*thirtysomething’s Gotta Give

‘Thirty days hath September, April, June and November …’. While I have often found this hoary rhyme most helpful, last year it was December that was all about the word ‘thirty’ for me. This is because I was able to spend my Christmas holidays, as I had promised myself, becoming reacquainted with thirtysomething (‘as close to the level of an art form as weekly television ever gets’, according to the New York Times, although this was in the nineteen eighties, admittedly). I wrote early last spring of my attachment to this marvellous program, on the occasion of its first season finally having been released on DVD. Therefore, I swore to myself that once I had watched it, I would devote just as much time and effort to putting into words my emotions upon seeing it again, these many years hence.

Now, this is not going to be a dissertation on whether or not the show ‘still holds up’ because, I’m telling you right now, it does. Instead, I will note the varied things that struck me while I was watching all eighteen-and-a-half hours of the DVD, including nine commentaries, and documentaries with names like ‘From thirtysomething To Forever’, and reading the classy booklet that accompanies it. So, here we go:

The way of life

How is it that people who are as young in years as the thirtysomething characters are can afford such large residences? Melissa is a freelance photographer who is supposed to be so short of money that she has to take any job whatsoever that she is offered, including taking pictures of heavily pregnant women doing aerobics, yet she lives in a warehouse that is bigger than the principality of Monaco. Hope and Michael’s house is so enormous that you keep expecting that Mrs Danvers will emerge from the shadows to ask them unsettling questions. Don’t get me wrong, given all the back-breaking labour that they involve, I don’t aspire to live in a house, something that was confirmed whenever I watched one of the characters gardening (even if it was often spiced up by accompanying talk of adultery). What I would like, though, is to be able to afford to live in a house. As it is, I am more likely to develop the ability to grow at will a new and improved head.

My point isn’t how much cheaper real estate must have been in 1987, but, rather, how mature thirtysomething’s people seem, even though the whole point of the show is that they are supposed to be bumbling through adulthood. I would now be a good ten years older than the characters I was watching, and it is as though I am their idiot child in comparison with them and their attainments. Not only do they live in veritable palaces, at least two of them have employees.

Further to the question of scale, the female characters tend to swathe themselves in enormous clothes. This is especially so in the case of Hope and Nancy, who have children and who make the concept of the MILF seem unimaginably far off. The unmarried female characters are only slightly better in this regard: Melissa constantly sports a vast winter coat, which, hideously, has numbers all over it, several years after dressing like Boy George was a routine thing to do.

Repeated references to Brad Pitt

The cast and crew who feature on the commentary tracks refer endlessly to all the talented actors who walked through the thirtysomething doors (past a wall of eighties-advertising-agency-style glass bricks, no doubt) and went on to enormous success elsewhere. However, the only example of this phenomenon that they are ever able to give is that Brad Pitt once played a tiny role. Consultation of the IMDb has revealed that Pitt played a character called Bernard, but even I have no idea who this might have been.

What the stars are like now

Ever since thirtysomething went off the air, I’ve badly wanted to see for myself how its stars have been faring. I can report that, by and large, some of them appear to have had a lot of maintenance work, and it gives me no pleasure to see a person barely able to move any part of their face when they talk. Yes, I’m all for not ‘letting yourself go’, but really. Perhaps if I sent each of them a copy of 1973’s Ash Wednesday, in which Elizabeth Taylor, extremely graphically, has a facelift to try, unsuccessfully, to hang on to Henry Fonda, they would cease and desist from this madness.

The most striking thing about the male stars is that they refer constantly to how they now have careers as directors, and how this is what they had always really wanted to do, reminding me of the way nineties supermodels would maintain that they had originally planned to go to law school. Peter Horton, who played Gary, is even interviewed for the DVD unfailingly wearing around his neck film-director headphones.

Praise for Timothy Busfield

Anyone who opens their mouth on the DVD goes on about how great Timothy Busfield, who played Elliot, was and is, both as an actor and as a man, even while there are vague hints that he is capable of being ‘naughty’. I would like to know more about whether such hints are a veiled reference to his having been accused of sexually harassing an extra while he was making Little Big League, as well as cracking on to another alleged harassee in a bar by telling her stories of life on the set of Little Big League.

Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick

The show’s creators, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, appear to be extremely full of themselves, especially Zwick.

The immediate effect on my own life of again watching thirtysomething

I found when I was watching the show that I was developing an uncontrollable tendency to have thirtysomething-style arguments with my common-law husband, even more than usual seeing cause for offence in every word he said and wanting to talk it all to death, while crying. I reminded myself of Alan Garner’s fine novel The Owl Service, in which teenagers, seemingly possessed, find themselves re-enacting a tale from Welsh mythology.


I would like nothing more than to be able to write that I was incredulous at how long ago it all seemed that I was first watching thirtysomething. On the contrary, perhaps due to how little I have accomplished in the intervening twenty-two years, it all felt frighteningly recent. It would also be a neat conclusion to this piece if I could be astonished at having lived through so much that its characters experienced from 1987 to 1991. However, I haven’t, for example: almost cheated on my husband with an environmentalist; had cause to ‘look at the books’ of my father’s failing business and talk about ‘balloon loans’; wanted to become a practising Catholic; absent-mindedly snacked on baby food (without immediately vomiting, furthermore); met a sexually attractive man while I was renting The Philadelphia Story on video; or had someone threaten to stab me with a letter opener. Still, I found it life-affirming that sometimes things are just as enjoyable as you remember them to be, although not nearly as often as they’re not as enjoyable as you remember them to be, naturally. In any case, the second season of thirtysomething has just become available on DVD, so, for me, it’s suddenly Christmas all over again.

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