Thursday, November 12, 2009

TV Droppings: thirtysomething, twentysomething years later

I'm currently slogging my way through season one of thirtysomething, which was released on DVD a few months ago. Well, maybe "slogging" is too tough a word, but I have to admit, I can watch only one episode at a time. This surprises me, as I remember the show very fondly, and have been awaiting its release with some eagerness.

This show is no Mad Men, which can be ripped through in a single weekend (I have written about that show before), and it is certainly no Slings and Arrows, which can be devoured in a single sitting. With thirtysomething, I'm not all that anxious to discover what happens next. The show was appointment television for me during its initial run, and now I am wondering if that was due to the fact that I was myself "thirtysomething" at the time. It was a bit of a groundbreaker, as it was a family drama without the family; it centered around 7 youngish adults who, in essence, became each other's family. Perhaps that was the aspect of the series which appealed to me the most, as I have done exactly that (choose my own family) throughout my life.

I'm having trouble finding any other reasons I was so enamored of the show. I certainly did not see myself in any of the core characters; my recollection is that it would be well into the show's run that David Marshall Grant would show up, as shy, offbeat artist Russell, who happens to be gay. More on him anon.

First seasons of shows are often the least cohesive, and thirtysomething is no exception. Though the performances are as I remember them, the writing has an archness which is not attractive to me today. I see now why, during its run, it was so often criticized as being "whiny," as the characters seem to be experts at making mundane problems life-threatening. The leading lady, Hope (Mel Harris), is almost unbearable in these episodes, as she complains about just about everything. When her mother (played by the spectacular Shirley Knight) comes to visit, and does nothing but attempt to help her daughter, she spins out of control.

I admit one of my favorite episodes of the whole series was one of these early ones, in which Hope and Michael attempt to have their first date night since their baby was born; cabaret artist Michael Feinstein provided the musical motif for this episode, which creatively used two actors (Lucy Webb and Timothy Stack) to portray a series of characters who spoil the evening. This was also the first appearance of therapist Dr. Nestle, played by Earl Boen in a recurring role, who shows up in a fantasy sequence dreamed up by Melanie Mayron's Melissa.

Those fantasy sequences were pretty unique back then, and provided the thirtysomething writers with some fun playthings. The Thanksgiving episode, for example, included a fine sequence when photo proofs of the gang came to life and commented on the action. I'm also enjoying the work of actor Terry Kinney, who has a recurring arc as the boss and boyfriend of career girl Ellyn (Polly Draper). I remember loving his work back then, and it was after his character was gone before I learned he was one of the Steppenwolf gang (I have been surprised that he did not achieve the fame his cohorts John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, and Laurie Metcalf did...I hope he's not bitter).

Well, I'm barely through the first half of the first season, and I know things will pick up. The show never really took off in the ratings, but became one of the first shows to survive due to its demographics, rather than its overall viewership. In future seasons, there will be some dark turns, including a nasty divorce, and a long story arc concerning breast cancer (from personal experience I can report that it is handled realistically). Those storylines will be anchored by Patricia Wettig as Nancy; she was the most Emmy'd of the cast, winning awards for her work three of the four years the series ran. When Michael and Elliot (Ken Olin and Timothy Busfield) abandon their own ad agency and sign on with a larger firm, we will meet one of the most memorable characters of the series, Miles Drentell (David Clennon), who makes Don Draper look like a pussycat.

The future will also include the single most controversial episode of the series. It may be the single most controversial episode of any series of the 1980s. It was in season three that David Marshall Grant's character, Russell, hooked up with Peter, played by Peter Frechette. They have a "morning after" scene in bed, which was apparently a television first. I remember the scene distinctly: the two guys are sitting up, side by side, not touching, barely even looking at each other. It was that awkward "where do we go from here" moment, one we have seen thousands of times played by straight couples. But because it was two men, the world exploded. Boycotts were threatened, and sponsors yanked commercials. ABC lost over a million dollars by broadcasting the episode, so it's little wonder they declined to rerun it, for fear of further controversy.

All that fun is in the future, though. For now, I will slowly make my way through season one of thirtysomething, and appreciate the fact that the show created a whole new word to describe people of a certain age.