Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, creators and executive producers of ABC’s “thirtysomething,” expected their show “to last for six episodes--and then die.” Test audiences complained that the pilot was confusing, the dialogue wasn’t interesting, the characters whined and nothing ever happened.
Instead of dying quickly, however, “thirtysomething,” an intimate study of the lives of a group of friends in the same age group as the producers (they are both 36), captured a respectable share of a demographically desirable audience during its first season. Most TV critics loved it--and even those who hated it devoted valuable column space to explaining their distaste in detail.
But because the reception caught them off guard, the producers never had time to design a long-range plan for where the series was headed. “Last year, artistically, we were living from hand to mouth--it was a miracle we got the shows finished at all,” Herskovitz said.
And then last Aug. 28 came an even bigger surprise: “thirtysomething” won the Emmy Award for outstanding drama series of the 1987-88 season.
Coupled with plenty of time to prepare for their Dec. 6 season debut (delayed because of the writers’ strike), the producers now face a new dilemma: How does a TV show break the mold twice? Is it possible to be spontaneous on purpose? Can a series remain outside the mainstream after getting TV’s Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval?
In short, will “thirtysomething” begin lusting to spell itself with a capital T ?
“There are many ways in which the institutionalized success of a thing could be its artistic death knell,” Zwick mused, only half-jokingly, during a recent conversation at the show’s Studio City headquarters.
Even the word thirtysomething has been dragged into the American vernacular. Herskovitz cited a recent quote from Vice President George Bush: “There’s a TV show that reminds me of what interest rates might be if the Democrats get in again--there will be inflation at a level which reminds me of a television show called ‘thirtysomething.’ ”
“The idea that we have entered the currency of the political debate--that’s pretty amusing,” Herskovitz said.
Herskovitz and Zwick, who refer to the show’s recently acquired “patina of acceptance” as if it were the symptom of a fatal disease, acknowledge that success could spoil “thirtysomething"--if they let it. But they remain determined to stay true to their original goal, which was not to have one.
“Last year, the best thing that happened to us was we didn’t have a template,” Zwick said. “That really begins to speak to the heart of the way we want to approach this year. If we feel any obligation, it is to rededicate ourselves to trying new forms rather than trying to replicate that (first season) in some way simply because we were successful.”
Zwick said the cast and crew liked to describe the set of “thirtysomething” last year as a “laboratory"--a place for works-in-progress. “For all of us, that word was really important,” he said. “That word not only carries with it the possibility of failure, but the probability of occasional failure.”
Added Herskovitz: “If we made one promise to audiences, it is, ironically, that one week will differ from the next. We have to allow for failure, in some sense to invite it.”
Zwick and Herskovitz fervently hope that second-year audiences, now familiar with the characters, will not get caught up in tracking plot points (such as whether the unhappily married Nancy and Elliot will solve their problems), but instead will continue to appreciate the show as a character study.
“We’re deeply interested in behavior but not as much in events,” Zwick said. “We are more interested in what it (the show) is more deeply and profoundly about --the aspects of how people deal with each other.”
The “thirtysomething” episode that was submitted for Emmy consideration, for example, dealt with the terminal illness of Michael’s father (Ken Olin). The producers insisted that the network do nothing to advertise the story line before that show aired the first time.
“We had the opportunity at that time to promote it as ‘the big show in which Michael’s father gets cancer,’ ” Herskovitz said. “But we felt that that would be a mistake--because if we want each person in the audience to deeply enter Michael’s feelings when he learns that his father has cancer, you can’t know it before. We could have gotten a few extra ratings points out of it, but they wouldn’t have experienced the show in that internal way.”
The pair also believes that involving audiences in the characters’ emotions requires a continuing experiment with new forms of storytelling.
“There are certain ways of doing television that have become conventionalized over the years,” Zwick said. “Sometimes even subliminally, they (viewers) know what to expect, and know how to defend themselves against being stimulated--or against strong reactions to what they see. And part of what we do is to try to subvert that.
“Ed likes to say that television is a cool medium, but the audience’s reaction to our show has been anything but cool.”
Despite their worries, however, Zwick and Herskovitz want the world to know that they really wanted that Emmy--and they laugh about the fact that the analytical introspection to which both they and “thirtysomething’s” characters are prone might sometimes make them sound like, well, whiny yuppies.
“When people write about us, occasionally the self-deprecating quality with which we refer to ourselves comes across as sounding very over-anxious and tormented, which is really not the case,” Herskovitz said.
“We really manage to have a very good time,” said Zwick.