Lately I have been devouring Internet comment about thirtysomething being, at last, available on DVD, if, as yet, only in the US. I still have a box of old videotapes on which I taped the show off free-to-air television in the early nineties, the covers of which have ‘Do not erase!!!’ scrawled all over them in frightening black texta. Unfortunately, given my miserliness, I bought particularly cheap tapes on which to immortalise the final series, with the result that they have almost no sound at all. So, you can understand why ever since I finally obtained a DVD player, I’ve been complaining incessantly about thirtysomething not being available in this format. This announcement of its release is a big deal for me.
Apparently, though, it’s not a big enough deal for me actually to have bought the DVD. I always expected that if the day ever came that thirtysomething were released, obtaining it would be my first order of business. However, the motif of my tight-fistedness is recurring such that I’m going to wait and see if it comes out in Australia, and the upshot of this is that I haven’t seen the show for quite some time. The pieces I’ve read that people have written about its DVD release are from the perspective of actually having watched thirtysomething again, these many years hence. I, however, am going to ride to its defence working largely from memory.
From 1988 to 1991, the only thing that I really cared a damn about was thirtysomething. As anyone bothering to read this probably knows, the show revolved around the existences of a group of middle-class, well-educated friends – two of whom were related – living in Philadelphia. I have often seen the characters referred to as Baby Boomers, but I don’t really think that’s so. Perhaps they were technically, having all been born, by my reckoning, somewhere between 1950 and 1956, but they weren’t like the cast of The Big Chill, already seeming well into middle age in the early nineteen eighties. Rather, they presented as being at that most appealing stage of life, when you’re no longer merely a total idiot who doesn’t have any money, but you don’t yet notice a mysterious stiffness in your hip when you get up after an evening on the couch.
I admit that part of the spell that thirtysomething cast on me was due to my being madly in love with Ken Olin as Michael Steadman, sensitive advertising and family man. Michael was married to Hope, who, while perhaps the most physically attractive of the female characters, was also the meanest. I recall that she was always ragging on at Michael about something, often while wearing bike shorts. Hope was frequently referred to as an ‘overachiever’, because, I believe, she had been a big shot in college, even though she seemed by the beginning of the show to have settled quite comfortably into sponging off Michael and coasting on the fact that she had allegedly had some kind of journalism career before becoming a stay-at-home mother. They were the characters who fascinated me most, though, so it was always a red-letter night when thirtysomething coughed up a Hope and Michael episode.
The next best was an Ellyn Warren ep, Ellyn being Hope’s huskily voiced oldest friend, who had some kind of unspecified career working for ‘the city’, an occupation to which she was mightily attached. (I remember her describing herself as having been ‘prolific’ in terms of her sex life when she was at college, but is that really the right word? Didn’t she mean ‘promiscuous’? ) Next in order of preference would have been an instalment about Melissa, Michael’s lovelorn photographer cousin, who lived in a cavernous warehouse. If I weren’t being offered one of the above, I would have been making do with an episode about Elliot, red-haired Peter Pan figure and Michael’s business partner, and his wife, spiritless part-time book illustrator Nancy. The episodes I least wanted to see were those concerning Michael’s best friend, priapic English professor Gary Shepherd. I’m not even quite sure why this was, but it was possibly that I just didn’t like looking at him, in all his Nordic-toned hairiness.
My all-time favourite episode (‘Do not erase!!!’ is scrawled especially frantically on the videotape containing this one) was 1988’s ‘Undone’, in which Michael’s great unrequited love, Emily – now ‘VP of a chain of regional bookstores’ – came to stay with him and Hope. I think I liked it so much because it was such a nice change to see Michael enjoying himself with a woman. Perhaps the only episode that sat oddly with me was 1989’s ‘Success’, in which Melissa did a photo shoot with Carly Simon, and there was a long scene at a party with the regular characters embarrassing themselves by fawning over CS. What’s more, earlier in the episode, Ellyn alleged that she had always wanted to look like Carly Simon! I mean, really. No one on the show had even mentioned the songstress previously and, out of nowhere, it was Carly Simon madness.
The Simon misstep aside, why should it be that thirtysomething, despite its many Emmys, is, seemingly, a television program without any credibility at all? I don’t believe I have ever told anyone that I love the show and received a positive response. I sent a friend of mine a YouTube clip from it and he refused even to make it past the first fifteen seconds. I’ve never been able to understand why the program is held in such poor regard by so many, except that it’s easy to make fun of the clothes and the characters’ fascination with their own inner workings. thirtysomething is actually very well written and acted, often witty, and how often do you see a network television show centring an episode around the poetry of Emily Dickinson (even if it was a Gary episode) or that references The Bell Jar? Furthermore, I always felt that I could detect its influence on perhaps my favourite television drama of all time, Six Feet Under. thirtysomething was replete with Under-style fantasy sequences and scenes of the dead communing with the living, and, I don’t care what anyone says, the shows have identical preoccupations: namely, the intricacies of human relationships and dealing with life not being all it’s cracked up to be.
The author of one Internet piece I read was someone who had been devoted to thirtysomething but, having revisited it, felt that it didn’t hold up. His belief was that this was because when he was first watching the show he was a teenager, but now that he’s an adult he finds obsessing on one’s feelings much less engaging. But do people really become any less interested in dwelling on every element of how they feel, just because they are grown? I was, if barely, still in my teens when I was first glued to thirtysomething back in 1988, and I identified strongly with its personnel’s preoccupation with themselves, their thoughts and their emotions; however, I relate to it equally as strongly now that I’m in my forties.
It’s as though the public feel that they need to reject thirtysomething in order to prove that they have matured and that they are decent people: that they have wrestled themselves out of their fog of self-absorption and that, just because they don’t care about a bunch of well-off white characters, they, by definition, do care about anyone else. But I have no such reservations; when I am finally holding that first series of thirtysomething, I am going to jump right in, more certain than I’ve been about anything in my life that I will love it just as much as I ever did.