thirtysomething: love it or hate it?

Continuing our Rewind 1980s, today we delve into the show that was thirtysomething. If you want to start a heated debate, just ask a group of people what they thought about the show. Everyone has a definite opinion, and the answers vary greatly. This is Us and A Million Little Things remind me a lot of thirtysomething. They are shows I look forward to every week. Not surprisingly, Ken Olin who played Michael on thirtysomething is the executive producer of This is Us; he also has directed many of the episodes, and Timothy Busfield who played Elliot Weston on the show has also been a director on This is Us.

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Gary, Melissa, Ellyn, Michael with Janie, Hope,
Nancy with Ethan, Elliot with Brittany

I loved the show when it was first on the air. The first couple episodes I watched on DVD had a few moments that seemed a bit too introspective and overthought, but as the series progressed, I remembered why I loved the show so much. Choosing between a show where characters might overthink occasionally versus some of the mindless shows currently on television, I’ll take the first option every time.

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A typical thirtysomething scene

Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, who both worked on Family, created this show for United Artists Television. It was on ABC for four seasons from 1987-1991. A group of baby boomers, made up of single friends and married couples living in Philadelphia, experience life after college. Originally the show was called “Thirty Something,” but it was changed to thirtysomething before it aired. The word “thirtysomething” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary after this series became so popular.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the memorable music from the show. W.G. Snuffy Walden and Stewart Levin were the composers for the theme song and much of the music that was heard in the background. A CD was released in 1991, titled “The Soundtrack From thirtysomething”. I have that CD and still listen to it from time to time. Walden would go on to compose music for many series including The Wonder Years, The West Wing, and Nashville.

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The series was extremely popular with young adults. It won 13 Emmy Awards and was nominated for 41. It also won two Golden Globes.

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The Steadmans

Although this was an ensemble cast similar to Friends, the main characters were Hope (Mel Harris) and Michael (Olin) Steadman. Michael runs an advertising company with Elliot (Busfield).

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The Westons

He and his wife Nancy (Patricia Wettig) are good friends of Hope and Michael. (In real life Wettig and Olin are married.) Michael’s best friend is professor, Gary Shepherd (Peter Horton), and Hope’s best friend is Ellyn Warren, (Polly Draper) who works for the city. Michael’s cousin Melissa (Melanie Mayron) is also part of the inner circle.

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Ellyn and Gary pretend to be dating as a prank on Hope and Michael

She dated Gary in the past and there is always a “will they or won’t they get back together” vibe between them.

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Michael and cousin and friend Melissa

Michael and Hope have a baby when the show begins, and the Westons have two young children, Ethan and Brittany. The children are all central characters in the show.

Intelligent scripts and realistic plots make the show a classic. As the show evolves, Michael and Elliot have to give up their company and go to work for someone else, Gary and his girlfriend Susannah (Patricia Kalember) get pregnant which leads to their marriage, Ellyn and Melissa have various serious relationships before they find their soulmates, Nancy pursues her dream of being a children’s author and illustrator, the Westons separate, and Hope is constantly weighing the advantages of being a stay-at-home mom versus returning to her writing career. Melissa’s career as a photographer skyrockets including work for Vanity Fair and a Carly Simon album cover. In addition, there is the unexpected storyline when Nancy battles ovarian cancer. She is told she is in remission and her friends throw a party at her hospital room, when Michael gets the call that Gary has been killed in a car accident on the way to see them.

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Susannah and Gary get married
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Michael and Elliot

In an article on hollywoodreporter.com in 2017, Craig Tomashoff interviewed Herskovitz about the creation of the show and the casting.

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Nancy helping Gary with teaching children’s literature

Herskovitz explained after quickly putting the script together, based in part on the concept of the movie The Big Chill, they had to find their ensemble cast. He said each character was a totally different experience. When Busfield walked in the room, they said he was cast before he even read a line. Marshall and Olin were already friends, so they cast Ken as Michael and then hired his wife but explained she was going to be married to another character. She only had one line in the pilot so she was a bit worried about the character, but they promised her that her character would be developed more fully. Horton was also a friend of Herskovitz’s. They lived in the same neighborhood and their wives were also friends. He wanted to be a director, not an actor. But when he read the script, he thought it was the best pilot he had ever seen, so he came on board. Mayron and Draper were both brought in for auditions. Mel Harris auditioned for Zwick and Herskovitz but then heard nothing. She had only been acting for about a year or so at that time. She finally got the call that she was hired.

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Michael and Gary

The group worked very well together. The show focused on friendship and feelings. As Mayron once described it, rather than the big things in life, the show was “about the minutiae of life, not the disease or crime of the week.”

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Melissa and her soulmate

This was seen in the marital relationships as well.  Although there were a few big things that came between Hope and Michael, most of their arguments were smaller, petty things that most couples argue about from time to time. Hope wanted help with cleaning the house; Michael felt the laundry wasn’t done often enough. We didn’t see anything romanticized–the house needed repairs and trying to get a babysitter was a frustration. However, we did see things that were romantic. In the middle of a conversation about their daughter, when it was quiet, Michael and Hope would have a loving moment.

Busfield said the actors chose to focus on each other and insulate themselves a bit. Horton said “Ken, Tim and I became almost like brothers. We meshed in each other’s lives, never feeling competitive with each other. Tim was the most practical of all of us.” Because the cast was so close and they shared their lives with one another, Zwick admitted, that “we mercilessly robbed the cast of their life experiences.” Occasionally, someone in one of the actor’s past would not be happy seeing a story from their life on the screen.

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Busfield said the cast realized how important their characters were to the viewers and how much they related to them, sometimes in negative ways. Once in a grocery store, a woman came up and slapped him across the face because of the way he treated Nancy. She apologized when he reminded her that was not him but his character. Wettig said a woman asked her where she did her chemotherapy and then shared with her that she had just been diagnosed with cancer and had to find a treatment facility. Mayron started wearing her suspenders backward for Melissa just as a unique fashion. One day when she was out and about, she saw a lot of girls doing the same and they told her they were copying her. Horton’s story was that he had been a dedicated fan of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. One day at an event he had a tap on his shoulder and when he turned around, he saw David Crosby who shared that he was a huge fan of Horton and thirtysomething.

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Susannah coping with Gary’s death

The show mirrored real life for viewers. Many people were dealing with internal struggles and thought that they were the only ones who experienced such thoughts. There was a comfort in the realization that other people had the same feelings. Viewers had an intimate relationship with the cast.

Most of the characters wanted to do something big with their lives and careers. They are now at the turning point where that may come true or they might have to re-adjust their perspective of what’s important. The married friends are jealous of their single friends at times and the single friends return the favor. Nothing is black or white.

If you think of life as a mosaic masterpiece, you realize each episode of the show looked at one tile piece in-depth. It can be exhausting and feel overwhelming to do that, but once you do, you develop an appreciation and understanding of the artwork as a whole that you would not achieve just looking at it as one thing.

THIRTYSOMETHING, (L-R), Peter Horton, Rachel Nagler, Patricia Wettig, Mel Harris, Timothy Busfield, Jason Nagler, Polly Draper, Ken Olin, Melanie Mayron, Season 1, 1987. (c) MGM Television/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.

When the show came out, critics were divided.  Some loved it; some hated it. Gene Seymour from the Daily News, wrote that is would “bring you down” and “make you uncomfortable.” However, he also said the show “deserves your attention.”

When the series was cancelled four years later, things hadn’t changed that much. An ABC spokesman said the show was cancelled partly for ratings decline and partly because Zwick and Herskovitz wanted to make feature films. At that time, Francesca Chapman, also of the Daily News, wrote that the series “has told us stories we already know and made it fascinating” and that “they were all the more gripping because a good story, told realistically and in detail, a story that doesn’t necessarily have a punch line or a happy ending, is an unusual thing on TV. After tonight, it will be all the rarer.”

The cast was featured on a reunion episode in 2009 on Good Morning America. When the show turned 30 in 2017, it propelled a lot of articles about the cast and the significance of the show. The show had not been forgotten.

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GMA Reunion 2009

When thirtysomething started in 1987, it provoked a lot of disagreement about the show. When it went off the air four years later, the debate had still not been settled. Now thirty-two years later, there is still not a definitive answer. You love it or you hate it. While I admit, when I began re-watching the episodes from the first year, I was surprised that I saw too much whining which was a big criticism of the show originally. But once the season got underway, the whining was replaced with in-depth discussions about life and friendship. I loved it, and I’m grateful to the show for creating a place on television today that can feature a show like This Is Us. Just when you think you’re going to give up on television and just read, a show like that comes along and brings you hope that it’s not all a wasteland and that there is treasure to be found if you take time to look for it.

Family: The Perfect Blend of Intelligent Writing, Superb Acting, and Warm Fuzzy Feelings

This month we are doing a 1980s Rewind, looking at some memorable shows from that decade. We start with one of my all-time favorite series, Family. I think this is one of the most disrespected and underrated shows from the past fifty years. It had an amazing cast, and the scripts were intelligent and well written.

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The show ran on ABC from 1976-1980, producing 86 episodes. The critically acclaimed show had three well-known producers: Leonard Goldberg, Aaron Spelling, and Mike Nichols. Jay Presson Allen created the series, and she wrote every episode.

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Kate (Sada Thompson) and Doug (James Broderick) Lawrence are an upper middle-class couple living in Pasadena, CA. They have three children: Nancy (Meredith Baxter Birney), Willie (Gary Frank), and Letitia (Kristy McNichol), known as Buddy. Doug is a lawyer, hoping to become a judge. He is a warm-hearted person who often finds humor in their family situations. Kate is a practical woman but can come across as a cold woman. She can be quite passionate and loves her family very much but has trouble showing a lot of affection. She always does what she feels is morally right. She has sacrificed her dreams to stay home and raise her family. Later in the show she does go back to school to major in music.

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The original cast with Elayne Heilveil as Nancy

In the pilot, Nancy was played by Elayne Heilveil, but Meredith Baxter Birney took over the role once the series began. Cheryl Ladd also auditioned for the part of Nancy. Spelling remembered her and later cast her in Charlie’s Angels. Nancy finds her husband Jeff (John Rubinstein) in the act of cheating on her and moves back to her parents’ home, living in their guest house with her son Timmy. Even though Nancy and Jeff are divorced, they are friends, and he appears on the show often and is involved in Timmy’s life. The Lawrences also had a son named Timmy who died when he was little. Nancy and her mother often butt heads. In the second season, Nancy decides to go to law school and is very successful.

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Willie is always trying to find himself and can’t quite decide who he is. He has a high IQ but drops out of school. He dreams of being a writer and later works for a photography studio for a while.

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Buddy was a tweenager. Buddy is a tomboy and well liked by her friends and family. She had two famous boyfriends during the show: TJ played by Willie Aames and Leif Garrett. Buddy is much closer to her mother than Nancy is. Nancy and Buddy have a trying relationship too, although they both want to be closer. Willie and Buddy are very close.

Everyone in our actual families could find someone in the show to relate to. I notice myself looking at the show from a different perspective now than I did in my teen years.

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There were 24 different directors during the series’ run. Richard Kinon directed almost 25 percent of the shows. Kinon had directed episodes of many classic shows including Bewitched, Hogan’s Heroes, The Patty Duke Show, The Partridge Family, Room 222, and That Girl. After Family, he would direct a quarter of The Love Boat episodes. James Broderick directed four of the episodes. Not surprising for me was learning that Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick also tried their hand at directing. Both of them were also listed as producers and writers of the show. They would later go on to help create thirtysomething, a show we’ll learn about next week. Both men were also involved with Once and Again and Nashville, among other shows.

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The storylines were very realistic and handled with delicacy and intelligence. Some of the topics the show tackled included breast cancer, infidelity, senility, divorce, adoption, terminal illness as well as the typical teenage issues faced by most youth.

In the last season, the Lawrences adopt Annie Cooper (Quinn Cummings) after her parents are killed in a car accident. They were her parents’ friends and their choice for guardians if anything happened to them.

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Rubinstein who played Jeff composed the theme music. Apparently, he inherited some musical genes from his father, Arthur Rubinstein, the famous classical musician. He has continued his dual career in both acting and composing since the show ended.

A couple other cast members also had famous relatives. Broderick’s son is Matthew Broderick, actor, and Baxter Birney’s mother was Whitney Blake who played Missy on Hazel, among other roles.

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The show was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series in 1977, 1978, and 1980. Thompson, Frank and McNichol all won Emmys, and Broderick and Baxter Birney were nominated as well.

I could not find a reason for it, but only the first two seasons have been released on DVD and that was in 2006. I have not seen the show in syndication for many years.

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One of my favorite television homes: the Lawrence house

Plans were made for a 1988 reunion movie. James Broderick had passed away, but he rest of the cast was on board. When the writers went on strike, the project was placed on hold and later dropped from production.

I watched a few of the episodes from season one. The show still holds up today.  Although it closely mirrored the social issues from its era, those topics are still relevant today. It may have included some melodrama, but it never was about melodrama.  It contained enough humor to offset the tragedy just like real life. Doug and Kate had strong moral values and they passed them on to their children but understood life was changing and they could not be close minded.

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Jay Presson Allen

Jay Presson Allen brought insightful writing to every script, but the incredible acting brought the characters to life.

UNITED STATES – SEPTEMBER 13: FAMILY – cast gallery – Season Three – 9/13/77, Sada Thompson (Kate), (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Sada Thompson was not overly affectionate but calmed her children down and could discuss anything with them. They relied on her guidance and wisdom. She embodied class and elegance. I was surprised to learn that Lear had hired her to play Archie Bunker’s blue-collar neighbor, a plumber named Irene Lorenzo for All in the Family. I was not surprised to learn that Betty Garrett replaced her in the role because Sada had too much genuine class and didn’t yell loud enough for Lear. James Broderick discussed working with Thompson. He said he “was only one of her many fans. Sada is about as close as we get in this country to the British super actresses like Dame Edith Evans and Dame May Whitty. I’m sure if Sada lived in England, the Queen would have dubbed her Dame Sada a long time ago.”

UNITED STATES – SEPTEMBER 21: FAMILY – cast gallery – Season Four – 9/21/78, James Broderick (Doug), (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Broderick flawlessly captured the fun nature of Doug Lawrence. Doug left the disciplining up to his wife most of the time and was not as serious as his wife. Doug and Kate were also very affectionate with each other.

FAMILY, Meredith Baxter Birney (aka Meredith Baxter), 1976-80
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Baxter Birney was the perfect combination of brains and beauty who wanted to be the wife and mother she saw in her mom as well as the respected lawyer she saw in her father.

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Frank portrayed the young adult who couldn’t figure out what he wanted from life. He was not a “sit behind the desk kind of guy,” but needed to make a living. Willie was more interested in the humanities and finding meaning in life. He always seemed to be in difficult relationships.  Early in his adult years, he fell head over heels in love only to find out she was pregnant before they met and she left him eventually but weaved in and out of his life for years. He later met his soul mate, but she had terminal cancer, so even though they married, they only had a short time together.

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McNichol was believable as a young girl moving into her teens and dealing with all the stress and changes teens go through.  She was funny, silly and loveable and could be irritating occasionally and whiny, just like teens are. McNichol appeared very mature for her age and seemed to have everything under control, but it was a façade. She said she “was like a miniature adult.” She’d go off to the set “every day with a little briefcase. I really think I grew up backwards.” Dinah Manoff, who guest starred on Family before acting on Empty Nest with McNichol said “Kris was the most adult kid I’d ever met. She didn’t even have to study her lines. They’d hand them to her right before she walked out on the set.”  Thompson once remembered that the adults “used to talk about how amazing it was that Kristy didn’t appear to feel any of the pressures of growing up as a successful child actress. The cost is enormous, you know, but Kristy didn’t seem to be paying it.” Unfortunately, she paid it with interest a few years after the show ended. When she was a young adult, she began to rebel and made some very poor choices, trying to recapture the childhood that she never got to experience.

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I don’t remember a lot about the role of Annie Cooper. Once Buddy began growing up, she was brought in to continue storylines kids could relate to. She had just been nominated for an Academy award for The Good-bye Girl and seemed to transition into the show easily.

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Hopefully the rest of the seasons are released on DVD so we can continue to appreciate the remarkable blend of writing, acting, and directing that was featured on this show.

Family–that says it all: joyful, heart-breaking, boring, exciting. loving, conflict and everything in between.