'thirtysomething' was brief and indecisive, just like life


May 28, 1991|By Michael Hill

IT'S NOT LIKE a death in the family. I wouldn't go that far. But it is something like learning that some people you have come to know quite well have decided to pack up and move across the country. Sure there are promises of letters and phone calls and visits, but you know that things will never be the same.

That's the way I feel about the fact that tonight marks the end of "thirtysomething," the groundbreaking ABC series that was canceled last week after four seasons. It will show its last original episode at 10 o'clock on Channel 13 (WJZ).

Hey, it's not the end of the world, it's not time for mourning or grief or the rending of garments. It's only a television show. Still, something important is going to be missing from my Tuesday nights.

I'll admit it out front -- I was standing at the demographic bull's-eye for this series. When it came on, I was of the thirtysomething age and, just like the central characters Hope and Michael, was struggling with the joys and burdens of a first child. No matter how I tried to gain critical distance, I had to recognize that "thirtysomething" carried a personal message.

But the fact is that there were plenty of shows aimed at us baby boomers, and most of them missed by a couple of time zones. From start to finish, "thirtysomething" demonstrated a sensitive ear. It was a perfect mirror on our lives that added the depth and nuance possible with drama, added dimensions that allow for increased insight and understanding.

After a while, I gave up defending "thirtysomething" from its detractors. If they didn't get it, you couldn't explain it to them. "I have enough problems, I don't want to see them on TV when I get home," was one common lament. Well, some of us think that television should do more than provide escape and entertainment, that it should challenge and stimulate. "thirtysomething" did that.

"Oh, it's nothing but a bunch of whining yuppies," was perhaps the most cliched complaint. Actually, the "thirtysomething" circle of friends was not composed of yuppies. These weren't people of the '70s and '80s who eagerly made their way up various corporate and financial ladders without a moment's hesitation.

No, these were people who still took seriously the ethical imperatives of the '60s and now were faced with the enigmas they presented. "Do your own thing" seemed simple enough when it was a call for self-expression but a lot more complicated when it meant taking a promotion over your best friend.

As for the whining charge, well, what sounds to one person like a whine sounds to someone else like a life being examined. Such lives are supposed to be ones worth living. And, at its best moments, "thirtysomething" helped its viewers examine own their lives as they watched its characters examine theirs.

In interviewing the producers at various times over the last four years, I discovered that they reveled in the complaints almost as much as the praise for the show. Remember when they got that best-drama Emmy the first year, and co-creator Ed Zwick said that if there were an Emmy for most irritating show, they'd have probably gotten that one, too?

The reason for their glee was that Zwick and his partner, Marshall Herskowitz, knew that the irritation, and the delight, proved that unlike most everything else on television, "thirtysomething" was hard to ignore. Thus even the complaints were compliments.

Throughout its run, "thirtysomething" not only provided fine PTC acting and impeccable writing, it also used a fascinating array of film and story-telling techniques that constantly kept its audience on their toes. There were dream sequences, fantasies come-to-life, a whole episode that went backward in time, characters that would arise from memory or imagination.

It would go along for several weeks with a fairly straightforward linear story and then suddenly would spend an episode examining some quirky phase of life, like last week's meditation on the possibility of re-inventing yourself in the magic land of Hollywood where Melissa had gone to photograph a series television star. That episode, by the way, was something of a pilot for a possible spinoff of Melissa's character.

"Thirtysomething" was willing to take chances, willing to risk irritating people, willing to try the new and different in a medium that suddenly -- just look at the new season's schedules -- has grown hidebound and traditional.

As a result of its risk-taking, "thirtysomething" drew to ABC just the kind of people that the networks are now losing in droves to cable and videocassettes. You would think that would make it a commodity worth much more than its relatively meager ratings. But it wasn't worth enough to make it back for a fifth year.

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