Test Pilot: Thirtysomething

An appraisal of the pilot episode of thirtysomething, originally written for the Test Pilot feature at TV Surveillance, Aug. 17, 2011. Republished with permission. Read the original post, including a response from Cory Barker.

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I was in grade school when thirtysomething originally aired, the point when I was just becoming aware of grown-ups’ television. I knew the series then largely as I know it now, by reputation – specifically, its reputation as a landmark document of 1980s Baby Boomer navel-gazing. And while the pilot doesn’t totally conform to that stereotype (aside from Ken Olin’s bodacious suspenders), it is indisputably an artifact of its particular time and place.

To its credit, the series even acknowledges this when Hope says, in the pilot’s final line, “We expect too much. We’ve always gotten too much. I think our parents got together in 1946 and said, ‘let’s have lots of kids and give them everything they want, so they can grow up and be totally messed up and unable to cope with real life.’” In a later era, it’s a moment hundreds of people on the Internet would have dubbed “meta.”

So it’s hard to compare thirtysomething with the television drama of today strictly on aesthetic grounds, separate from the cultural moment that informed it. Hope and Michael Steadman, along with their various friends and relatives, are quintessential upper-middle-class 1987-dwellers, and their travails speak directly to all the McGovern hippies struggling with their metamorphoses into Reagan yuppies. If its contemporary The Wonder Years was the Ghost of Boomers Past, thirtysomething was the Ghost of Boomers Present. (They didn’t know it at the time, but an up-in-coming Tonight Show guest host named James Douglas Muir “Jay” Leno was to be the Ghost of Boomers Future, but that’s another article.)

In several ways – its laser-focus on the world of its target demographic, its stylized depiction of quotidian concerns – thirtysomething reminds me of no modern TV genre more than the teen drama*. Almost every main character we meet in the pilot expounds in detail about the burden he or she bears. Elliot confesses an affair to Michael; Ellyn tearfully admits jealousy of Hope’s life and fear that she’s losing her best friend; Hope breaks down under the stress of her discomfiting new identity as a stay-at-home mom.

(*Not too surprising that series creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick followed thirtysomething with My So-Called Life.)

All of this is done with unflinching earnestness. Music swells, tears well, cue act break. Not a trace of irony or cynicism is to be found, just the raw wounds of ordinary people at given stages of life, served up weekly as a catharsis for millions of viewers. It’s so earnest, in fact, that it’s hard for me to imagine viewers in 2011 responding to the series.

That said, the thirtysomething pilot does introduce some broadly relatable themes. Underlining each of the character’s issues and the fraying group dynamic we see in the episode is a particular tension that’s as relevant in 2011 as it was in 1987: even if you and your friends move through the milestones of youth together, you often hit phases of adulthood separately, and at very different paces. Michael and Hope are figuring out how to raise a family. Elliot and Nancy have been wrangling a brood for years. Gary and Melissa remain quite content with their utter lack of responsibilities. When you grow up with a group of people, it’s highly disorienting to hit the point where you can’t quite relate to one another’s worlds any longer.

As someone who’s just a few months shy of entering the eponymous age bracket, it’s easy for me to connect with thirtysomething’s themes, especially Ellyn’s gnawing sense of distance from her friend, or Michael’s desire to succeed in business without sacrificing his ideals. What can be difficult to connect with, though, are characters’ expressions of those themes. Throughout the pilot, you get the impression that these people expected monogamy, parenthood, or career advancement to be easy, and are shocked – shocked! – to learn that they aren’t. Consequently, fears and doubts that are, objectively, wholly understandable often come across as self-absorbed, naïve, or maudlin.

Part of the disconnect is due to the shift in generations. The Steadmans and company grapple with fractured idealism; their Generation X and Y counterparts never had any idealism to speak of. A drama aimed at capturing the experiences of today’s young adults isn’t likely to wear its heart so prominently on its tattoo-sleeve.

But another part owes to the shift in our expectations of TV drama. Take a look at this year’s Emmy nominees for Outstanding Drama Series: Boardwalk Empire, Dexter, Friday Night Lights, Game of Thrones, The Good Wife,and Mad Men. With the exception of FNL, every one of those series is marinated in a thick glaze of cynicism bordering on misanthropy. FNL shares a certain amount of DNA with thirtysomething, as series about ordinary people trying to learn the right way to live their lives. Yet where the latter unabashedly heightens and dramatizes its characters’ personal problems, the former tempers them with its vérité style and frequently laconic disposition.*

(*And sure, the occasional five-state killing spree.)

Ultimately, what separates thirtysomething, in my mind, from the crop of current dramas generally regarded as “quality” television is its lack of high concept. It’s not a period piece or a genre series, it doesn’t tout a dark anti-hero, and it isn’t set against a colorful backdrop like small-town football or big-city politics. It simply sets out to examine the domestic lives and interpersonal relationships of a particular cohort of people, in a particular era, in circumstances that millions of contemporary viewers understood intimately.

If most dramas in the post-Sopranos grim-and-gritty era avoid this sort of small-scale vulnerability, our sitcoms pick up the slack. The endless transition into adulthood, and the shifting bonds among close friends, forms the core of series such as How I Met Your MotherCommunity, and Cougar Town. Maybe today’s guarded, irony-tinged viewers prefer to engage those matters while armed with the emotional distance of a wink, a nod, and a gigantic glass of wine.

–AD

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