'THIRTYSOMETHING' WHY WE'RE STILL WATCHING AND ARGUING ABOUT 'THIRTYSOMETHING'
|by Ken Tucker, et al||thirtysomething site|
Entertainment Weekly, 05-04-1990, pp 78.
Here's what you can say the next time someone tells you he or she "hates" thirtysomething: People who hate thirtysomething are already acknowledging that the show works on them in ways ordinary television does not. No one "hates," say, His & Hers, Just the Ten of Us, or Jake and the Fatman; these are simply bad shows, programming that, like so much TV, provokes only indifference, numbness: the opposite of any feeling.
But, love it or disdain it, thirtysomething forces your engagement, and never more so than now, as the series closes its third season. Watching it, you are compelled to agree or disagree with what the characters do and say and stand for.
In this sense, thirtysomething is a manifesto, a series with a whole set of assertions and positions that must be considered by the viewer. Among the show's propositions are:
*Not all yuppies are scum.
*Some yuppies are.
*Everything-morality, sex, cancer, death-is relative. Your attitude toward your relatives is especially relative.
*Having children can enhance your life, as long as they don't interrupt dinner parties with your friends or take up too much screen time.
*Housing prices in Philadelphia are disgustingly affordable.
Better written, better acted, and more artfully shot than almost anything else on TV this side of Twin Peaks (and we'd all do well to stay this side of Twin Peaks, my friends), thirtysomething holds up to both morning-after water- cooler analysis at the office and structuralist essays such as the corker in the current issue of Camera Obscura: A Journal of Feminism and Film Theory. (Did you know Hope and Michael's marriage "reassures us again and again that the traditional division of labor in the traditional nuclear family can work"? I always knew it could, didn't you?)
Oh yes, there's also this, something else that makes thirtysomething important: It achieves its effects without irony. This is highly unusual for a good television show these days. Wiseguy, for example, is an ironic take on film noir; The Wonder Years looks at childhood through the ironic eyes of a grown-up; David Letterman's Late Night is the talk show as irony; Pee-wee's Playhouse is so steeped in irony-in being a kid's show that's really not about kids-that it can barely see straight.
But when something happens on thirtysomething, that's, um, well, just what happens--the actions on the show don't "mean something else" or operate as symbols or metaphors. That's why the show is so vulnerable, so easy to make fun of-it doesn't have that protective coating of irony, of emotional coolness and distance, that even the best contemporary art, from Twin Peaks to Thomas Pynchon's Vineland to the photographs of Cindy Sherman, seems to have.
You know what it boils down to? thirtysomething, widely misperceived as trying to be hip, is actually that most un-hip and therefore thrilling of things: It's sincere.
What follows are thirtysomething character sketches that will, we hope, not only entertain you but also make a case for thirtysomething as first-rate popular art, for thirtysomething as a way of life you don't have to apologize for. We sure don't.
PATRICIA WETTIG AS…NANCY
Even before she got cancer, Nancy was a victim-the pale, neurasthenic- looking wife clinging to her children while her irresponsible, goofball husband loped off for greener pastures. For a season, we watched her swing between hurt and anger, vulnerability and a kind of tense, tight-lipped hostility.
Sure, Elliot was acting like a jerk, but Nancy didn't even need a divorce decree to master the role of passive-aggressive ex-wife.
She had a knack for suffering, but she was so mute and powerless and unforgiving-and most of all so humorless-she didn't arouse any sympathy.
When the wayward Elliot came home last season, I was among the hopeful: Elliot had a core of sweetness; he genuinely cared about his family. Besides, he was a TV character, and therefore capable of miraculous transformation. Maybe the worst was over.
But Nancy is not a victim of her own choosing. While anxieties about PCBs or the missing zing in her sex life with Perfect Husband Michael consume Hope, Nancy gets stuck with the grit of real life: A dorky husband. A dorky husband who dumps her. And then -shouldn't this have happened to someone else?- an extra-dose of real life, spelled with a capital C.
As a woman scorned, Nancy seemed constricted and small, but the magnitude of her disease has enlarged her. As her friends troop into her hospital room to visit, their discomfort and awkwardness is our own. Nancy's pain sets her apart, but it also strengthens her. She makes us aware of our own limitations in the face of suffering.
Even her mood swings become lovable, because the struggle behind them is so palpable, so human. When Elliot stages a candlelit seduction scene in the bathroom and Nancy rebuffs him, they don't simply square off in stony resentment, as they might have a season ago. They both have grown. So when Elliot tells Nancy he can wait to make love-wait forever, if he has to-Nancy's response is immediate and believable.
Cancer hasn't made Nancy a saint. It has made her a human being. Now, staring at death, she even regains her wit. Walking into the apartment of Beatrice, the intense, self-appointed leader of a group of cancer patients, Nancy notices suitcases and clothing strewn around. "Where are we going?" she asks dryly. "Lourdes?"
In that same episode, Nancy and Beatrice lie beside an airport runway, challenging the planes. "The cancer belongs to me," Nancy bellows to the sky. "It is big it is mine. It is the most important thing that ever happened to me." And so, to at least this thirtysomething viewer, it is. -Laura Berman
KEN OLIN AS…MICHAEL
Michael Steadman is boring. Don't scream--it's not the worst thing in the world. As applied to Michael, it's not even such an insult. You want interesting? Interesting is Elliot, fighting to turn himself into an adult long after the deadline has passed.
Interesting is Ellyn, wreaking havoc with a giggle. Michael? Well, he's a good provider. A decent guy. A kind husband. A responsible parent. He actually enjoys all that weight on his shoulders, and he hates it when people don't notice. Zzzz.
Dull? Yes--but not uncomplicated. In fact, Ken Olin probably has the roughest assignment in the show's cast: to serve as thirtysomething's unofficial center, the compass that measures the distance others wander from reality. In the show's first months, Michael had to stand in for a bunch of ideas that were still in search of characters. He was smug, guilty, self-- doubting, confused--an embodiment of the theme of the week. A cutout of the Hero as Yuppie Family Guy, Michael receded into crowd scenes; he even receded into solo scenes. Even the name Steadman--steady man, get it?--is a type, not an individual.
That changed: Michael's ordinariness is now one-of-a-kind. He may not initiate much, but he's a super reactor--essential on a show where it's not the situations but the characters' responses to them that keep people coming back. In the first year, Michael's feelings about his father's death and his daughter's religious upbringing became the prestige episodes that boosted thirtysomething's reputation. Since then, he has built and lost a business, had to suck up to a boss who's taught him the art of war, and fought with a wife who seems to be looking for trouble in his fragile paradise.
Michael deals with it all by tinkering with his dream house, muttering deprecating asides, clamming up, or daydreaming in Technicolor about being a basketball star, a Great American novelist, or a Ninja adman. Even the fantasies aren't that inventive, because his dream already has come true. He has a wife, a kid, a home, and a job. And damn anything that tries to screw it up.
Though often called complacent, Michael is redeemed by the fear beneath his satisfaction. Success may turn him into a smarmy jerk or a corporate power tool (check out that new office and the take-no-prisoners attitude that goes with it), but something is bound to go wrong in Michael's carefully constructed world.
Hope may boil over, Miles Drentel may turn on him, one of the kids could get sick, but something will happen. When it does, watch him try not to lose it, and fail. You'll never like him more. --Mark Harris
MEL HARRIS AS...HOPE
Something has been bothering Hope Steadman for some time now.
It's not just that Michael's too involved in his work at Miles Drentel's hot ad agency. Or that he started the job just when she miscarried the second child she wasn't so sure she was ready to have last season. After all, now she's healthy and pregnant with another child.
But something definitely is gnawing at Hope in her third year as the Stable Woman on thirtysomething. Something is yanking her chain, getting her goat, busting her chops, trying our patience. We see it every week: A Hope who used to be more contented even when she was dissatisfied and complaining now seems to be dissatisfied and complaining even when she's contented. So what's the problem?
Maybe she's disturbed because she finds herself attracted to a handsome, bearded man who battles radon while her husband markets candy bars. Maybe she's feeling guilty because Michael is rising rapidly at the ad agency, which may or may not mean he's selling out but at the very least means he's making more money than any of their friends. Maybe she's embarrassed by the large, round display of her own good fortune in the face of poor Nancy and her small, deadly cancer.
It's hard to tell. All we know is that the word "pill" recently has been applied to her by viewers who earlier defended Mel Harris as Hope Steadman. The phrase "lighten up" is being flung by viewers who don't understand why a woman who seems to have it all seems to be getting crabbier.
Ann Lewis Hamilton, who wrote the miscarriage episode and last month's story of Hope's flirtation with the environmental guy, thinks she's no crabbier than any other working mother whose friends think she has the perfect life, but who's sick of being a Woody Allenesque Hannah to a table full of needy family and friends. "I think she questions things a lot more in her marriage," she says. "I think women go, 'Yeah! Way to go!'" We go, "Huh?" and offer a couple of theories as to what's going on in one photogenic corner of Philadelphia:
1. Mel Harris wants to have some fun. She has said from the git-go that she wanted to make Hope less sweet than the executive producers originally had in mind.
2. thirtysomething has been renewed for a fourth season and will likely go on to a fifth, after which the actors' contracts run out, and they have all said they want to go on to other projects. So from now until then, characters and plot lines will unravel in discord and anxiety, a kind of dramatic entropy not unlike a fire at Hill Street station or a wrecking ball at St. Elsewhere.
Maybe the producers of thirtysomething are just trying to toughen us up for a day not too far away when Hope no longer springs eternal. All we can do is wish her heart's-ease, and pass the pasta salad.
TIMOTHY BUSFIELD AS..ELLIOT
Timothy Busfield likes to tell interviewers that people yell at him on the street, berating him for the way his character, Elliot, is such an irresponsible heel, a selfish jerk, a goofball in a loud tie.
Getting such an intense reaction from the public must be bracing to Busfield, who spent the earlier part of his career as a chinless boy ingenue squinting in the glare of Pernell Roberts' pate on Trapper John, M.D. (To this day, my mother still refers to Busfield as "that sweet J.T.--he looked better without the beard.")
But as a wastrel husband, a father of two, and Michael Steadman's compulsively jokey art-director chum, Busfield came of age.
Elliot is a real guy's guy: He's cringingly awkward around women whenever he's not putting the moves on them, his idea of raising children is to bribe them, and he just loves basketball.
So far, Elliot has had two shining thirtysomething moments: When his and Michael's business collapsed, it was Elliot who went out and hustled the pair some job interviews while Michael stood around making his big eyes get all misty.
And when Nancy found out she had cancer, he stopped horsing around, lowered his voice, and became solicitous not only of Nancy but also of his sweet, profoundly screwed-up kids, Ethan and Britty.
This despite the fact (and it's an important one in the pop-psychological terms that thirtysomething dramatizes so well) that he knew everyone would be saying behind his back, "Oh sure, now he comes through for them!"
Currently, Elliot is enduring one of his most arduous tests: Whether he can still shoot Nerf baskets and make Abbott & Costello-ish banter with Michael now that his newly promoted pal can buy and sell him, perhaps down the river. It's the Elliot equivalent of chemotherapy. Be brave, buddy. --Ken Tucker
POLLY DRAPER AS ELLYN
Sometime around the 10th episode, I figured out how Ellyn's voice got that way: from all the people who've tried to strangle her.
Oh, she was wicked. Mean, crass, selfish, snide. The things she used to do to Hope--the nasty words, the smashed toaster oven. And the way she treated sweet, doting Woodman--cheating, sniping, ridiculing him for using mousse. When he walked out on her, you stood up and cheered. Whatever happened to this woman, she deserved: bleeding ulcers, cold shoulders, mental collapse. You thought: Hah, serves her right.
That was last year. Ellyn has changed. While we were watching summer reruns, she seems to have undergone some sort of epiphany. Maybe it's that shrink she has been seeing, maybe it's all that swimming, but the woman has mellowed. She's lost her venom. Sure, she's having an affair, but she's been so decent about it all: tried to call it off, agonized over it, questioned herself throughout. ("Am I, like, this completely horrible person?") Besides, this time it isn't just hormones--it's love, the once-in-a-lifetime variety.
The new Ellyn has come a long way. Whatever life pitches her, she deals with: spiteful wives; daffy, myopic 12-year-olds; large, incorrigible dogs. And this from a woman who, scant months ago, couldn't muster the emotional wherewithal to cope with a toaster oven. Yes, Ellyn has changed. She has become a mature, rational, caring human being.
God, I miss the old Ellyn.
Sure, I hated her. I guess that's partly what I miss. How often do you run across characters so vile, so rotten, that you can openly, unabashedly loathe them? Hating Ellyn was so satisfying; she was a TV-land Leona Helmsley, a video punching bag.
Then again, maybe I secretly identified with her. I mean, didn't we all think Woodman was an unctuous wimp, Hope a righteous bitch? Ellyn just had the guts to say what she felt. This woman doesn't wear her heart on her sleeve; she has it tattooed on her tush. (Or is it a rose? I forget.)
If the present trend continues, she'll be trading her lace bustiers for aprons and maternity smocks and reading nursery rhymes. Ah well.
By that time, Hope's bound to be carrying on with Mr. Environment, and we can all vent our spleen on her for a while.
But it won't be quite the same. No one does nasty like Ellyn. --Mary Roach
MELANIE MAYRON AS MELISSA
If there's a character on thirtysomething who's easy to love, it's Melissa. So why doesn't somebody love her?
Melissa embodies a harsh truism: Our friends who have all the makings of World's Greatest Mom are always the ones without kids. She's big-hearted, she's quick with a quip, and imagine what madness she'd make with construction paper and a 64-pack of Crayolas. I'm rooting for Melissa to open an account at the Main Line sperm bank next season, because it seems that this character's dramatic purpose is to remain manless.
To Hope and Michael's ice cream-by-the-gallon domesticity, she represents the lonely-pint counterlife, piddling away in the darkroom of her done-up garage. The Lee thing--her brief, sweet affair with the twentysomething housepainter-- never had a prayer. He's a club kid, not a house dad.
The show's writers allow the male characters moments of giddiness, but they are not so kind to the women. Hope nags, Nancy weeps, and--hot married lover or not--Ellyn may never overcome her suspicious hang-up on her best friend (how could Hope love Michael more than me?). While you couldn't say Melissa bubbles with joy, at least she has a wonderful integrity.
As vulnerable as she sometimes appears in her deliberately neutered clothes and her rainbow of hair colors, the woman has standards--artistic ones and emotional ones. Like a presidential candidate, she can make those hard choices--and not just splitting with Lee.
The finest episode in thirtysomething's three seasons was when Melissa refuseddthe demand of her imperious, dying grandmother (Sylvia Sidney) to take over her dress shop. When her adored granny told one-earringed Melissa she dressed like a bum, I could hear my gas-guzzling granddad accuse me of driving a four-cylinder coffeepot.
So many perfect notes were struck: the buxom middle-aged aunts singing show tunes by the piano, the grandmother kvetching at Mom's overcooked roast, Melissa shrinking to the emotional state of a 5-year-old in the presence of these matriarchs.
The episode addressed the impossibility of real understanding among these three generations. And it established the bravery--and the precariousness--of Melissa's independence. --Susan Brenna
PETER HORTON AS GARY
"He exudes something," my wife said at about 10:20 one Tuesday night.
"Let me guess," I said. "A dizzying knowledge of 19th-century English literature?"
"No," she said. "Sex."
I give you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, The Case for Gary.
No matter what else they hold in common, thirtysomething fans divide into two categories: those who love Gary (see above) and those who love to detest him (see below).Behold Gary--third-rate, regularly out-of-work assistant-- professor Gary. His shaggy shag-cut falling loosely to his shoulders, his three-day (but never four-day) stubble sparkling in the sun, his reading glasses swinging from one of those so-out-they're-in cords around his neck- yyyyuck. Behold Gary, blithering on and on about how little money he and Susannah have. (Leave it to Gary to have found unwedded bliss with the one person in the world who can mope better than he does.)
At the same time, of course, Gary is crucial to the (im)balance of thirtysomething, because he represents a quality nooother character on the show possesses: He is intensely alienated from the yuppie lifestyle the rest of the gang either aspires to or already has achieved.
The others sweat to make money; Gary sweats when he wears those tight bicycle pants. The others chatter about their rewarding artistic careers; Gary mutters, "I have to teach modern American poetry, which is practically an oxymoron." The others laugh; Gary listens to their laughter and gets sad.
Everyone accuses Gary of not being able to make a decision, but actually, he made his biggest, bravest decision long ago: He has retained the values of the counterculture at a time when everyone else wants desperately to belong to the culture. This is ridiculously admirable.
Still, I have yet to meet a man who likes Gary.
But then, I have yet to meet a woman who likes Ellyn. Ellyn, with her You're-gonna-hurt-me eyes and her I'm-gonna-hurt-you mouth.
She exudes something. --Ken Tucker
PATRICIA KALEMBER AS SUSANNAH
Before handing down the verdict on Susannah Hart, Gary's constant, crabby companion and the mother of his child, let's hear from a few interested parties:
"She's always weird," says Ellyn, whose own husband-grabbing, refrigerator-binging behavior has been known to deviate from the curve. "Very cold," claims Hope, the Princess of Chill. "What a bitch," say millions of Americans who, at one time or another, have misapplied that label to every one of the show's women. But with Susannah, there seems to be something approaching a consensus.
How unfair can you get? So what if Susannah never smiles, except sarcastically? So what if she has been in a bad mood every single day for the last two years? If you accidentally got pregnant by a guy whose response to every crisis is either "Just relax" or "What!? I'm listening!" and then he dragged you around to meet his fake-Bohemian ex-girlfriend and those snobby Steadmans with their fabulous unfinished house and their limousine-liberal attitudes and six-figure income and stupid Pictionary games, and you had to put up with their awful friends and their creepy kids and their tolerant, amused smiles and clubby in-jokes, you'd breathe fire too. For anyone who has ever wanted to stare deep into her soul mate's eyes and scream, "Your friends are jerks!" here's a heroine for the '90s.
Susannah's barely suppressed contempt may seem to libel Hope, Michael, and the gang, but in reality, it's a necessary counterweight to our good feelings about them, an outsider's perspective that opens a window on the other characters' worst qualities-- their easy attitudinizing, their self- satisfaction. In fact, Susannah could be a touchstone for people who hate thirtysomething. She, too, thinks that they're nothing more than a bunch of mewling yuppies. Want real problems? Try living with Peter Pan, raising a kid on a thin income, getting heat in your apartment-- and doing it without interference. "I think I can live my life without Hope!" Susannah snapped to Gary recently. It's quite a motto. --Mark Harris
DAVID CLENNON AS MILES DRENTEL
The way I like to think of it, thirtysomething creators Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick conceived of Miles Drentel as an interesting little character, a poker-faced, super-supercilious villain who would have a few lines every three orrfour shows. Miles was supposed to be an oil slick in thirtysomething's choppy but bright blue sea of life.
But before they knew what was happening, Herskovitz and Zwick had created a monster: Miles developed a philosophy (half Japanese Zen management theory, half Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick); Miles developed a personality (Miles smiles!); Miles developed a bigger role.
The result: David Clennon's Miles is the meanest, most fascinating employer on television, one of the most deeply satisfying guilty pleasures in TV history.
I, frankly, love Miles. I love him for the way he stares at people with a look that is at once utterly blank (he'll never let you guess his thoughts) and thoroughly condescending (he thinks you're dirt).
Most of all, I love Miles for the fact that I'll never have to work for him.
But Michael does. When Miles promoted Michael earlier this season, it was a typically Milesean gesture: He knew Michael could do the job and would work extra hard; he also knew that it would throw Michael's life into chaos, doubling his income (oh, woe: investment problems!) and alienating him from his now-considerably-poorer pal Elliot.
Cynical, craven, and cunning, Miles is the Great Anti-Yuppie, the thirtysomething character for people who despise themselves for liking thirtysomething. --Ken Tucker
AND, OF COURSE THE KIDS
In a TV universe full of gleaming kids who flash million-dollar smiles, toss off one-liners with Catskills precision, and then scamper merrily out the door, Ethan Weston is a welcome departure: slightly damaged goods. Sullen, introspective, capable of emotional freeze-outs or generosity beyond the reach of his adult counterparts, he's TV's realest kid, no exceptions.
Right now, Ethan's in the middle of his un-wonder years. Rarely graced with two fully functioning parents at once, he has been hurt in ways that won't go away. (One of thirtysomething's most disarming bows to reality is that his unhappiness didn't vanish the minute Elliot walked back in.) Ethan plays with his toys too violently-they're an arsenal of repressed rage; he has outbursts; he hides skin magazines; he sulks. Once, Elliot stumbled upon him in the closet. Apparently, he was just sitting and thinking, not making a statement.
Living with a father who wouldn't grow up and a mother who may not grow old, the kid faces a rocky future. He may not end up dealing crack or holing up in his bedroom with a Taxi Driver video, but odds are that by the time his parents are fortysomething, they'll be paying big bucks for their troubled teen to lie on a couch and talk about how Elliot and Nancy were too self- involved to notice him, how he felt used as a bargaining chip in their fights, and perhaps how he lost his mother.
By then, he'll have earned the right to complain. While the adults around him often act like children, Ethan (in the manner of so many bright kids) has turned himself into a wobbly, premature adult. Resigned to being disappointed by the people he loves, he turns inward and, as played with broken-voiced gravity, downcast eyes, and squirmy impatience by Luke Rossi, breaks your heart. Nothing this season was quite so moving as the moment he looked at Nancy and said, "Something's wrong with you." He wasn't asking, he was accepting, and he didn't even get the balm given to every adult on the show: a little help from his friends.
As for the show's three little girls-- Ethan's sister Brittany, Hope and Michael's Janey, and Gary and Susannah's tiny but aristocratically named Emma Hart-Shepherd--the show's tendency toward witty, thoughtful loquacity has passed them over. Sure, we've heard Emma bark like a beagle (she had croup), and Brittany has mumbled now and then, but Janey, heading toward 4 and not saying much of anything, is a worry--haven't Hope and Michael noticed? These kids can be more than just adorable accessories. Get them rewrite, quick.
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