Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Let's Hear It for 1987

The time has arrived to break out the shoulder pads and high-waisted jeans, pour some Chardonnay, give your dog a pretentious literary name, and settle in to an evening of thirtysomething. perhaps i should compose this post entirely in the lower-case? I won't do that, but I will express my happiness that at long last the series is being released on DVD. In the late 80s I religiously sat before the TV every Tuesday night at 10 to witness the trials and tribulations of this group of Philly yuppies.

I'm really not sure why this show spoke to me. At the time I was a decade younger than the protagonists, and an important decade at that. I had no youthful 60s idealism to lose, unless that idealism can take the form of a love of the Jackson 5. I was a poor graduate student who couldn't afford even an old Volvo and was years away from even the thought of undertaking a nightmare renovation of an Arts and Crafts home. I wasn't married, trying to be married, or fretting over the choice between raising children and having a career. In short, I had nothing in common with these characters, yet still I loved them. Perhaps there just really wasn't anything else good on TV, or perhaps it's something about Marshall Herskovitz, who 10 years earlier worked on Family, and who would go on, with Ed Zwick, to produce two of my favorite shows of the 90s, My So-Called Life and Once and Again.

What became clear after watching an assortment of the Season One episodes is that the thirtysomething I loved was later season thirtysomething. I loved it when Nancy had cancer, and Michael and Elliot worked for and battled Miles Drentell, and everyone hated Susannah. I loved it when Melissa became a character in her own right and not comic relief. I loved it when the show became more of a high-concept soap and less of a meditation on the horror of turning into one's mother or father. All of the things I loved happened later, so I will patiently await the release of the next three seasons and in the meantime contemplate Michael's obsession with suspenders and the fact that Ellyn is continually attracted to men much less good-looking than herself. Seriously, Woodman? The fug married guy she met at the pool? The comic book guy who was about one day from being fat? Oh, Ellyn.

Last week's release of this set led to all kinds of rumination on the importance of the show, how it ushered in a new era of naval-gazing and a new kind of serialized drama. But did it, really? When it went off the air in 1991, did anything of quality replace it? Those were the years of 90210 and Melrose Place. I'd venture that its greatest impact was on situation comedy rather than drama. By focusing on a group of friends who don't share a home or a workplace, by focusing in many ways on the commonplace and everyday as the stuff of plot, it paved the way for Friends and Seinfeld. The situations were played for laughs rather than bathos, but the concept of a group of urban professionals creating their own family as a shield against the alienation of urban striving, well, that was pure thirtysomething.

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