THE STUFF OF REAL LIFE
by Lewis Cole
Copyright of The Nation is the property of Nation Company, Inc.
4/29/91, Vol. 252 Issue 16, p567, 6p. Item Number: 9104293242
Four years ago baby boomers entered prime time. Ten o'clock Tuesday offered the inner world. Thirtysomething doubled the half-hour sitcom, expanded the usual nuclear family into a community of hip friends and broadened the predictable domestic dramas to include dream sequences and toilet training. Thursdays, same time slot, came the outer world. Mixing Dallas-like trashiness with the social conscience of The Defenders, L.A. Law used the love lives of senior partners in a snazzy, downtown L.A. boutique law firm to spice a weekly, serious subject--assisted deaths, abortions, white hate groups.
The shows were opposites in concept and execution: the realism of Philadelphia versus the romance of L.A., 1960s-sounding, solo-guitar soundtrack versus percussive beat, veterans of the counterculture versus fast-track children of the Reaganite 1980s.
Thirtysomething was intended to show "life on earth as we know it," write the show's novice producers in thirtysomething stories, a recently published paperback of nine scripts (Pocket Books, $10.95). "We're interested in the stuff of real life. Small moments examined closely, showing the way people really talk, and dream, and even fantasize.... The kind of show that people might look at and say, `That's my life, I said that last night.'"
In contrast, no one I've ever known--with the possible exception of a tennis bum who earned a small fortune as the personal manager of several Hollywood starlets--would be caught dead claiming to utter a line from L.A. Law. Created by the trend-setting (Hill Street Blues) Steven Bochco, with Terry Louise Fisher, the show was aggressively outre, featuring at least one Standards and Practices taboo-breaking scene a month: a lawyer committing suicide as his closing statement, coolly passionate Susan Dey using the word "tits" in court, nerdy Douglas Brackman screwing his dead father's mistress, perennially abused Abby flirting with a possible lesbian lover. Unlike ABC's Volvo-driving, penny-watching, moralizing families, NBC's lawyers tooled around in sports cars, didn't buy a pair of socks for less than $25 and aired moral scruples only to be mercilessly shot down as fuzzy-minded hypocrites by their colleagues. As for family, they were isolates--parents only appeared in this show to be denounced or declared dead. Orphans of principle, the denizens of the McKenzie, Brackman law firm were devoted solely to booking hours, winning clients and outwitting their adversaries.
Yet since their premieres the shows have turned into their opposites. The formulaic serial has become a treasure-trove of social observation; its delight in yuppie culture has soured to contempt and rejection. Meanwhile, the innovative thirtysomething has shrunk into a predictable sitcom, Father Knows Best for the 1990s.
Thirtysomething started on an original note. It was fun to see normal sitcom subjects--hiring a baby sitter, holding a party for the boss, fighting with a friend--accessorized with Pottery Barn furniture and J. Crew clothes and talked about in the familiar, hip language of post- 1960s culture. Certain story lines--the death of Michael's father, Elliot and Nancy's separation, the dissolution of Michael and Elliot's small firm and its aftermath--generated morally complex, emotionally powerful episodes. Yes, some of the principals passed off mannerisms-- Ken Olin's mumbling, Peter Horton's smirk, Mel Harris's worried stoicism, Patricia Wettig's preening confusion--as performances. But other appearances captured a pathos rare for serial television: Danton Stone portrayed Michael's younger, incompetent brother with a thrashing, useless fury, and you could always count on Timothy Busfield and Melanie Mayron for honest, offbeat moments. (Busfield's perfectly depicted self- inflicted humiliations while looking for a job were painful to watch.) Yes, the cast demonstrated an appalling smugness at times; but this self- satisfaction reflected a truth about the 1960s generation in the same way, say, that the optimism of the Kramdens in The Honeymooners or Desi and Lucy in I Love Lucy was appropriate for the 1950s. Besides, the creators cleverly introduced the icily attractive Miles Drentell--played with a delicate, ironic reserve by David Clennon--as the head of the high-tech, New Age ad firm Michael and Elliot work for. Studiedly enigmatic, a jaundiced manipulator (the character is reportedly based on superagent Mike Ovitz), Drentell helps clear the often sanctimonious air that pervades the show.
But even at the start drawbacks accompanied these virtues. The self- consciously clever dialogue--"You were so dark and moody you didn't even reflect light"--made everyone sound like bit characters from a Woody Allen film. The smooth, timeless social ambience--without Reagan, the homeless, blacks or Latinos (in predominantly Third World Philadelphia), or even people with trust funds--produced a Leave It to Beaver world. The relationship between the two main couples repeated the Hollywood cliche: The off-lead Westons suffered for the sins of the leading Steadmans. While Elliot and Nancy endured separation, affairs, family therapy and cancer, Michael and Hope enjoyed a new child, a substantial raise and several relationship-strengthening bouts with contemplations of infidelity. Little details were annoyingly off. "Feels strange to be in a park without tear gas," says Ellyn, Hope's oldest friend. In 1986? Where has she been the last fifteen years? Tompkins Square?
At first this tension added to the show's fun. You recognized the problem that began each show--Ethan's fear and anger at his parents' separation, Hope's dithering about a job, Ellyn's pursuit of a new boyfriend--and moaned and guffawed at the bumbling attempts of these best and brightest to resolve the conflict. The show fulfilled one of TV's important community functions: The Steadman crew served as a source of gossip; in discussing their problems you found out what you and your friends thought about things.
But in time the tension disappeared. For whatever reason--long-term planning? a sudden change in production staff?-- the show's self- satisfaction has become its main quality. Thirtysomething has turned into a cheery, Ben Wattenberg tour of the glories of Reaganite America. Worse, the show has also begun to be guilty of TV's one unpardonable sin- - it's boring.
To begin with, the show has lost even its slender grasp of reality. "Happy endings, nice and tidy/It's a rule I learned in school/Get your money every Friday/Happy endings are the rule," sings the narrator of The Threepenny Opera. The writers of thirtysomething have taken him to heart. In their world, everything--work, children, spouse-- yields satisfaction. Betraying his boss, Michael wins Drentell's confidence and respect; arriving disastrously late, Melissa wows the (who else?) Vanity Fair editor with her work. Even death has no dominion: Nancy is cured.
The weight of this Panglossian insistence warps the characters. Taking himself and his work much too seriously--he should sneak a look at Shaw's jaunty prefaces--Richard Kramer, a producer of the series, comments in thirtysomething stories that one rule of the show has been never to do episodes on "Subjects." (Writing from character rather than plot or subject is a Hollywood piety, and presumably denotes the difference between artistic and commercial work--a judgment that consigns most of Euripides and all of Shakespeare's historical dramas to secondary status.) "Subject comes from character, and only from character; that was our group mantra," writes Kramer. This noble- sounding chant is specious in both theory and practice. A thirtysomething episode in which Ellyn's father has an affair is no less about subjects--male menopause, sexism, etc.--than an L.A. Law in which Sifuentes sues a hospital for malpractice. Besides, the resolutions of thirtysomething episodes constantly confound the characters of the show's principal players.
Take Michael--Steadman, as he's called by Drentell. Looked at objectively, Steadman is a recognizable type. He is emotionally remote (Ken Olin's nasal Hi-honey-I'm-home greetings make one long for Robert Young's hearty kisses); a coward (he emulates a boss he despises and excels at a job he believes unworthy of his artistic talents) and a dud around the house (his relationship with Janey, his--still--characterless 4-year-old daughter, is nonexistent, and I can't remember a scene in which he performs a domestic chore other than washing the dishes). His main gifts are loyalty (partly a consequence of his prudence); an unerring sense of corporate reality (when their firm collapsed, Elliot dreamed and whimpered while Michael unflinchingly accepted their failure) and the good sense to surround himself with friends more interesting than himself, though as a snob he understands others' quirks of character--Gary's irresponsibility, Melissa's neuroticism, Elliot's childishness--only to feel superior to them. In short, he's Dick Van Dyke in Paul Stuart suspenders, our generation's version of l'homme moyen sensuel, competitive, competent, cautious, a businessman whose thwarted artistic and social ambitions have fueled his corporate ascent, the junior officer of bourgeois society who--in the hands of a genius of realism--ends up as Charles Bovary or Karenin.
But how is Steadman presented to us by his creators? As an exemplar, the moral center of the show, the only member of his tribe who speaks both the practical language of the real world and the philosophical tongue of the inner world of emotion and morality. His accommodations with society are heralded as heroisms of everyday life; all his shortcomings are portrayed as ennobling attributes.
The effect produced by this idealization is bizarre. Instead of Steadman's problems showing his limitations and making us like and sympathize with him, they demonstrate his superiority--a false note that makes us cringe. His desire for other women proves his fidelity to Hope-- not his simple fear of having an affair; his contempt for his younger brother demonstrates his peerless grasp of reality--not his childish wish to beat his sibling.
And what is true for Michael goes for the show's other "good" characters (irresponsible characters, such as Elliot, don't bear this cross). Looked at objectively, Hope is a dilettante (she even dabbles in love affairs), but she is offered to us as a loving, independent, courageous, perfect wife, mother and woman. Similarly, Nancy is an emotional liar; her confusion is a ploy; she's simply too frightened to admit any feelings other than pleasant ones. But she is portrayed as a saint, complete with radiant smile.
The producers' refusal to accept the foibles of their own characters leads to a lack of dramatic tension and action. Thirtysomething is the first television hit since Dragnet to substitute reticence for conflict. For a group of good friends, these people make the Puritans seem like chatterboxes. They always wait until after the penultimate commercial break to tell one another what's on their minds. They have no choice. Confronting the real and difficult problems they face would throw them back on the limits of their circumstances and temperaments.
Thus, while still unemployed and being wooed by Drentell, Michael takes a writing class. He's not very good at it--Michael's too self-protective to be a writer. But the show waits until the last moment for this revelation and converts his failure into success. "I could wear down enough pencils to make a forest," he tells Hope in a note of cloying sentimentality at episode's end, "but I could never come up with a sentence that'd be worth as much to me as you are." In the same way, Hope and her old friend Ellyn find themselves estranged after Hope gives birth. The real conflicts of personality, choice and circumstance that make up their differences could easily prove fatal to the friendship, especially given thirtysomething's division of its female characters into classic Hollywood types of single, neurotic career women (Melissa and Ellyn) and Berenstain Bear-like moms (Nancy and Hope). But if Ellyn and Hope faced their differences at the start, the rest of the hour would have to follow them as they solved their problems, unhappily or not. Instead they spend forty minutes realizing they are angry and the last five minutes making up. "Can't we go separate ways and still be friends?" Ellyn asks. No. You probably can't.
It's naive to look for realism in sitcoms; no one expects the producers of thirtysomething to live up to their word. But there's fake and fake. A world of difference exists between a character such as Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden and thirtysomething's dishonest romanticizations. Kramden is a cartoon character--oversized, stubborn, impetuous, a loser whose tough life and big ego have turned him into a constant dreamer. But he remains true to himself. Every show teaches the same lesson--Ralph, you're a big jerk and boy are you lucky to have Alice. Similarly, Lucy is scatterbrained and well-meaning; Mary Tyler Moore, independent; Archie Bunker, narrow-minded; even the dads of the 1950s were domestic dunderheads. The world--the situations in which these weekly visitors find themselves--is constantly showing them their limits, the failures that make them likable and human. Thirtysomething is the first show in which perfection is portrayed as a human quality. (And woe to anyone who thinks otherwise. This show hates political activists. The commitment of Susannah--Gary's wife--to public service betrays her incapacity to love. The bearded environmentalist whom Hope falls for is a homewrecker.)
The most extreme instance of this myopia was Nancy's triumph against cancer. Never mind that the rates of survival are increasing. Death--the ultimate rebuff to the narcissistic attempt to control experience-- remains the stark human truth of the disease. The collision of these characters with this incontrovertible reality was startling. And the audience responded maturely to the challenge: Everyone expected Nancy to die, everyone wanted Nancy to die. Let me put the case as strongly as possible: Even Anna Quindlen wanted Nancy to die. Instead, what did the creators do? Smash poor unfortunate Gary--the one remaining faint voice of dissent in this happy community--to smithereens.
Meanwhile, back on the Coast, the lawyers who work for McKenzie, Brackman are constantly discovering the limits of the world. No mending and proving for these up-and-comers; the rigors of corporate survival have taught them to thrive on confrontation. Their ten-minute staff meetings provide more humiliation and revelation than a marathon group- therapy session. Flatulence, vanity, dullness--you name the fault, they spell it out. The life of the open book, my stepfather, Jose Yglesias, called the communal existence of revolutionary Cuba in 1967; it lives again in McKenzie, Brackman's boardroom.
Of course, McKenzie, Brackman bears as much resemblance to a real law firm as, say, Bonanza did to a working cattle ranch; and the show's courtroom scenes don't begin to suggest the grim truth of judicial process in our society. Yet this fairy tale of sex and social issues summons up a truer, much less idealized version of contemporary American society than its ABC counterpart.
To begin with, the show's improbable situations aren't all that unreal. L.A. Law skirts the line between the absurd farce of Night Court and the soap opera of Dallas. The more ridiculous trials-- the oversized African entry in the annual frog-jumping contest, the dwarfs used as human bowling balls--are of course taken from actual cases. But even sillier plot twists--Arnie Becker becoming an overnight celebrity with a do-it- yourself divorce video, Douglas Brackman dating Vanna White--depict a society in which the most private human interaction can be converted into a spectacle and the blessed curse of celebrity strikes without warning.
Moreover, these improbable situations are always resolved by creditable solutions. The courtroom scenes of course defy happy endings: Killers run free while children are buried. The show exploits these crises as emotional climaxes. In a recent episode parents sued to return to the care of the state their disturbed adopted child; the obligatory separation scene--pleading 9-year-old clinging to desperate mother--was appropriately heart-wrenching. But by and large these moments are like A.T.&T. commercials, flashcards to trigger your feelings. Like similar scenes on thirtysomething, they leave you crying and unconcerned, and demonstrate a manipulation at which television excels (and which represents a kind of emotional fascism).
But our lawyers suffer out of court as well. Law's equivalent of Steadman-- the character who embodies the show's point of view toward experience--is Arnie Becker, a divorce lawyer. Becker is a peculiarly Hollywood type: a driven, sharp-as-a-tack intelligence devoted wholly and unapologetically to a completely second-rate subject. He is Michael's mirror image: approximately the same age, equally gifted, equally self-deceiving. But his characterization is infinitely more rounded, many-sided, realer. Unlike Steadman, Becker is unmediated. Arnie starts to slug the taunting, opposing attorney who says there's a "fat boy" inside Becker wanting to come out. He wears his insecurity on his sleeve--or fly: Sexually compulsive, he is disloyal, manipulative, selfish, ruthless. "Is something the matter with Arnie?" his wife asks Roxanne, Arnie's long-suffering secretary. "He's become so considerate lately" (no thirtysomething frills in the best L.A. Law dialogue, just dead-on observation). While the writers don't coddle him--Arnie literally wrecks homes for a living--they also don't demonize him as a convenient villain. Turning 40, convinced he wants a family but scared or unwilling to take the smallest step toward maintaining one, he is a character who has lost any moral rudder and victimizes himself along with everyone else.
Arnie's desperation is also evident in the other characters. None of them have found happiness. At the same time, they don't cry in their champagne. In a recent episode, Rosalind Shays--a closing-in-on-60 powerhouse attorney who has tried to take over the firm--asks to marry Leland, the avuncular head of McKenzie, Brackman, whom she tried to depose before taking to bed. Leland likes, but doesn't love, Rosalind; the soul of propriety, he refuses. For a moment, Shays is tempted to play the schoolgirl and cut off the relationship. Then she relents. Dinner that night? she asks, accepting the unalterable reality of her situation. "Something simple," she adds, and touchingly suggests Hollywood's symbol for self-fortification. "Maybe pasta. I feel like pasta." (The following week she stepped unwittingly into an empty elevator well; in short, she got the shaft.)
On L.A. Law, hopes exist only to be destroyed. Abby won't get the nod for partnership; golden-boy Kuzak wins his biggest case only to discover his client is guilty and has played him for a sucker; Stuart will never win a case he litigates; Anne will never be the mother she wishes she could become.
These limits aren't simply matters of temperament. Offering a wealth of detailed social observation--clothes, language, attitude--the show provides endless variations on the power of money, class and status to determine people's lives. When Stuart and Anne decided to have a baby, the show explored the labyrinthian, class-structured world of adoption, and the appearance and manner of the people who live off the trade--as well as the personal and professional costs that children exact from middle-class parents.
In this world no experience or emotion--not even at the firm itself--is so sanctified that it can't be turned into a commodity. Originally the members of McKenzie, Brackman talked about themselves as a community, a quiet eddy of principles and partnership in the turbulent stream of commercial practice. But the need for profit and prestige has frayed the bonds of comradeship that once held the firm together. "Do we have to always fight, for God's sake?" Leland McKenzie asked in a staff meeting recently, shortly before saying he wanted to "pummel" the three partners who had left to start their own firm. In this war for survival, the once high-minded law office has been diluted to include crude types without which the place won't survive, and the partners have been forced to take morally ambiguous cases. Jonathan Rollins, Law's matinee-idol buppie, defended a white cop in a police-brutality case spearheaded by a morally ambiguous black community leader (Al Sharpton has become television's favorite caricature). Rollins won the case only to be arrested several weeks later by two white cops who suspected him of being a rapist when they saw him jogging in a white neighborhood. When he resisted, they beat him up. The episode predated the recent police scandal by a month--the stuff of real life, as thirtysomething's producers would say.
Having said all this, one thing must be added: thirtysomething stays with you; L.A. Law vanishes the next day. Why does the show get under your skin?
First, the attempt to portray real life has its rewards. The problems on thirtysomething are recognizable, not ridiculous. No one watching Law knows or cares how these people live in real life. On the other hand, a lot of us viewing thirtysomething have had a first child; we identify with Hope and Michael when they decide to take a weekend away from Janey, then react with disbelief when they agree to spend the precious forty- eight hours on a camping trip with their friends. (A hotel with twenty- four-hour room service, yes; a camping trip? Never.)
But the show is also seductive. In "real life," families like the Steadmans and Westons are caught in a grind of work and bills unknown to their parents. To maintain their middle-class lives they must spend unthinkably large sums of money and sacrifice many personal, social and political standards. But who wants to hear that? Much better to make one's days a fairy tale, convert nasty compromises into heroic gestures. In one of the many self-inebriated passages that woozily wander through the pages of thirtysomething stories, Joe Dougherty writes that the scripts "were passionate, complex, and touched with a radical message: life is messy, full of terror and loss, but we're alive and capable of great love, so let's get on with it." Sorry--Bambi and Dumbo already taught us that. The show appeals to the spoiled brat in all of us. Its false consciousness is a self-indulgence of which even Ralph Kramden himself--that big baby--would be ashamed.
Lewis Cole is fortysomething and not a lawyer.
Article reproduced respectfully but without permission. No infringement intended in any way. Only intended for the personal enlightenment of readers.
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