Looking Back At 'Thirtysomething'

August 31, 2009|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,susan.reimer@baltsun.com

I was thirtysomething when "thirtysomething" debuted on ABC in 1987.

Considering ground-breaking television at the time, it was reality TV - for baby boomers, anyway - before there was reality TV.

Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick wrote the story of two couples and their three single friends trapped in yuppiedom, pretending to be grown-ups, facing up to the compromises that daily batter the spirits of the idealistic college kids they still think they are.

It lasted four seasons, and it was my life played out on the small screen.

I had the baby and toddler that Nancy had. I had the working mother conflicts that Hope had. I had the "is this all there is" angst that Michael had. I had a childless career-girl friend like Ellyn.

The first season of "thirtysomething" was released on DVD last week, delayed all these years by legal battles over the pop music that was dropped in behind scenes. That, too, was a new idea 22 years ago.

And I watched it again, a fiftysomething watching herself as a thirtysomething. A rare opportunity to face up to the person I was 20 years ago, not the person I like to think I was.

The show had an indie film quality to it and as many haters as devoted fans. A bunch of rich white people whining, they said. Even the critics found the introspection - the interior dramas that set the show apart from the cop shows and the hospital shows and the lawyer shows - grating.

Mary McNamara, writing in the Los Angeles Times this month, said the characters picked apart "the details of their pasts and presents like a family of chimpanzees grooming each other." A show that was about nothing before "Seinfeld" was about nothing.

But compared to the vapid and hateful conversations of today's reality shows, the characters in "thirtysomething" probed close to the meaning of life. Life at thirtysomething, anyway. What do you do when dreams come true but they aren't your dreams?

From this distance, it does sound like whining. I am Hope's mother, not Hope, this time around, and the kids don't know how good they have it.

And their earnest attempts to rewrite the script of family life was as hurtful to the real grown-ups as it was necessary. Working motherhood did change everything, but that didn't make your own mother irrelevant. No need to be nasty. But that's something my thirtysomething self would have been unable to see.

It's not too late for my fiftysomething self to learn from her younger self.

To recognize the unrelenting self-involvement of my adult children as an unavoidable phase, not necessarily a character flaw. To remember what the hyper-vigilance of new motherhood feels like, and keep my mouth shut. To remember what a career meant before it was something you had to endure until your 401(k) bounced back.

And to remember that Hope and Michael, Nancy and Elliott, Melissa, Ellyn and Gary forged their own version of a family - just as so many of us did when we were thirtysomething - because only your own kind can get you through your life as you are living it now.

That's true of us fiftysomethings, too. No one is leaving breadcrumbs in the forest for us. We link arms and move toward an uncertain future.

And that leaves us, parents and their adult children, on the sidelines of each other's lives, spectators. Like watching life play out on the small screen.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays.

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