Twenty-two years ago this fall, just before ABC premiered “thirtysomething,” the producers were keeping their expectations low.
“We wanted to make movies,” Marshall Herskovitz, who created the era-defining drama about a group of yuppie pals in Philadelphia with writing partner Edward Zwick, explained in a recent interview. “We thought if we do something that is so specific to us and our friends, no one will watch it, it will be quickly canceled, and we can get back to making movies.”
How little they knew. While never a huge hit, “thirtysomething” became over four seasons something more interesting: a modestly popular series with a lasting influence. After numerous delays, mostly due to music rights clearances, Shout! Factory will issue the Season 1 DVD set Tuesday, and its three subsequent seasons will be released later.
With plots taken liberally from the private lives of the writers as well as those of such ensemble members as Mel Harris, Ken Olin, Patricia Wettig and Peter Horton, the show set new standards for regularly darting across the boundaries between life and art. Pushing against the networks’ typical reliance on hospital and crime genre shows, “thirtysomething” helped spawn a line of confessional, intimate dramas about ordinary life that has since included “Once and Again” (another Herskovitz-Zwick project), NBC’s “Sisters” and “Brothers & Sisters,” ABC’s current family soap.
It was one of the first network series to tap into executives’ growing obsession with young-adult demographics, which has since come to rule nearly all TV programming, even though the creators insist that marketing considerations played no role in their development of the show. Even so, it’s probably not accidental that “thirtysomething” premiered the same year that Nielsen Media Research introduced the People Meter, a device that enabled precise measurement of audience age, income and other data. The show even helped push the -something suffix into dictionaries.
Meanwhile, with its soft-rock score and earnest dialogue, “thirtysomething” inspired legions of haters. Oh, lord, did it inspire haters. Critic Elvis Mitchell dismissed the show as “a bunch of white people sitting around whining.” “Saturday Night Live” featured a mock commercial for a “thirtysomething” cereal, complete with sappy acoustic-guitar music in the background.
“There were people who hated it so much they had to watch it every week in order to know how much they hated it,” Zwick recalled with a laugh.
But to indulge in the ridicule, of course, is to give the show less than its due. When “thirtysomething” landed, there was nothing else like it on the air and thus little to help marketers sell it to viewers. Millions still tuned in for “Dallas” and other glitzy nighttime soaps, even if those shows’ glory days were winding down. NBC was blazing dramatic trails with “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere,” but those series were still tethered to the cop and hospital formats.
“Thirtysomething” was clearly different. There was no police or medical procedure to pin the episodes on; it was just, well, people talking. And talking. Loosely inspired by the 1983 hit film “The Big Chill,” “thirtysomething” brought grown-up themes and leisurely, cinematic-style pacing to a medium often marked by black-and-white conflicts and formulaic structure. But the producers felt viewers were ready for the change.
“This was the beginning of the time in which the VCR and VHSes were starting to be available, and people were starting to see on their television screens film values all the time,” said Zwick, who has since directed films such as “Glory” and “The Last Samurai.” “We were determined to inject some of that” into the show.
Writers included Paul Haggis, who won an Emmy in 1988 and went on to make the Oscar-winning feature “Crash,” as well as Ann Lewis Hamilton and Joseph Dougherty.
“Thirtysomething” followed Michael and Hope Steadman (Olin and Harris), a Philadelphia couple trying to navigate a morass of career, parenting, sex and spiritual choices, along with friends like Elliot (Timothy Busfield) and Michael’s cousin Melissa (Melanie Mayron). Long dramatic arcs were fashioned from the types of problems millions of viewers had faced and would therefore identify with, such as when stay-at-home mom Nancy (Wettig) struggled with ovarian cancer.
With such issues at play -- and with more than 20 episodes per season -- it didn’t take long for the overlap between life and art to get strange. “Our wives were writing for the show along with us!” Zwick said. “Sometimes there would be conversations that would appear in a script that we were supposed to have had and had somehow never managed to have. . . . I sometimes felt it was [my wife’s] way of talking to me.
“It became quite confessional, but remarkably, it never was explicitly autobiographical. We took the truth from everyone but then melded it in this way so as to become itself.”
At the time, speculation about the possible overlap between the actors’ personal lives and their characters on the show helped fuel promotional efforts. But the show still faced an uphill battle for viewers. ABC’s masterstroke may have been scheduling this hard-to-sell drama behind “Moonlighting,” the sophisticated detective send-up with Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd that had caught on among viewers.
Now, nearly a quarter-century on, the “thirtysomething” DVD promises to expose a new generation to Michael, Hope and their friends.
But the creators sound resolved on one point: There will be no “fiftysomething.”
“We all have grown children, and the issues are so different,” Zwick said. Besides, he joked, these days there’s no stopping “the horror of HD, as actors have to look at themselves, compared to what they were before.”