The late ’80s on ABC were a time for trying crazy shit and seeing whether it might work on television. As the other networks rested on their laurels, last-place network ABC followed the lead of its one big hit, Moonlighting, and wandered all over the place. thirtysomething is very much a product of that period. The series charts the lives of two married couples and their three single friends through the minutiae of daily life. With two yuppie power couples as the twin hubs for the show, along with the husbands’ advertising agency, the series expands outward, encompassing more and more of what it meant to be young, well-off, and searching for purpose in the Reagan era. It bases conflicts around stuff as small as buying a baby stroller or dealing with the flu at Thanksgiving.
These days, watching thirtysomething means seeing a program that somehow pioneered a huge number of things we accept as vital to our current sense of good TV drama. But it’s also a program that’s mostly been forgotten, perhaps because it never got the universal critical praise the similarly influential Hill Street Blues did, simply because the conflicts are so small. Though the characters can occasionally seem too whiny—a common charge against the series—thirtysomething does a good job of ultimately grounding all the angst in the central question all seven of these people have: What does it mean to have to grow up?
Especially in the season’s early episodes, there’s a sense that creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick are trying too hard to make some of these conflicts play within the television grammar of the time. Rampant experimentation with fantasy sequences or homages to classic films can occasionally make the show feel chaotic, too much like Scrubs with yuppies, but about halfway through the season, the writers learn to trust their terrific cast—including such actors as Timothy Busfield, Mel Harris, and Patricia Wettig—and settle into a groove where relatability matters more than artificial conflicts. thirtysomething is pitched on the divide between the desire for stability and the desire to pursue dreams, and everything in it is designed to explore how its stars deal with the ways in which their lives haven’t quite turned out like they’d hoped.
On balance, thirtysomething holds up much better than most dramas of its time, mainly because of the small scale of its storytelling and desire to avoid the sorts of sociopolitical stories popular on other dramas of the time. While the period trappings have changed, the central conflicts haven’t. Indeed, in its devotion to small stories told with a small staff of writers (mostly the creators’ friends) and a small ensemble cast (again, mostly the creators’ friends), thirtysomething feels like it presages the indie-film revolution of the ’90s.
Key features: A handful of short documentaries on the show’s history and cultural impact, an enjoyable conversation between Herskovitz and Zwick, and commentaries on nearly every episode.