omnipresent anxiety, but just as My So-Called Life was embraced by teenagers for its non-flinching portrayal of high school, newly minted thirtysomethings will find much here to cherish.
That said, there are a few missteps. The most pervasive is the show's dramatization of dream sequences. Sometimes these are funny and offer insight in a character's subconscious, but often they are over-the-top and wacky—such as when Michael images all of his friends as infants in a crib. Though thirtysomething often effectively uses humor to balance out the heavy drama, when it's too broad it just undermines the material.
Also, sometimes the character behave inexplicably, which are the kind of fissures that show when you have to produce twenty-one hours of drama in a year. Still, when a contractor makes an overt sexual advance on Hope, her amused and flattered response seems both odd and an affront to her husband. Later in the season, almost an entire episode is devoted to Michael having a meltdown at work because a client prefers working with his partner. While twinges of jealousy and self-doubt are understandable, Michael's screaming fits and violent reactions just make him seem like a petty douche bag.
Still, these missteps are all the more noticeable because thirtysomething gets so much right.
The DVD set put together by Shout! Factory is pretty much manna to fans of the show. The studio deserves high marks for retaining the original music for the series, which could not have been an easy task. The studio deserves even higher marks for the bountiful extras, especially considering that this is a show that originally aired over twenty years ago. Most substantive for fans will be the conversation between co-creators Herskovitz and Zwick, as well as the nine different commentary tracks on selected episodes, which include the creators, writers, directors, and all of the featured cast, with the exception of Polly Draper and Peter Horton.
The one drawback to the presentation is the surprisingly substandard picture quality. I know my expectations shouldn't have been too high for a show two decades old, but considering the care that went into producing this set, the oversaturated night scenes and often grainy picture (think VHS tape quality) seem an unfortunate oversight.
Though I was still in elementary school when thirtysomething premiered, I still have vague memories of my parents watching it. Not surprisingly, the show had very little to interest my eight-year-old self. Now, as a thirtysomething myself, with the accompanying young child and mortgage, I've come full circle. Watching the first season, I found myself often nodding my head in recognition at a depiction that at times seems almost preternaturally accurate of the stress and joys of becoming a full-fledged adult.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• Episode Commentary
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