For the majority of its four-year run, thirtysomething aired while George Bush was President. The show suited the era perfectly. To invoke one of the Chief Exec’s trademark phrases, it was a ”kinder, gentler” TV drama — no car chases or shoot-outs, just well-meaning yuppies grappling with everyday crises. Ten years later, as another George Bush occupies the White House, ”thirtysomething” is back on the air, and it feels as relevant as ever.
Bravo’s promos poke fun at the series’ dated fashion sense (”Remember when a little alligator on your shirt was cool?”), yet watching it again is no mere wallow in tacky ’80s nostalgia. Rather than the flashy excesses of ”Miami Vice” and ”L.A. Law,” ”thirtysomething” trafficked in a more tasteful, low-key brand of consumerism that can still be seen today in IKEAs and Starbucks across America.
In fact, although it was never a ratings smash, ”thirtysomething” rivals ”Seinfeld” as the most culturally influential TV series of the late 20th century. Yet while Jerry Seinfeld’s sitcom famously proclaimed itself to be a show about nothing, ”thirtysomething” proudly strove to be a show about…well, something.
Starting with its e.e. cummingsesque lowercase title (a word that immediately entered the national lexicon), ”thirtysomething” announced its literary pretensions. Cocreators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick’s quietly revolutionary conceit was to find high-minded drama in the kind of common domestic problems that were traditionally the stuff of soap operas and sitcoms — marital unrest, child-rearing issues, never-ending home repairs. The plotlines’ very ordinariness was what made the show so extraordinary.
That, and the fact that Michael and Hope Steadman (Ken Olin and Mel Harris) were surely the most attractive married couple ever to grace the small screen. To a generation of aspiring professionals, the Philadelphia adman and his Phi Beta Kappa-grad wife were a latter-day Ward and June Cleaver, an ideal whose upscale lifestyle was to be emulated at all costs. Even as Michael flagellated himself over selling out his dreams of being a serious writer, Olin managed to seem sensitive without coming across as a complete wimp. As the appropriately named Hope, Harris created a dream mate, eternally supportive despite her penchant for weeping with self-doubt about her choice to stay home and raise their baby daughter, Janey.
If the Steadmans were a model of stability, Elliot and Nancy Weston (Timothy Busfield and Patricia Wettig) were their flip side. In the pilot, Elliot confessed to business partner Michael that he’d had an affair, but rather than putting off the audience, Busfield made Elliot’s weaselliness oddly endearing. And TV has never seen a more noble victim than the soulful-eyed Wettig, who endured not just Elliot’s infidelities but also a bout with ovarian cancer.
The show’s other regulars were less vital to its success. Peter Horton’s horny professor Gary Shepherd came fully alive only after he was killed in a car accident during the final season and returned as a ghost. Michael’s kooky cousin, Melissa (Melanie Mayron), and Hope’s gravelly-voiced pal, Ellyn (Polly Draper), simply seemed redundant, filling the same terminally-single-female-pal role.
It must have been these two who inspired Bravo to hire ”Sex and the City” author Candace Bushnell to host the episodes. In any event, her commentary is utterly unnecessary. She mostly mouths limp one-liners like ”Loosen up, Michael!” (after a scene in which he tells the neighbor kids to turn down their music). The ultra-stiff Bushnell has no doubt been brought in to make ”thirtysomething” seem timely, but the show has no problem doing that on its own.
Maybe it’s because I’m ”thirtysomething” now, married with a second child on the way. But when I watch Michael Steadman fret about how he’s going to pay for his kid’s college education, I have no trouble relating to him, even if he is wearing a skinny tie and a pair of suspenders only Larry King could love. Forget ”Fear Factor” — to me, this is reality TV.