'thirtysomething' turn unexpected but enlightening


February 13, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun TV Critic

Nancy lives. But Gary died.

The producers of "thirtysomething" titled last night's episode, which promised a dramatic turn in the storyline of Nancy's cancer, "Life and Death."

They delivered on that promise, but not as some fans expected: the death of Nancy.

Before the second commercial break last night, Nancy (Patricia Wettig) got the results of second-look surgery after a year of chemotherapy.

As she put it, "It's the best possible news. The cancer hasn't returned."

Just when some viewers were surely breathing a sigh of relief, along came the news a few minutes later that Gary (Peter Horton) had been killed in a car accident. The rest of the show was about the main characters hearing the news and starting to mourn.

Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, the producers of "thirtysomething," have come in for some criticism for their handling of the Nancy-has-cancer storyline. The criticism is that they are exploiting deep feelings about cancer and death in hopes of larger audiences.

But, overall, Zwick and Herskovitz deserve praise, not criticism, for introducing cancer and the real possibility of death from cancer of a relatively young person into the prime time landscape.

Prime time television has long avoided such topics as cancer, not out of deference to viewer feelings but because the advertising industry believed such downbeat material would drive viewers away.

But one of the most useful social functions of television is that it can offer us the chance to see our fears and anxieties symbolically played out on the screen while we view the process from a vantage point of safety in our living rooms.

We accept that process with sitcoms, where we laugh at what scares us. But we have avoided it in prime time dramatic series when it comes to such topics as cancer and death -- matters we cannot control.

The producers of "thirtysomething" did play a little fast and loose with the emotions of some viewers last night, especially with Gary's death. But in a larger sense, they have expanded the medium to include topics previously excluded because they scared advertisers, producers and viewers. And some viewers will surely be less frightened by what they cannot control after having lived through it vicariously with the television character named Nancy Weston.

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