Life & Liberty: Television Gets Real
Midway through its first season, "thirtysomething" (Tuesday, 10:00 P.M. EST, ABC) had reached a level of television mythos that allowed critics to label "The Wonder Years"—ABC's other good new show and an Emmy winner for Best Comedy—"twelvesomething." The network's promotional spots for "thirtysomething" repeated Newsweek's assessment that it was the year's most talked about show.
What exactly is this phenomenon, with its cutesy e.e. cummings name, its unabashed yuppieness, and an Emmy for Best Drama?
Some have labeled it a blatant attempt to pander to the demographic crème de la crème, the same people who made the $2.00 chocolate chip cookie a staple of contemporary life. Others accuse the show's creators, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, of confusing entertainment with documentary. Tired of hearing characters talk about their "needs," comedian Jay Leno reacted to the show with the question, "What about my needs? I'm looking for a little entertainment here."
In the opposite camp are critics such as Dan Wakefield, who says, "Watching 'thirtysomething' every week gives me the satisfied sensation of reading a good novel…'how it was with a group of people.'" In Wakefield's praise lies the paradox of "thirtysomething," for in an age of television, how many viewers know the pleasures of a good novel? How many want that sort of satisfaction, the kind that emerges slowly, over leisurely hours of thoughtful participation with character and plot and setting, not to mention the more mysterious qualities of fiction, such as tone and point of view?
Television drama has approached the high ground of good fiction before, most recently with "Hill Street Blues," "St. Elsewhere," and "L.A. Law." What makes "thirtysomething" different, and maybe better, is that the drama inherent in a police precinct, a hospital, a courtroom is not there. "Thirtysomething" takes the stuff of real life—marriage, children, work, friendship, family—and illuminates it in such a way as to reveal that these "small" things are, in fact, enormous in their import, their pleasures, and their pain.
Given the strongest lead-in ABC had to offer, "thirtysomething" began last season with an audience trained by "Moonlighting" to accept the experimental, even the bizarre. Fantasy and dream sequences take viewers into the psyches of the main characters, let us know what they really are, as much as any artifice can. The surprise is that what they really are is us. They are as close as television has come to presenting, week in and week out, "real" people (a label that certainly fits these fictional characters better than it fit the "ordinary" citizens exploited on the show called "Real People").
The characters who evoke this reality are a group of friends who live and work in Philadelphia. At the group's center are Michael and Hope Steadman (played by Ken Olin and Mel Harris). The Steadmans have a daughter, Janie, who celebrates her first birthday near the end of the season. Michael, who once wanted to be a writer, now owns an ad agency, and Hope has postponed her career to stay at home with Janie.
Michael's partner in the agency is Elliott (Timothy Busfield), who is married to Nancy (Patricia Wettig). They have two children, Brittany and Ethan, and as the season progresses their 12-year marriage begins to unravel. Nancy, like Hope, has postponed her career—she is an artist—to be a full-time wife and mother.
The group also includes three single people: Ellyn (Polly Draper), Hope's best friend from childhood, who works for the city and lives in a rented apartment filled with rented furniture; Melissa (Melanie Mayron), Michael's cousin, a free-spirited photographer; and Gary (Peter Horton), Michael's best friend from college, a still-long-haired English Ph.D. seeking tenure. Melissa and Gary have been lovers, have not, slip once during the season and wind up in bed with each other, then retreat to their nonsexual friendship.
All the characters are about the business of trying to live adult lives when they aren't quite sure what that means or whether they qualify. Hope fears that Ellyn, who is already suspicious because Hope has abandoned her career, will lose all respect when she realizes that Hope, the homemaker, has no actual food in her freezer. When an old girlfriend comes to visit Michael, she takes in the house, the wife, and the baby and proclaims her amazement at this "real" life. Michael protests that it is only a convincing simulation.
Such moments are always presented with a healthy dose of irony. Hope knows Ellyn will always be her friend, whether she climbs the corporate ladder or fixes veal chops. Michael knows that Hope and Janie and their home are real life. But they feel self-conscious about their reality.
The problem with adulthood, according to Gary, is that it is "merely a pale extension of high school." The solidity that we all assumed would come with being grown up doesn't come. We feel no more settled than we did in high school; we know no more about what's really going on than we did then. When Michael complains that things haven't turned out the way they were supposed to, Gary says, "Give me a break" and cites the extraordinary number of things in the "real" world that happen even though they aren't supposed to. "Edwin Meese attorney general?" he offers as evidence.
The humor in "thirtysomething"—and the show abounds in humor—is like Gary's explanation of the unexpected. It's dry, sharp, intelligent, out of the traditions of Woody Allen and Garry Trudeau. When Ellyn dreads going to the gynecologist, Hope recommends her doctor, who is an old, unthreatening "Dr. Seuss with a speculum." When Michael wonders if he and Hope are getting boring, Elliott comforts him with the notion that he and Nancy, long past boring, are now "happily bored." When rudeness rears its ugly head, Hope protests that people should never be rude. They should talk about golf scores and drink highballs. Gary and Melissa once went to a Halloween party as Will and Ariel Durant.
But, without violating its essential tone or the integrity of its characters, the show also raises serious questions. When Michael fails on an ad campaign for the city, gotten through Ellyn's influence, he must face his fears about and disappointments in himself, as well as his insecurities about what friendships means. Ellyn is, after all, primarily Hope's friend. Was he using her? Can their relationship continue?
The pain of Gary and Melissa's difficult love for each other and of Elliott and Nancy's struggle either to be married or to move forward out of their relationship without harming their children or each other is almost palpable. Ellyn's doubts about love and sex—she hasn't had sex for over a year and is afraid something inside her will burst and frighten away any man she might want to love—and Gary's inner struggle as he faces rejection by his department's tenure committee go to the heart of the dilemmas that define how it is with this group of people.
One problem with the show's concept may be that the characters know each other so well from the beginning that viewers feel excluded. Patience will repair that, for given a chance the Steadmans and their friends will reveal themselves with few false notes and almost none of the hyperbole endemic to television.
Behind the up-to-the-minute references that the show casually tosses about—the characters read Presumed Innocent and shop at The Limited—lie ancient literary and philosophical traditions. Herskovitz and Zwick know Plato and Aristotle as well as they know Allen and Trudeau. The fundamentals on which "thirtysomething" is built are Aristotle's idea that art should mirror life and Plato's report of Socrates' belief that the unexamined life is not worth living. Obviously, this goes beyond the entertainment Jay Leno needs, but it does not preclude it. Another ancient premise of art, this one from Horace, acknowledges the necessity to instruct and delight."
With the Hill Street station gone, St. Elegius closed, and some of L.A.'s lawyers doing Maidenform commercials, those who ask more of the medium that has shaped the generation "thirtysomething" seeks to examine can only hope that the excellence of this show will be recognized by enough consumers of high-ticket designer cookies to keep it on the air. Even better would be that the folks who make "Moonlighting" would stay tuned and learn from their follow-up act how to get it right again. That would give ABC, of all people, the best back-to-back hours on television.
Jane B. Hill is an editor at Longstreet Press in Atlanta.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: Television Gets Real".