Some people called it That Show About Yuppies Who Whine. But for many loyal viewers, particularly baby boomers, “thirtysomething” felt like a burst of refreshing honesty on ’80s network television, a show that dared to highlight the difficulties of balancing marriage, career, parenthood and friendships; in other words, the stuff of life.
But here’s the funny thing about watching “thirtysomething: The Complete First Season,” released Tuesday on DVD ($60): what seemed groundbreaking about this drama back in 1987 — the sexual candor! the heated arguments between spouses! — plays now like pretty standard, albeit still compelling, television. And that’s a testament to the thirty-something’s place in American culture. Glimmers of the show’s almost cinematic approach to capturing upper-middle-class angst can be seen in many influential series that followed it, from “Sex and the City” to “Mad Men.”
As for the charge about the characters being too whiny, well ... yes, they do have a tendency to sweat the small stuff. (Really, Hope and Michael, you’re fighting about a washing machine now?) But, again, even those dips into occasional self-absorption seem a little ahead of their time. I mean, these days, everybody complains “thirtysomething”-style about how hard it is to be married and a parent, only now they do it on mommy blogs and via Facebook updates.
Fortunately, the creators and cast members — a good number of whom participate in the DVD’s robust extras — had a sense of humor about the criticisms often lobbed at their show. During one of the collection’s several featurettes, for example, we learn that cast members (and real-life spouses) Ken Olin and Patricia Wettig had T-shirts made for their fellow actors that said, “Skinny White People From Hell.” (“I still have mine,” confesses Melanie Mayron, who played the single, artsy Melissa.)
Those fun little anecdotes are what will make fans extra happy to finally get their hands on this DVD. (The hold-up on releasing this collection, as frequently happens with older television shows? Acquiring the necessary music rights.) While the eight commentary tracks, which feature audio from many of the show’s stars, writers and co-creators Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, are only occasionally enlightening, the aforementioned featurettes do a marvelous job of telling the back story of “thirtysomething.” During the half-hour “A Conversation Between Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick,” for example, the men who gave birth to the series confess that they had little interest in launching a television show, and only pitched the concept to ABC because they were paid to come up with something. “We literally said to each other, ’What could we (pitch) that we would like if we had to do it, but would be certain to fail?”’ Herskovitz recalls.
Obviously “thirtysomething” didn’t fail. In fact, it still works remarkably well as a piece of relatable, well-acted and adult television, a program that was more than just a whinefest.
As story editor, director and producer Richard Kramer puts it during a bonus feature about the show’s cultural impact, “thirtysomething” was “about the problem of trying to be a good man or woman in an impossible world. And there’s nothing about being a yuppie in that.”