"LONG AGO IN THE LAND OF HOPE AND MICHAEL"
NEW YORK TIMES SECTION 2 ARTS AND LEISURE SEC.
SEPT. 22, 1996. PAGE 36.
BY ELISABETH BUMILLER
When the character of Gary was killed in a car accident on "Thirtysomething", the 1980's television show that became a loved and hated cultural icon of a generation, the cast members gathered, like a stricken family, to watch the episode together. "It was such a marker," says Peter Horton, who played Gary. "One of us had died."
Mr. Horton was agreeable to his fate--he wanted to try directing films-- but walking away from the ABC series, as he recalls in the kind of metaphor much prized on "Thirtysomething," was "like leaving a relationship."
The show itself ended a few episodes later, in May 1991. Since then Mr. Horton has been grateful, like the other cast members, that "Thirtysomething" brought him a measure of fame, at least temporary economic security and continuing work. In the new television season this fall, the old "Thirtysomething gang is, in fact, all over the networks: Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, the show's creators, have a "Twentysomething," the much anticipated Romeo-and-Juliet romantic drama "Relativity," starting Tuesday night at 10 on ABC. Ken Olin, who will always be the brooding Michael Steadman to "Thirtysomething" viewers, will shoot first and talk later as a detective in the dark, complex drama "EZ Streets," starting in October on CBS. And Mel Harris, who is equally indelible as Michael's beautiful and perfectionist wife, Hope, is playing against type as a twice divorced party planner in a traditional sitcom, "Something So Right," which had it's premiere last Tuesday at 8:30 on NBC.
But in looking back, the actors and writers of "Thirtysomething," now almost all in their 40's, continue to remember their old show as a transformational four years that created them professionally, changed them personally, and, much like college, can never happen again.
"It was just like a little film lab every week," says Melanie Mayron, who played the neurotic, unhappy-in-love photographer, Melissa, and who has gone on to direct television and feature films ("The Baby Sitters Club"). "It was really one of the magical times of my career."
Polly Draper, who played the equally neurotic Ellyn, feels the same way, especially when she sees "Thirtysomething" reruns. "That's when I really miss it," she says. "I'll remember what we were doing that day. Then it's like watching home movies."
The show itself now seems both of its time and timeless, a slightly stale 1980's talkfest about vulnerabilities and a universal exploration of marriage , relationships and interior lives.
"We were the first show that really was about nothing," says Richard Kramer, one of the main writers, producers and directors for "Thirtysomething." "We just set out to find out how little space you could cover in a dramatic hour."
Mr. Horton, for one, says that the show seems dated, and that while it was "familiar and current" to talk about feelings in the late 1980's and early 1990's, television heroes today are "more secretive." Other cast members mention "E.R." and "N.Y.P.D. Blue" as evidence that viewers want action, not emotional ambivalence.
"I think the world is evolving into a place that people feel is much more dangerous world than the world of 'Thirtysomething'" Mr. Horton says. He points out that Mr. Olin has moved from playing the tortured Michael Steadman to portraying a stoic cop of few words. (The new character has perhaps spilled a bit into the real life of Mr. Olin. He said through his publicity agent that he and his wife, Patricia Wettig, who played Nancy, the survivor of ovarian cancer on "Thirtysomething," were "unavailable" for interviews. Almost all the other cast members not only talked but threatened to talk on for hours, as they did on "Thirtysomething."
Most of the people from "Thirtysomething" agree that the show would be different today. If the same two couples and three singles in Philadelphia had aged over what would now be nine seasons of introspection--whining was what most people called it--they would be "massively" different, at least in the view of Susan Shilliday, another of the show's writers, who was married at the time to Mr. Herskovitz. "Everybody would be facing mortality, and even greater crises in the marriages," she says.
And if the series had somehow stayed current, hiring, for example, a new set of 30-somethings in 1996--people who were barely born during the Vietnam War---the characters would have different sensibilities than Michael, Hope and friends, who looked back to the 1960's and 70's as crucial reference points. At the least, today's 30-somethings would have lower expectations than Michael and Hope, who came of age with a baby-boomer sense of entitlement.
"Part of what was wonderful for us doing "Thirtysomething' was that it was deeply personal film making," Mr. Herskovitz says. "It was reality as we saw it. I can't do that about people in their 30's now, because that's not my experience."
Probably the show was possible only in its four short years, a period when millions of baby boomers in their 30's struggled with buying houses, raising children and the sense that they, at least, didn't feel especially upwardly mobile in the go-go 1980's. The show's creators always meant for Michael and Hope to be among that group: Mr. Herskovitz says, for example, that Michael made between $50,000 and $100,000 a year for most of the show, and that the Steadmans paid $120,000 for their house in 1986.
But the Stickley-type breakfront in Michael and Hope's dining room and the burnished wood trim of the interiors (the house was based on two California Craftsman homes in Pasadena) said something else. Critics branded the show as an exploration of privileged, narcissistic yuppies. Even though the creators let the set deteriorate, making the house look dirtier and more lived in, few people bought it. "No matter what we did," says Mr. Herskovitz, "people thought it was a rich, expensive house."
The yuppie label especially infuriated Ms. Shilliday, who wrote many of the episodes about the marriage troubles of Nancy and Elliot, played by Timothy Busfield. "In truth we were trying to write about the downward mobility of people in the 80's--people, she says, "who found out that even with decent jobs, it was hard to buy a house."
"It was hard to have the things they'd grown up with," she continues. "Now that's not a tragedy. It's just interesting. These were people who were scrambling and trying to invent a way of having a life."
In retrospect, cast members and writers say the end of the show after its relatively short run was inevitable, if not overdue. "The four years were sort of like a graph from innocence to experience," Mr. Kramer recalls. "The first year was about dealing with babies in your life. The fourth year was about death. There was no place to go beyond that." Many of the "Thirtysomething" actors and creators knew one another before the series started, a situation they say created a supportive ensemble cast, unusual in an industry in which jealous bloodlettings among a show's stars are commonplace.
"The cast got along really well," Mr. Horton says. "The writing staff was always embroiled in melodrama."
But the writing was considered the real star of the show, and, as with any star, there were tantrums and tensions, particularly in the show's final year. The writers for "Thirtysomething" say that their work creatively rewarding but emotionally demanding, and that they mined their own lives and those of the actors for material as never before. Writing for "Thirtysomething," says Winnie Holzman, who went on to create the television show "My So-Called Life," was the opposite of imagining "what some mythical audience in some mythical city, based on poll results, wants." Instead, the creators turned to her, she recalls, and said, "What do you find interesting? What are you struggling with?"
Several people on the show had been in couples therapy, for example, which inspired an episode in which Elliot and Nancy go to a marriage counselor.
"I mean, I'm so tired at the end of the day I don't remember that I'm a sexual person," Nancy says at one session.
"And whose fault is that?" Elliot asks.
"It's not about fault!" Nancy says, angry. "Elliot, we have two kids. I spend my day talking about Rainbow Brite and Transformers and whether Brittany will drink her milk! Couldn't you help me switch gears a little bit? Would that be so hard? I mean, excuse me if the women in porno tapes don't need any help, but real people are different."
Mr. Zwick, who is married to one of the "Thirtysomething" writers, Liberty Godshall, says that to him the show reflected "the autobiographical fallacy." The characters, he explains, "are not we--and yet they are also more deeply we than we ever might care to admit." Mr. Herskovitz says that Michael Steadman was "the alter ego of Ed and me," and that "we put so much of ourselves into Michael that it was sometimes hard to see him clearly."
Perhaps this was the reason for one of the shows more bewildering low points, the third episode, which was devoted entirely to a Steadman anxiety attack. An imagined tribunal in Michael's fevered brain has him on trial for being a yuppie, to which Michael replies: "I am not a yuppie! I can't afford to be a yuppie!"
"People found that episode so obnoxious," Mr. Herskovitz says, "that it was a lesson to us that you have responsibility as film makers to communicate with an audience and not just live inside your own head." Eighty-something episodes later, the show ended with Elliot and Nancy's marriage in good shape after their separation and Nancy's recovery from cancer. But Michael and Hope, whose marriage was the original center of the show, were in trouble. Viewers still wonder what happened to them.
"Probably, Hope and Michael would not have made it," says Ms. Shilliday, because of the extremely high expectations they had for each other." Hope, she imagines, is now running a shelter for battered women, and writes a news- letter, a desktop publishing kind of letter, for battered women to connect shelters around the country."
Ms. Harris, who played Hope, disagrees. She believes Hope, a Princeton graduate who eventually chafed in her role as a stay-at-home mother, went to work for a magazine in Washington and took Michael with her, telling him "It's my turn, honey." Although Hope was widely seen as a pill, Ms. Harris says she always liked her and didn't think of her as rigid. As Ms. Harris puts it, "I think she was kind of flexible to live with Michael all those years."
Ms. Mayron has an equally clear idea of what happened to her character, Melissa. "I think she finally got out of being big fish-little pond," she says. "I think she went out to L.A. and probably had a good photographic career. I don't know if she became Herb Ritts or Annie Leibovitz, but she certainly became somebody in the business. Like me, she's hanging in. She's paying her bills. And she hasn't compromised."
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