Studio: Shout Factory
Cast: Ken Olin, Mel Harris, Timothy Busfield, Patricia Wettig, Polly Draper, Peter Horton, Melanie Mayron
Release Date: August 25, 2009
Rating: Not Rated for (stuff you could do on TV in the '80s)
Run Time: Approx. 1,100 min.
Genre(s): television, drama, comedy
"I think that our parents got together in 1946 and said, 'let's all have lots of kids and give them everything that they want so they can grow up and be totally messed up and unable to cope with real life.'" - Hope (Mel Harris)
Here's a fun game: Try to watch the debut season of thirtysomething all the way through without saying any of the following:
A) Nice hair clip, Nancy.
B) Why does her coat have numbers all over it?
C) Shut up, Hope.
Movie Grade: A-
DVD Grade: A
I was not even tensomething when thirtysomething debuted in 1987, so the show's zeitgeist qualitiesóthe fashion, the vernacularówere totally lost on me (though my parents were only a little older than the characters, they didn't watch it either, probably because I was making them play my He-Man tape). Series creators Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz didn't set out to define a generation or anything; they just wanted to make a different kind of TV show. Not a cop show or a lawyer show, but a show about people like them, people in their mid-30s, struggling to come to grips with the fact that they're at an age when the rest of the world looks to them as responsible adults, even if they still feel they same way they did in their 20s, after graduating from college, hell, after graduating high school.
No, I was late to the party for thirtysomething, but I was right in the sweet spot for Zwick and Herskovitch's follow-up, My So-Called Life, which started (and ended) around the time I entered high school. That short-lived, much-loved show perfectly captured what it felt like to be a teenager, and now, close to two decades later, as I am periously close to my own thirtysomethings, it's a pleasure to look back and find another show that manages, in many ways, to perfectly capture the way I feel about my life.
Its characters are remarkable in their ordinariness. Michael (Ken Olin) and Hope (Mel Harris) are married with an infant daughter. While she stays at home all day, he goes to work as an ad man at the struggling agency he started with his best friend Elliot (Timothy Busfield), who has kids of his own, and a rocky relationship with his wife Nancy (Patricia Wettig), also a stay-at-home mom. Orbiting around these couples are their single friends: Michael's cousin Melissa (Melanie Mayron), always unlucky in love; Hope's oldest friend Ellyn (Polly Draper), who chose her career over love and a family; and college professor and professional lothario Gary (Peter Horton).
At a time when TV drama meant genre shows and nighttime soaps, here was a show that managed to be about nothing more than the small battles and victories of everyday life. Hope and Michael struggle to balance their marriage and their role as new parents. Elliot and Nancy begin to realize they no longer look upon each other with love. Elliot and Michael fight to maintain their personal integrity as businessmen even as they regret giving up on their youthful idealism. There aren't really plots per se; each episode is more a meditation on a theme: what does it mean to be a man in the modern world? Is a mother's responsibility to her child first, or can she put her own life plans first?
When the show first debuted, a certain segment of critics (uh, the old ones) blasted it for plotless solipsismóepisodes that hinge on a hunt for a babysitter or a character's self-doubt about his career choices. The endless debates about their soul-killing jobs, their children, their self-worth don't bother me all that much, perhaps because the self-centered self-analysis of Baby Boomers seems positively quaint next to the narcissism of the internet generation. (My fellow late-twentysomethings would protest, but they're too busy updating their Facebook statuses and tweeting about their blogs.) (Hey, follow me on Twitter!) Or maybe it's because I'm right in the target demo, though I'm not yet 30 and I don't have kids. After all, the mid-life crisis has officially moved up another ten yearsóI recall experiencing deep existential angst on the day I turned 25 (I posted a blog about it).
More than 20 years after the pilot aired, the world looks a little different, but the challenge of coming to grips with growing older is as relevant as ever, even if some of the issues seem a little clichÈ by now (Hope's desire to return to work after giving birth in particular). Sure, there are a lot worse problems in the world (and in this economy) than some of the things these people fret about—making too much money at jobs they don't find fulfilling—but that doesn't mean the show is any less genuine. Yeah, I should probably hate all of them, except I probably sound a lot like them when I whine about my job, my relationships, my life (you'd have to ask debi, dOc's editor, since she has to listen to a lot of it).
Credit excellent acting and strong writing for making these people tolerable, even endearing. Played or written badly, pretty much everyone on the show would be insufferably shrill, sort of like the Seinfeld gang minus all the funny parts. But here, there's a genuiness to them all, so even when they do things you don't like (Nancy's constantly putting herself down, Elliot runs out on his family for selfish reasons, Hope is... Hope, don't call her "Mope"), they remain real people, not just stock characters that move the plot along.
It can't all be good, of course. I don't mind the consistently serious toneóthere's generally just enough humor to lighten things upóbut when really bad things do happen, there's a bit of a "very special episode" feel, especially during a late arc that examines dealing with the death of a parent. On the other end of the spectrum are the frequent forays into fantasy and dream sequences (a gimmick Ally McBeal used and abused years later). Used sparingly, the film spoofs and flashbacks are fun, but it's a fine line; I really could have done without the episode set largely in a fantasy world Nancy creates in a story she tells her young son. It gets to the point where you'll start to cringe as soon as literary professor Gary picks up his copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Still, it's remarkably consistent. Nothing dates faster than television, and even a few short years later, programs that once seemed innovative look poorly produced and ploddingly paced. In a time when your average episode of Lost has better production values than most movies, the typical 1980s show is, well, uglyópoorly lit, shot on the cheap. But Herskovitz and Zwick wanted thirtysomething to look like nothing else on TV, and the visuals hold up surprisingly well, despite the clothes (oh god the clothes). Cinematic lighting, lengthy master takes, careful editing; if it moves a little slower than what we're used to today, it's probably because they had the timeónow we watch an extra seven minutes of commercials per hour.
The DVD: Ah, Shout Factory, the savior of orphaned TV shows everywhere. For once, they're putting out a quality show that somehow managed to last more than a season, but it has been given all the care and attention the company typically lavishes on some late, lamented before-its-time cancellation (sniff).
Generally the presentation is nice, mostly because the show looked great for its time. Video transfers are generally good, but a bit inconsistent: sometimes looking fairly crisp, sometimes a bit grainy, and, for one episode at least, like it was transferred from an old VHS previously filled with Circus of the Stars and episodes of Alf. Audio is occasionally a problem too; I found myself frequently reaching for the remote to deal with inconsistent levels from episode to episode.
No less than nine episodes include commentary tracks, with participants as varied as Herskovitz and Zwick, Ken Olin, Timothy Busfield, Patricia Wettig, Mel Harris and various writers and directors. The co-creators talk over the pilot is the best; the actors' tracks have a tendency to get a little laudatory for my taste, though writer Joseph Dougherty's critical look back at his episode Undone is full of interesting trivia about the show's production process.
Video supplements are plentiful, but I admit I didn't watch half of them, mostly because they start with warnings that they spoil later seasons (I guess Shout Factory isn't used to having a second season to put out later). What I did watch is pretty great, particularly Cultural Impact (10m:24s), which reveals that the show was the first "demographic hit," gathering an audience of advertiser-coveted young urban professionals. "We sold a lot of diapers," says one producer. A Conversation Between Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick (32m:29s) reveals that the two pitched the show to ABC assuming it would never get picked upóthey thought doing TV would ruin their budding film careers. From thirtysomething to Forever (30m:37s) features reminiscences from the actors, directors, and writers, including Oscar-winning whipping boy Paul Haggis.
Posted by: Joel Cunningham - August 26, 2009, 9:08 pm - DVD Review
Keywords: baby boomers, bedford falls, yuppies, shoulder pads, suspenders