By its third season, thirtysomething was a well tuned machine, turning out quality television week after week with some of the finest writing, directing and acting at the time. The producers and writers, led by creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, could have rested on their laurels and continued to just feature stories about the mundane everyday lives of their ensemble of true-to-life characters. Instead, they chose in the third season to introduce the specter of death in the form of cancer, using what could have been clichéd sick character empathy and turning it into a string of beautifully realized episodes featuring some exemplary work by Patricia Wettig and Timothy Busfield. The third season also had the distinction of airing one of the most controversial hours of television (at the time), an episode that has not been seen since its initial airing back in 1989.
At the beginning of season three, Herskovitz and Zwick decided to inflict the character of Nancy (Wettig) with cancer. After spending two seasons avoiding “big” stories like cancer, the producers concluded that illnesses do inflict the mundane everyday lives of people and that this would be a wonderful creative opportunity to explore illness and how it not only effects a family, in this case, the mending unit of Nancy and her estranged husband, Elliot (Busfield), but also the extended family of friends that comprised the series. Nancy’s ordeal with ovarian cancer and its aftermath were felt throughout the latter half of season three. Wettig shines in each of her episodes, as does Busfield as the worrying and stressed out Elliot. For their fine work, Busfield and Wettig were both nominated for Emmys, with Wettig winning that year.
The controversial episode of the third season is entitled “Strangers” and it has not been seen since November 1989. As written by Richard Kramer, “Strangers” shows the parallel love lives of Melissa (Melanie Mayron) and her friend, Russell (David Marshall Grant) a gay artist. In the episode Melissa struggles with her insecurities of dating a younger man, Lee (Corey Parker). At one point, they roll around in bed, both naked, both sexually excited. Meanwhile, Russell goes on a date with an ad executive, Peter (Peter Frechette) and the two men wind up in bed together at the end of the night. Mind you, we never see any touching of kissing between Russell and Peter. In one short scene, we see the two men sitting up in bed, shirtless and under the covers, post coital. The men have a casual conversation about the friends they’ve lost to AIDS while Peter smokes a cigarette.
This short scene caused such uproar in 1989 that some sponsors pulled out of the episode before it aired. Moreover, when ABC planned to repeat it later on the season, those same sponsors and others threatened to pull out of the rebroadcast. The writers and producers received hate mail and ABC locked “Strangers” away in the vault. Watching it now, twenty years after it was produced, the scene is chaste. However, it was a groundbreaking moment for network television and helped pave the way for the positive portrayal of gays and lesbians. Presented on this box set, the episode includes Kramer’s upbeat and positive commentary, enhancing the viewing experience.
As with the previous two seasons of thirtysomething that Shout! Factory has released, the complete third season is a wonderful package, complete with insightful commentary and a nice booklet that gives synopses and credits for each episode. Additionally, there is a new (as in, a couple months ago) introduction for Herskovitz and Zwick, reflecting on the third season. Fans of the show will be delighted that this collection holds up to the previous two releases.