Test Pilot: File #21, thirtysomething

Test Pilot #21: thirtysomething

Debut date: September 29, 1987

Series legacy: One of the most-respected family dramas of all-time, a precursor to the likes of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood

It’s time for a new theme in the site’s most popular ongoing feature, Test Pilot. The primary reason I started this feature almost a year ago was so that I could have a solid excuse to explore television’s history and fill in some of the blanks in my viewing and critical experiences. From the beginning, I have wanted to talk about the differences between television programs from the past (whenever the heck “the past” is) and the present. The theme we are kicking off today tackles that primary issue head-on. With the 63rd annual Primetime Emmy Awards coming this September, I thought it would be fun, interesting and insightful to look back at the 43rd ceremony held 20 years ago. In particular, my guests and I will watching and writing about the five nominees in the Outstanding Drama Series category from that ceremony in 1991.

Not only is 20 years a nice round number to start from in the theme’s examination of where television drama has been, the quintet of nominees from 1991’s Drama Series category is full of generally well-respected but different series. At that time, Emmy voters considered L.A. Law, China Beach, Quantum Leap, Northern Exposure and today’s topic series thirtysomething the best that television drama had to offer. Hopefully taking a look at the kind of programs that the Emmy voters considered “quality” two decades later will shine a light on how the industry and the Emmys have changed — and how they haven’t. Do these series share any interesting qualities? Major differences? Do we have different expectations for greatness today? Is television as a whole that different as it was in 1991? These are the sort of questions and concerns I hope that we can investigate and discuss over the next 10 weeks and five entries.

Like I said, up first is thirtysomething. The ABC family drama debuted in 1987 and by the time the 1991 Emmy Awards rolled around, it was already over. Therefore, its nomination in the Outstanding Drama Series category 20 years ago is for the final season and not the pilot episode. Nevertheless, I think we’re okay because Emmy voters loved thirtysomething from the pilot onward. The series won in this category for its first season (and probably this pilot episode) and was nominated in the following three seasons as well. Throw in a few acting and technical awards and it is safe to say that thirtysomething was an Emmy favorite.

Although he isn’t familiar with the series either (so no veteran viewer this time!), here to help me talk about thirtysomething is Andy Daglas. Andrew writes the TV-centric blog The Vast Wasteland for ChicagoNow, occasionally dabbles in non-TV-centric writing at andrewdaglas.com, and devotes an inordinate amount of energy to Twitter. Andy, your thoughts:

I was in grade school when thirtysomething originally aired, the point when I was just becoming aware of grown-ups’ television. I knew the series then largely as I know it now, by reputation – specifically, its reputation as a landmark document of 1980s Baby Boomer navel-gazing. And while the pilot doesn’t totally conform to that stereotype (aside from Ken Olin’s bodacious suspenders), it is indisputably an artifact of its particular time and place.

To its credit, the series even acknowledges this when Hope says, in the pilot’s final line, “We expect too much. We’ve always gotten too much. I think our parents got together in 1946 and said, ‘let’s have lots of kids and give them everything they want, so they can grow up and be totally messed up and unable to cope with real life.’” In a later era, it’s a moment hundreds of people on the Internet would have dubbed “meta.”

So it’s hard to compare thirtysomething with the television drama of today strictly on aesthetic grounds, separate from the cultural moment that informed it. Hope and Michael Steadman, along with their various friends and relatives, are quintessential upper-middle-class 1987-dwellers, and their travails speak directly to all the McGovern hippies struggling with their metamorphoses into Reagan yuppies. If its contemporary The Wonder Years was the Ghost of Boomers Past, thirtysomething was the Ghost of Boomers Present. (They didn’t know it at the time, but an up-in-coming Tonight Show guest host named James Douglas Muir “Jay” Leno was to be the Ghost of Boomers Future, but that’s another article.)

In several ways – its laser-focus on the world of its target demographic, its stylized depiction of quotidian concerns – thirtysomething reminds me of no modern TV genre more than the teen drama*. Almost every main character we meet in the pilot expounds in detail about the burden he or she bears. Elliot confesses an affair to Michael; Ellyn tearfully admits jealousy of Hope’s life and fear that she’s losing her best friend; Hope breaks down under the stress of her discomfiting new identity as a stay-at-home mom.

(*Not too surprising that series creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick followed thirtysomething with My So-Called Life.)

All of this is done with unflinching earnestness. Music swells, tears well, cue act break. Not a trace of irony or cynicism is to be found, just the raw wounds of ordinary people at given stages of life, served up weekly as a catharsis for millions of viewers. It’s so earnest, in fact, that it’s hard for me to imagine viewers in 2011 responding to the series.

That said, the thirtysomething pilot does introduce some broadly relatable themes. Underlining each of the character’s issues and the fraying group dynamic we see in the episode is a particular tension that’s as relevant in 2011 as it was in 1987: even if you and your friends move through the milestones of youth together, you often hit phases of adulthood separately, and at very different paces. Michael and Hope are figuring out how to raise a family. Elliot and Nancy have been wrangling a brood for years. Gary and Melissa remain quite content with their utter lack of responsibilities. When you grow up with a group of people, it’s highly disorienting to hit the point where you can’t quite relate to one another’s worlds any longer.

As someone who’s just a few months shy of entering the eponymous age bracket, it’s easy for me to connect with thirtysomething’s themes, especially Ellyn’s gnawing sense of distance from her friend, or Michael’s desire to succeed in business without sacrificing his ideals. What can be difficult to connect with, though, are characters’ expressions of those themes. Throughout the pilot, you get the impression that these people expected monogamy, parenthood, or career advancement to be easy, and are shocked – shocked! – to learn that they aren’t. Consequently, fears and doubts that are, objectively, wholly understandable often come across as self-absorbed, naïve, or maudlin.

Part of the disconnect is due to the shift in generations. The Steadmans and company grapple with fractured idealism; their Generation X and Y counterparts never had any idealism to speak of. A drama aimed at capturing the experiences of today’s young adults isn’t likely to wear its heart so prominently on its tattoo-sleeve.

But another part owes to the shift in our expectations of TV drama. Take a look at this year’s Emmy nominees for Outstanding Drama Series: Boardwalk Empire, Dexter, Friday Night Lights, Game of Thrones, The Good Wife, and Mad Men. With the exception of FNL, every one of those series is marinated in a thick glaze of cynicism bordering on misanthropy. FNL shares a certain amount of DNA with thirtysomething, as series about ordinary people trying to learn the right way to live their lives. Yet where the latter unabashedly heightens and dramatizes its characters’ personal problems, the former tempers them with its vérité style and frequently laconic disposition.*

(*And sure, the occasional five-state killing spree.)

Ultimately, what separates thirtysomething, in my mind, from the crop of current dramas generally regarded as “quality” television is its lack of high concept. It’s not a period piece or a genre series, it doesn’t tout a dark anti-hero, and it isn’t set against a colorful backdrop like small-town football or big-city politics. It simply sets out to examine the domestic lives and interpersonal relationships of a particular cohort of people, in a particular era, in circumstances that millions of contemporary viewers understood intimately.

If most dramas in the post-Sopranos grim-and-gritty era avoid this sort of small-scale vulnerability, our sitcoms pick up the slack. The endless transition into adulthood, and the shifting bonds among close friends, forms the core of series such as How I Met Your Mother, Community, and Cougar Town. Maybe today’s guarded, irony-tinged viewers prefer to engage those matters while armed with the emotional distance of a wink, a nod, and a gigantic glass of wine.

–AD

And now, my take on thirtysomething:

I, like Andy, only know of thirtysomething through reputation. When this pilot episode aired in September 1987, I wasn’t even born yet. Though Andy points out some of the negative connotations the series’ name brings forth, my paratextual knowledge of thirtysomething has always been more positive. I knew it had been a critic and Emmy favorite and I knew that its producers went on to make similarly well-respected programming like My So-Called Life and Once and Again. thirtysomething isn’t flashy enough to be remembered in some major pantheon of recent television history, but it’s one of those series that regularly gets mentioned when folks discuss Friday Night Lights or other character dramas.

And though it is probably unfair, my modern-leaning television mind kept wanting to compare thirtysomething to FNL or even Parenthood as I watched. Doing so isn’t completely detrimental to thirtysomething all these years later, however. While this initial offering does include a lot of overly earnest moping and countless conversations with people discussing major flaws in themselves, I found myself somewhat charmed by the whole thing. There are moments where my mind immediately went to “White People Problems” and this glorious Louis C.K. stand-up bit, but the issues these characters face (or, in some cases, bring up themselves) are fairly straightforward and relatable.

No matter what your race or tax bracket, you can understand the difficult post-pregnancy dance between a husband and wife. You want things to go back to “normal” (or at least television normal with lots of hot sex and a super-skinny wife being even skinnier), but at the same time, you love everything there is about the baby. Someone’s bound to feel neglected and someone else is bound to feel under-appreciated and that’s exactly what happens to Michael and Hope throughout this hour. The same can be said for the frustrations of the friends of the new parents. Change is hard, no matter who you are or what kind of suspenders you wear to work.

These issues are ripe for solid storytelling and the performances back the writing up relatively well. thirtysomething feels like a well put-together series all the way around. However, as Andy hinted at, the lack of humor makes it much harder to feel entirely invested in the problems of these folks. They all appear to be so well-off and put together that their combined lack of levity and love for hefty, heady conversations is tiresome. Michael is so wrapped up in how difficult his life is that he can barely realize that his life isn’t that difficult at all. He’s disappointed that his wife isn’t making him dinner and taking care of him at home and he’s fearful of becoming a sell-out at work. But hey, he knows he’s lucky. Or something. Basically, he’s the kind of person that only exists in fictional storytelling, especially from this era.

Look, I’m all for earnestness and small-scale storytelling that still has a dramatic punch, but it would be nice to see that the characters were somewhat aware of how insufferable they are at times. Unfortunately, these people (particularly Michael) don’t have enough time in the day to be self-aware between secretly worrying if their spouses will lose weight or if they will lose their credibility for doing what’s financially right by a company with dozens of employees.

I have watched episodes of a lot of older television series in the last year and thirtysomething might be the one that feels the most of its time. Because I’ve seen it compared to the likes of Friday Night Lights, I assumed that it would seem fairly timeless. However, the over-earnestness and lack of humor makes the series a complete product of its time. That’s not entirely a bad thing and as I said, there are easily understandable and relatable concerns here; yet, it is difficult for someone like me (i.e. much younger) to truly understand or care about how and why these people are so upset and frustrated with their lives.

One of the ways I think series like Friday Night Lights makes it work is through a larger concept in the backdrop. In 20 years, people might not understand or appreciate the economic, marriage or racial issues that powered some of the FNL‘s best moments, but the football will still be there holding it all together. It’s almost as if the audience can enjoy constant melodrama when it has a separate story engine as well. Sure, the people on Grey’s Anatomy are relatively insufferable, but if they didn’t work at a hospital and just hung out a coffee shop and talked the way that they do, they would be SO INSUFFERABLE. thirtysomething has the unfortunate combination of hand-wringing drama and no other story engine to compensate. Throw in 24 years time and boom, we have a recipe for respect, but not enjoyment.

All of this makes perfect sense when I think about thirtysomething‘s Emmy successes all those years ago. The Emmy voters are always chastised for ignoring some of the more critical takes on modern society (hello, The Wire) and embracing well-made, but perhaps not as difficult or influential series instead. Voters love to celebrate the things that they can easily relate to. thirtysomething feels like the epitome of that kind of voting logic, with its cast full of attractive upper-middle class white Boomers struggling to decide whether or not they’ve sold out on their way to a happy life. I can just picture it now, late ’80s and early ’90s voters watching this series and thinking to themselves, “That’s totally me. I was such a hippie and now I’m an upper-level executive at CBS with hundreds of thousands of dollars. BUT AM I HAPPY?”

Interestingly though, I wonder what this says about modern Emmy voters. I think thirtysomething‘s 2011 equivalent would have to be Parenthood, a series that similarly explores the white people problems of the middle class family in the 21st century. The NBC drama also lacks an outside story engine like thirtysomething but seems to do just fine without it, perhaps because it ratchets up the drama (and humor) more than its late ’80s counterpart (and is better for it).* And yet, despite its relatively high critical love, Parenthood has been completely disregarded by Emmy voters. General conceptions of quality have changed and the Emmy races are much more competitive now with the likes of HBO, Showtime, FX and AMC in the race, but I’m still surprised that Emmy voters have latched on to Parenthood a little bit in its first two seasons.

*Of course, my love and appreciation for Parenthood could easily look foolish to someone watching its pilot episode in 2031. I imagine that I can relate to that series more than thirtysomething because I exist in the same time as it. I know the cultural reference points, but I also understand and sympathize with the characters’ frustrations with the cultural moment. The white people problems on Parenthood feel more “real” because they’re my white people problems too. 

Although I like Parenthood more than thirtysomething, I’m not entirely sure what that tells me about the differences in 1991 television and 2011 television. I do think that Jason Katims knows how to write this kind of series better than anyone, which certainly helps Parenthood‘s case. However, the straight family drama is so rare on primetime television that it is hard to point out major changes, improvements or problems outside of the importance of humor and as Andy pointed out, a slight sheen of cynicism. It’s always been hard for this kind of series to stick out, but it’s infinitely more difficult to do so in today’s televisual landscape. It’s difficult for a series with a hook like “Peter Krause yelling” to compete with Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones or Mad Men. Only a few “good” family dramas come around each decade and despite my issues with this pilot, I can see that thirtysomething was definitely one of those for the late ’80s-early ’90s era. And I’d like to think Parenthood (and Friday Night Lights) carry that torch for this era as well.

–CB

Conclusions on legacy: Probably earned its respectability, but the pilot is still hard to watch in points for those of us not able to relate to that era

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4 thoughts on “Test Pilot: File #21, thirtysomething

  1. Small note, for what its worth — A few months ago I heard a screenwriting instructor named David Freeman make the case that thirtysomething ushered in the trend towards naturalistic dialogue in television writing and that seems worth pondering as we look at the shows legacy.

    This instructor has an extended analysis of the scene from the first act of pilot where Hope and Ellyn meet for lunch to illustrate this point. In that scene Hope and Ellyn talk in very ordinary language about their respective minor dramas, but the drama of the scene as a whole comes from the fact that they don’t quite connect — that they are supposed to be best friends but can’t get past their own stuff to have lunch.

    Minor stuff, admittedly, but the instructor’s point was that this was a somewhat revolutionary and “realistic” way to construct dialogue and dramatic tension at the time. It seems normal and real but harbors tension based on the fact that characters goals are in conflict during but they don’t actually express it in words — it’s all subtext. He argues that it is this style of dialogue writing and scene construction that we now see throughout a certain style of TV and film drama.

    Here’s a link to Freeman’s site where he goes through a scene from a different episode of thirtysomething in a good bit of detail: http://www.beyondstructure.com/article_layered_dialogue.php

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