Tuesday, October 27, 2009
When I was an undergrad for the first time, way back when, I fell in love with the show Thirtysomething. I thought it was a breath of fresh air, well-acted, well-written, clever and occasionally challenging. It was nice to have a drama without cops, lawyers, doctors, or PIs, a show which featured angst and despair and self-doubt and gay characters and amoral characters and yucky divorces and hateful kids. And I was an English major, and most English majors were girls, and all the English major girls loved Thirtysomething, and if I could talk to them about Thirtysomething then I had an "in" beyond the late phase novels of Henry James and Shirley Jackson's novels.*
It used to be a challenge to watch Thirtysomething. I was commuting to college and living at my parents' place. They always had another show to watch when it was on, so for a while I taped it on the VCR while they watched whatever, but then they had two shows to watch while it was on, so I had to buy my own ghetto-ass hand-me-down VCR to record it in my room while they watched one show and recorded another. This was back in the days of expensive VCRs, too. But I saw most of the original run up to the fourth and final season, even though sometimes I watched bad, grainy reception on cheap ass long-play VCR tapes.
Re-visiting Thirtysomething in my early 40s was a lot of fun. The episodes fall generally into two main categories: those involving Hope and her angst and insecurities, and those involving her husband Michael and his insecurities and doubts. Typically if Hope is having a rough time Michael will step up and point out how ridiculous she is being. When Michael is having a rough time Hope will reciprocate. Neither, apparently, is capable of healing his- or herself, despite the fact that their problems are almost precisely mirror images: doubts about decisions, competencies, direction, aspirations, etc. Hope and Michael are the anchor family of the series: he runs a blossoming ad agency with his partner Elliot, and she stays at home to take care of their infant. She is a pinched-face lapsed Protestant, he is a gregarious and creative Jew. They own a run-down but spectacular old house which they slowly repair. All the other cast-members are friends or family members or both. Hope and Michael are the center of the Thirtysomething universe.
The strength of the show remains the cast, which is remarkably good. Timothy Busfield, Michael Olin, Peter Horton, and Melanie Mayron are particularly inspired choices: Mel Harris, who plays Hope, is a bit too wooden, and in scenes calling for powerful emotion she tends to fall flat. I feel the same way about Patricia Wettig at times, but she steps up to the plate during Nancy and Elliot's divorce with some quality performances. But for the most part everyone is believable, the ensemble cast actually seems like a group of old friends, and I always had a big crush on Melissa.
Several episodes are excellent. Those dealing with Elliot and Nancy's divorce are powerful and hard to endure. A few are egregiously bad: dated, painfully un-funny, and insipid (and some moments in the good episodes are just WTF? bad). But all-in-all I enjoyed seeing the show again. I will borrow season 2 from Netflix, no doubt.
*How many dates did Henry James' late phase novels or Shirley Jackson's books get me? Zero--though a couple men tried to pick me up after we discussed The Wings of the Dove. How many dates did I get after talking about Thirtysomething? A few.