Why we're still watching and arguing about ''thirtysomething''
Here’s what you can say the next time someone tells you he or she ”hates” thirtysomething: People who hate thirtysomething are already acknowledging that the show works on them in ways ordinary television does not. No one ”hates,” say, His & Hers, Just the Ten of Us, or Jake and the Fatman; these are simply bad shows, programming that, like so much TV, provokes only indifference, numbness: the opposite of any feeling.
But, love it or disdain it, thirtysomething forces your engagement, and never more so than now, as the series closes its third season. Watching it, you are compelled to agree or disagree with what the characters do and say and stand for.
In this sense, thirtysomething is a manifesto, a series with a whole set of assertions and positions that must be considered by the viewer. Among the show’s propositions are: · Not all yuppies are scum.
· Some yuppies are.
· Everything — morality, sex, cancer, death — is relative. Your attitude toward your relatives is especially relative.
· Having children can enhance your life, as long as they don’t interrupt dinner parties with your friends or take up too much screen time.
· Housing prices in Philadelphia are disgustingly affordable.
Better written, better acted, and more artfully shot than almost anything else on TV this side of Twin Peaks (and we’d all do well to stay this side of Twin Peaks, my friends), thirtysomething holds up to both morning-after water-cooler analysis at the office and structuralist essays such as the corker in the current issue of Camera Obscura: A Journal of Feminism and Film Theory. (Did you know Hope and Michael’s marriage ”reassures us again and again that the traditional division of labor in the traditional nuclear family can work”? I always knew it could, didn’t you?)
Oh yes, there’s also this, something else that makes thirtysomething important: It achieves its effects without irony. This is highly unusual for a good television show these days. Wiseguy, for example, is an ironic take on film noir; The Wonder Years looks at childhood through the ironic eyes of a grown-up; David Letterman’s Late Night is the talk show as irony; Pee-wee’s Playhouse is so steeped in irony — in being a kid’s show that’s really not about kids — that it can barely see straight.
But when something happens on thirtysomething, that’s, um, well, just what happens — the actions on the show don’t ”mean something else” or operate as symbols or metaphors. That’s why the show is so vulnerable, so easy to make fun of — it doesn’t have that protective coating of irony, of emotional coolness and distance, that even the best contemporary art, from Twin Peaks to Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland to the photographs of Cindy Sherman, seems to have.
You know what it boils down to? thirtysomething, widely misperceived as trying to be hip, is actually that most un-hip and therefore thrilling of things: It’s sincere.
What follows are thirtysomething character sketches that will, we hope, not only entertain you but also make a case for thirtysomething as first-rate popular art, for thirtysomething as a way of life you don’t have to apologize for. We sure don’t.