Two new shows hold up a mirror to the lives of young urban professionals. But do they like what they see?
Rolling Stone December 3, 1987
Quite a few people I know are depressed about how similar their lives are to what's on television this season. One woman says that she and her boyfriend have been having the same discussions about their relationship that Maddie and Dave have been having on ABC's Moonlighting. The man, disturbed that his heartfelt sentiments had been reduced to a plot twist, suggested breaking up. My friend pointed to the TV: "Shouldn't we wait to see if they get back together?" Another friend says he switched off the first episode of ABC's Thirtysomething after the husband snapped at the wife for not cleaning up after their baby daughter. "We just had that fight," he said to his own wife. "Do I have to watch it again on TV?" I myself had an argument with my mother, which she wouldn't want me to tell you about, and I wouldn't, except that is sounded like dialogue from the second episode of Thirtysomething. The day after it aired, my mother called to ask if I had seen the show; we both began weeping about the reconciliation scene at the end, and that's how we made up.
There's nothing particularly enjoyable about watching your life reenacted by people better looking than you. (Many a new mother, for instance, worries about regaining her figure, but coming from the pencil-thin Mel Harris of Thirtysomething, it sounds odiously vain.) But it's a little too late to complain about that now. Being a population bulge, we've always demanded special attention. What other age group has given itself as many identification tags as we have - baby boomers, the Big Chill generation, yuppies? Who else turned the Seventies into the Me Decade and has been spending the Eighties trying to "have it all"? It seems only natural that the television writers and producers spawned in such a navel-gazing era would elect to focus on their own angst, teaching us a particularly painful lesson: Not only are our problems not unique, they're not even that interesting.
Listen, we're the people who sit around gagging while the rest of America is enthralled by what passes for trauma in Cosby's Huxtable household. Vanessa wears her sister's sweater without asking? Cliff borrows his neighbor's power drill and doesn't return it?! My God, we say, smacking our foreheads, this family makes the Cleavers seem like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? So imagine how we feel finding out that the all-consuming crisis of our set is - I can barely bring myself to say it - finding a baby sitter. Both Thirtysomething and A Year in the Life devoted their pilot episodes to it (and I'm not even including I Married Dora, in which the newly widowed Daniel Hugh Kelly is so desperate for good help that he marries his Salvadoran housekeeper).
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, the creators of Thirtysomething, and Joshua Brand and John Falsey, the creators of NBC's A Year in the Life, are all in their midthirties and married and that all of them have at least one young child - except Falsey, and his wife is five months pregnant. "You know, Ed and I had five other ideas for shows," says Herskovitz, "but they weren't really special or different - they were like everything else on TV. The day before we were going to meet with ABC, we started talking about our lives and the lives of the people we know, and we though, 'Wouldn't this be bald? Wouldn't this be presumptuous? To just turn the camera right around on us, on the little moments, the everyday events?'"
Clearly they do not subscribe to Alfred Hitchcock's definition of entertainment as life with the dull bits cut out. This is the dull bits with bells on.
Thirtysomething, for instance, focuses on the minutiae of the lives of a married couple, Hope and Michael Steadman, and five of their friends, among them a successful businesswoman frustrated by her nonexistent sex life and a former Sixties radical clinging to his outdated ideals and haircut. A Year does offer three generations to choose from, but our interest here lies with Jim and Lindley Eisenberg, another married couple who, like Hope and Michael, are thirty-something, have a baby daughter, a comfortable home and all the same concerns about never having everything just right. (Nevertheless, maintains Brand, the Steadmans would never be friends with the Eisenbergs. "They're much more hip than our couple," he says.) Even Moonlighting, where the sexual-tension banter used to take a back seat to the detective work, now devotes most of its script to the circular argument "Should we stay together, or shouldn't we?" Those of us who have had this discussion can testify to its monotony.
The producers of these shows get very plaintive when you call their characters yuppies. What? Yuppies? Where?
"Yes, Hope and Michael have a nice, big, old house," says Zwick of his centerpiece couple on Thirtysomething. "But it's in terrible disrepair, and they can't afford to fix it up."
"Yes, Adam (Arkin) plays an attorney," says John Falsey of his show's thirty- something character. "But he's a patent attorney who works out of his home - he's clearly not on the ladder of success."
Well, okay, none of us like the term much anymore, but we haven't come up with a new one yet - though, admittedly, we should, since the y in yuppie won't apply much longer to someone who can recite chapter and verse from Howdy Doody (as Hope did on Thirtysomething). Until then we're all going to have to live with it. Furthermore, we yuppie television viewers actually like shows starring the upwardly mobile white-collar middle class; we grew up with them. What was Rob Petrie of The Dick Van Dyke Show but the head writer for a variety show? Didn't Samantha Stevens's husband, Darin, work in advertising on Bewitched? Mike Brady, the patriarch of the Brady Bunch, was such a successful architect that he not only could support a wife, six children and a live-in maid, but he also managed to take nearly every afternoon off. Let me tell you, we weren't the ones who made A-Team or The Dukes of Hazzard hits; we're the ones who championed Cheers and St. Elsewhere when nobody else was watching them.
We're very particular about TV yuppies. We like them to be familiar but not too familiar - not mirror images of ourselves. We like them to have their own lives, their own jobs, not our lives or our jobs. L.A. Law, for one, understands this: in other words, what we want is a yuppie soap opera. We want Sturm und Drang, not quiet desperation. We want messy love affairs, not married couples who aren't sleeping together. We don't want all our men to be sensitive and communicative and able to diaper a baby; we want charming sleazeballs like Corbin Bernsen on L.A. Law and randy heartbreakers like Ted Danson on Cheers and smooth-talking jerks like Bruce Willis used to be on Moonlighting. When they get to be a little too much like us, as happened with Hometown and Sara and Foley Square, we don't watch.
You know who is watching Thirtysomething and A Year? According to the early demographic reports for both, it's a lot of people in their fifties and sixties. "They tell us it's because (when they were younger) they thought all the same things as our characters, only back then, you didn't talk about it," says Zwick.
That's one thing we certainly do. "For good or ill, this generation has a voice," says Herskovitz. "It's the voice of prolonged adolescence. It's self-aware, but it's also self-mocking. It's introspective, but it's whining." We're also self-analytic, and Thirtysomething knows that. "What is it about you that makes it so impossible for you to enjoy the things you have? Hope asks her husband, Michael. "Because I might lose them," he says. "So," she answers, "you pretend that you don't have them rather than risk that?" Remember when you had to spend months on the couch before achieving that much insight?
But there's one important thing we don't get from these shows. Because we like to talk, we're always looking for new material. We quote song lyrics, memorable movie lines, David Letterman jokes, gossip about people we've never met. The trouble is, you can't do that with today's yuppie television. They're quoting us.
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