TV on DVD: “thirtysomething: the complete first season”

Written by Television, TV on DVD

thirtysomething_S1thirtysomething: the complete first season (2009, Shout Factory)
purchase from Amazon: DVD

In the mid ’80s, Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, a writing/producing team who had worked on the dramatic series Family and had success with a few made-for-TV movies, walked into ABC to pitch a new TV series. Neither wanted to be in television; both saw their future in motion pictures. In fact, Zwick had just directed the hit film About Last Night… and he was looking for his next film. However, the two men had struck a deal with ABC and were obligated to present an idea. Reluctantly, they entered their meeting and pitched a concept they anticipated would completely bomb with the television executives. Their idea was thirtysomething, a weekly drama about a group of friends coming to terms with their lives in their 30s, dealing with work and relationship issues, as well as coming to terms with the notion that their ideals of the ’60s didn’t pan out they way they had hoped. ABC loved the show and it began airing in the fall of 1987. It became a hit and established Herskovitz and Zwick as important new voices in television. More importantly, the cultural impact of this show is still felt today in the way shows are written and produced and how they are marketed. Shout Factory has just released thirtysomething: the complete first season on DVD, a wonderful new six-disc box set that not only includes all 21 episodes from season one, but hours of bonus material that looks back on the importance and impact of the series.

With its empathetic ensemble cast and its realistic look at life, thirtysomething struck a chord with viewers, particularly women, in the way it depicted the everyday occurrences that may seem trivial on paper, but in the real world could be difficult emotional issues. Things like finding a babysitter you trust, preparing for a housewarming party, a visit from you parents, trying to find love while your biological clock is ticking, and the effects your friends failed relationship can have on your own all were topics for episodes during the first season of thirtysomething.

The core people of the show were Michael and Hope Steadman (Ken Olin and Mel Harris) new parents to daughter Janey and owners of their first home, a real fixer-upper. Through Hope and Michael, the rest of the characters formed the ensemble that made up the thirtysomething cast. There is Hope’s best friend, Ellyn (Polly Draper), Michael’s younger cousin, Melissa (Melanie Mayron), Michael’s best friend, Gary (Peter Horton), Michael’s business partner, Elliott (Timothy Busfield), and Elliot’s wife, Nancy (Patricia Wettig). This small group created an extended family that fans came to love and care about for four seasons.

When casting the show, Herskovitz and Zwick had complete creative control and ventured outside the typical Hollywood scene, first looking in New York for unknown actors. They also looked to their friends, as well. Olin and Wettig (who are married in real life) and Herskovitz took their children to the same daycare, while Zwick called upon his old neighbor, Horton (also a budding director) to come in and play Gary. By bringing together these eager performers and giving them such rich characters to play, thirtysomething quickly became the forerunner to the character driven ensemble dramas we have today. Herskovitz and Zwick also took risks with the production staff. They brought in talent with limited experience, but fresh voices on television. Later, these same people would go on to become important creative forces in the entertainment industry. People like Scott Winant (Huff, Californication), Paul Haggis (Academy Award winning writer/producer of Crash), Winnie Holzman (creator of My So-Called Life, Broadway’s Wicked) and composer W.G. “Snuffy” Walden (The West Wing and Friday Night Lights, to name a few).

Watching the show all these years later, you’ll find that the pilot episode is a little theatrical. The acting feels a heightened and overdramatic. As the series continues, gradually the actors and writers settled in so that by episode four, a Rashoman styled story entitled “Couples,” thirtysomething hit its stride and became a powerful drama. In “Couples” Michael and Hope return from a dinner date with Elliot and Nancy. Throughout the hour, we see how all four characters recall the night and a fight between Elliot and Nancy that ended the evening, each memory and emotion different for the other person’s, Besides the stylistic approach to this story that signaled that thirtysomething was not going to be just an ordinary nighttime drama, this episode is important because it sets up the major theme of the first season. That is, how the crumbling marriage of Nancy and Elliot affects how Michael and Hope look at their own marriage. Over multiple episodes, they watch their friends suffer and question “Will this happen to us?

Another theme that gets explored thoroughly is the idea of accepting your place in society and that, maybe, despite everything you were told and all of the talent you thought you have, you just may not be that talented and destined for the acclaim and greatness you thought you were. Michael, especially, gets hit hard with this realization and the monologue Olin delivers during the episode “Nice Work If you Can Get It” is very effective.

Further into the season, the producers did a nice Hitchcock homage, “South by Southwest,” in which Gary’s apartment is vandalized after he sleeps with a professor’s wife. That episode guest stars Dana Delaney as a woman Gary falls in love with. Perhaps the most outstanding hour in the first season is “Therapy,” which follows Elliot and Nancy as they begin marriage counseling (with a doctor played by an uncredited Herskovitz). Even by today’s standards, this episode is raw and heartbreaking to watch. Given the latitude to improvise on set, Busfield and Wettig created incredibly real and hurtful performances. The script won writer Susan Shilliday a Writers Guild of America award in episodic television.

Certainly the subject matter of thirtysomething was not new territory for entertainment. However one had to look to the cinema to find this type of character-driven material, such as Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill and John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus Seven. On television’s big hits, shows that starred cops, doctors and lawyers, this type of introspection was confined to brief scenes that took place in between the big drug bust or the life saving operation of a young patient.

Labeled as “yuppies” by the press,  each character relatable and none of them were so upwardly mobile that you would call them rich and successful. Michael and Elliott struggle to keep their small advertising agency afloat and their high ideals intact; Hope is at first stay at home mom often unsure of herself and when she returns to work she questions the decision to leave her child so soon; Gary a professor unsure of his future; and Melissa always seems to be trying to find herself. Of all the characters, only Ellyn seems to be succeeding in her career. Yet even she is finding her life lacking, in particular, she longs to have a companion, someone to love so she may someday start a family of her own. Still, the yuppie label stuck and advertisers latched on to the style and smooth music of the show to market to the show’s target audience. thirtysomething’s followers may not have been as huge as Cheers or Newhart, but the people who did watch apparently had disposable income to spend. But don’t blame the show for the practices of the network or its advertisers; the intention of the producers was to make and effective television drama, not sell cars or clothes.

Although thirtysomething had its critics, its audience understood what the producers were trying to achieve and they saw a little of themselves in Michael, Hope, Elliott, Nancy, Melissa, Gary and Ellyn. Years later, the effect of thirtysometing was felt in fine series like Party of Five, Everwood, Six Feet Under, Friday Night Lights, Freaks and Geeks, Brothers and Sisters, and the two Herskovitz/Zwick produced My So Called Life and Once and Again. All owe to thirtysomething for the way it embraced character driven stories over big plots. Furthermore, genre shows such as ER and Homicide: Life on the Streets were able to produce episodes that were “about nothing” and audiences accepted these shows because of the ground thirtysomething broke.

The thirtysomething complete first season DVD box is one of the finest television box sets you will come across. Besides the quality of the transfer to disc, there are an abundance of extras that include commentaries on nine episodes from the creators, producers, key crew members and the cast; a fascinating one on one conversation between the cerebral Zwick and the more laid back Herskovitz on the genesis of the show; and five exhaustive featurettes that spotlight the cast, the writers and directors, and the cultural impact of the series.  In addition, the box set comes with a glossy 36-page booklet that offers essays and a breakdown of each episode.

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