Thanks so very, very much to Dietmar Dürr for finding this article, then scanning it in and sending a copy along so we could all read it. You're the best!

Goodbye to a Bit of Reality on TV


This article is respectfully reprinted without permission from The New York Times, May 28, 1991, B3 and is for the sole education and enlightenment of fans of the show.

No infringement is intended in any way:

Self-consciousness and anxiety never had it so good. For four years, "Thirtysomething" has brought painful moments of self-scrutiny and doubt as close to the level of an art form as weekly television ever gets. Michael, Hope, Elliot, Nancy, Melissa, Ellyn, Gary and Susanna - they became family, an often exasperating family, granted, but oddly touching as they grappled with the unexpected and ironic ways in which life unfolds. ABC has canceled the series, and tonight's episode is the last. From here on out, the series is frozen in reruns.

Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, the creators of "Thirtysomething," wrote early on in a production memo outlining their aims: "This is a show about life on earth as we know it. At least a small slice of it. It's about a group of people, all of a certain age, who know enough about life to be totally confused by it. It's about growing up - no matter how old you are."

Both men were indeed in their 30's (and are only now pushing 40). They met as students at the American Film Institute and worked in the late 1970's on the series "Family," as did Richard Kramer, who would become a key producer-writer for "Thirtysomething" The wives of Mr. Herskovitz and Mr. Zwick - respectively, Susan Shilliday and Liberty Godshall - also became part of the "Thirtysomething" writing staff.

In short, the off-camera family has been in many respects as close and involved as the extended family created for the series. Furthermore, the lives of the actors and their characters can intersect randomly. Ken Olin, for instance, plays Michael Steadman; both have a degree in English literature from Penn State. Melanie Mayron portrays Melissa; both are photographers.

All of which contributes mightily to the personal intensity, and the occasional claustrophobia, of the series. The "Thirtysomething" people are analyzed mercilessly before seeing the red light of a television camera right down to the food they eat (these days Hope Steadman, played by Mel Harris, is partial to black beans and rice) and the books they read (the latest John le Carr‚ novel can be spotted in the Steadman bathroom).

The series did not get off to the most promising of starts. In the very first episode, Michael - already staking claim to the King of Whine label some critics gave him - was examining his relatively successful life and wondering: "Why do I feel so terrible? I know we're lucky." Moments later, he'd be moaning, "God, I hate people who talk like this." A year of so later, Patricia Wettig, who plays Nancy and is really married to Mr. Olin, was describing the show this way for Rolling Stone magazine: "We just talk. Talk and sex. And dinner! What's 'Thirtysomething'? We eat, we talk, we make love, and we talk about eating and making love, and we talk."

True enough, but gradually the talk got better. The scripts - especially those written by Mr. Kramer or Joseph Dougherty - became more inventive, more willing to push against sensitive boundaries. Fantasy segments became signature elements, from an elaborate parody of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" to brief daydreams. Sex came to be treated as something more than a dirty little secret. One episode with Michael and Hope in bed had her wanting to get her diaphragm even as he promised to withdraw before orgasm. Then there was the 1989 episode in which two gay men were seen sharing a bed, though not touching. That one led to sponsor defections.

Some of the "Thirtysomething" breakthroughs were more subtle. Michael's being Jewish, for instance, was explored on several complicated levels in a Christmas episode that ended up with his fantasy Santa Claus being revealed as the local rabbi. And then there was the inspired decision to put Michael and his partner and friend Elliot Weston (Timothy Busfield) in the advertising business. Here are two shrewd, talented idealists smack in the middle of a selling business that all too often has come to symbolic selling out.

Perhaps more than anything else, "Thirtysomething" has always been remarkably adept at conveying a sense of loss as time moves on. Ideals are compromised, relationships change. Elliot and Nancy break up. They get back together, but nothing will be quite the same. Nancy must cope with ovarian cancer. The young art director in Michael's firm tests HIV-positive. Michael's best friend, Gary (Peter Horton), is killed in an automobile accident. Nothing is certain. Do the best you can.

Michael, the conscience of the series, is continually having his darker visions of life verified. Network television despises downbeat material, and some analysts have theorized that Michael turned off male viewers with his self-doubt and failure anxieties. Fortunately for anyone interested in television of substance, "Thirtysomething" refused to compromise.

The series ends this evening with its characteristic mix of looming uncertainties and quiet struggles to do the decent thing. Out of work after taking an ethical stand at the ad agency, Michael goes to California where he has still another reconciliation with the impossible Elliot (it's been noted that if Michael represents Mr. Herskovitz and Mr. Zwick, Elliot is their id). Michael considers moving to California, but underestimates Hope's resistance. Hope is in one of her rebellious moods. "It's so easy to be a label - a wife, a mother," she says, "but you go down to the abused-women shelter and see what happens when the labels fall away.

Meanwhile, one prospective employer is bragging about how wonderfully he treats his workers: "We indulge them. We spoil them. We make sure their children get into the finest private schools in town." Back to the Herskovitz-Zwick statement of aims: The show, they wrote, "cuts deeper than questions of life style."

"You want to be honest but you don't want to be hurtful; you want to be accommodating but you want what you want; you want to be grateful but you want what you want." Michael and friends have been doing just that quite splendidly for the past four years.

Now, sadly and fondly, goodbye to all that.

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