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.
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.
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.
The series was extremely popular with young adults. It won 13 Emmy Awards and was nominated for 41. It also won two Golden Globes.
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).
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.
She dated Gary in the past and there is always a “will they or won’t they get back together” vibe between them.
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.
In an article on hollywoodreporter.com in 2017, Craig Tomashoff interviewed Herskovitz about the creation of the show and the casting.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.