I was a bit young for thirtysomething back when it was on the air, but it clearly made a huge impression on people who were in the right demographic (yuppies, people on the verge of becoming yuppies, and people who secretly longed to be yuppies) at the time. With the show coming out on DVD for the first time on Tuesday, there are a whole bunch of articles on its significance, including:
– This New York Times piece by Ginia Bellafante, who thinks it wasn’t progressive enough and sniffs that television didn’t really get good until the late ’90s and HBO and stuff. Also, she blames it for bringing in “goofy fantasy sequences” and “pointless flashbacks.” The article unintentionally makes me like the show better.
– An article in USA Today (or “The USA Today” as Colbert calls it) springboards the DVD release to talk about “relatable” TV characters through the ages, since the whole point of thirtysomething was to make relatability the entire basis for a one-hour drama. (There was no action, no mystery, not much plot, so the basis for audience involvement was that they saw themselves in the characters.)
– And the best of these pieces, a Newsday piece by Diane Werts. She discusses the influence of the show on the next 20+ years of television drama: how it was structured, how it was written and produced, and how small the stories could be in a one-hour show.
In a lot of ways I think thirtysomething was a show that demonstrated how dramas could be more like sitcoms. There are certain similarities between thirtysomething and Family Ties, like the Family Ties episode — done the season before thirtysomething premiered — where Michael Gross keeps asking himself whether he sold out his hippie ideals (again) and keeps flashing back to his ’60s past (complete with “Mr. Tambourine Man” on the soundtrack). Small stories about characters wondering whether they’d made the wrong life choices were normal on sitcoms; they all did one mid-life crisis episode a year. Herskovitz and Zwick demonstrated that you could do similar stories, except in an hour, on film, and without broad jokes or laughter on the soundtrack.
On a network-history note, ABC was a really interesting network in the late ’80s, about equal parts experimental and old-fashioned. There were many hour-long shows from 1985-90 that pushed the boundaries of what TV could do, and most of them were on ABC: Moonlighting, thirtysomething, China Beach, Twin Peaks. Plus a few unusual half-hours like The Wonder Years. But ABC was at the exact same time the network that was most devoted to old-school, corny family comedies (some on Friday night, some now). Interesting split-personality approach, and it made for lots of memorable shows.