thirtysomething (1987-1991)

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(a “fiftysomething” TV series review by Timothy J. Verret)

Even though I am “fiftysomething,” I can look back on thirtysomething and see how much this TV series altered my outlook on love, life, and what family really can mean. Very much like the TV series review I did recently of GOOD TIMES, I am going to explore each of the main characters of this TV series to see what each of them taught me and how each of them shaped a better “fiftysomething” I’ve got that I might not have got if not for this TV series.

MICHAEL STEADMAN: Played by the most exquisitely hunky Ken Olin, Michael was front and center as the professional yuppie with a somewhat huge family of wife and kids but also with a somewhat huge heart. There are two episodes I can fondly remember with Michael’s huge heart on display that floored me emotionally. The first one was when Michael’s father was diagnosed with cancer and at the end of that episode, when his father talks about the tree he planted in the yard when Michael was born and how much that tree has grown, I’m just a blubbering mess! The other episode was after Michael’s father passed away and Michael had to make funeral arrangements with his brother, Brad. They were at each other’s throat about what to do with their father’s business and when it came time for both of them to sit with their grief, Michael offered to give Brad money from the closing of the business so that Brad could have a career….and a life. Brad asked Michael, “Why are you doing this?” Michael responded, “Because you’re my brother.” Yes, once again, me, a blubbering mess!

HOPE STEADMAN: If I’m being honest, this character, played by Mel Harris, was probably one of my least favorite characters in the TV series. Harris was not a particularly great actress in my opinion, of course of no fault of her own. Maybe I’m just jealous because she got to kiss Ken Olin and go to bed with him every night! 😉 Harris was inspiring, though, in the episode where she started to notice the homeless population growing in her city, and Hope, always wanting to do the right thing, reached out to help a homeless woman and her child. Hope was showing her “Mother Teresa mojo” and, in the process, she made all of us heed the call to start noticing the homeless population growing in our own cities and wanting to do the right thing by them.

NANCY WESTON: With two Emmy wins for Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress, Patricia Wettig was extraordinary as Nancy. She was the character we probably felt the most for, given her courage and bravery in the face of a painful divorce from her husband and an ovarian cancer diagnosis. In one episode, Nancy was talking to Hope about her crumbling marriage and Hope said to her, “But you’re such a good person, Nancy.” Nancy replied, “Oh, the great condescension! ‘You’re such a good person, Nancy.’ If I’m such a good person, why is my marriage falling apart?” Nancy spoke up for all of us when we inevitably have to question, like her, why bad things happen to good people. And Wettig taking us through the fear and eventual freedom from a cancer diagnosis gave hope to us all, yet again, of why bad things happen to good people. They just don’t get any more “good” than a character like Nancy Weston.

ELLIOT WESTON: Oh, a major comic relief character was Elliot! Just a big kid in a big man’s body! The husband, then ex-husband, then got-back-together husband of Nancy, Elliot played superbly by Timothy (YES!) Busfield was Michael’s business partner and everybody’s partner for much-needed laughs and joy. But when Michael and Elliot’s business failed at the same time Elliot’s marriage was failing, we got the privilege of seeing Elliot go from always being silly to always being introspective. In the episode where Elliot sought out his lost faith in God, struggling to comprehend his life falling apart and his mother having once fallen apart but now free from alcoholism, Busfield broke our hearts in a million pieces, and this episode must have been the reason Busfield won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Emmy that year.

ELLYN WARREN: Most definitely one of my favorite characters in the TV series, Polly Draper played Ellen, a successful businesswoman with a very unsuccessful personal life. Ellen started off the series unmarried and hopelessly jealous of her best friend, Hope, being married. Then, Ellen had a boyfriend she cheated on who left her, then had a relationship with a married man who had a daughter, and then finally got married for good. Talk about one woman’s unparalleled “searching for Mr. Right” journey in only 5 seasons! Draper as an actress is beautiful and has this husky, deep voice which perfectly contrasted the little lost child that Ellen was inside (what we ALL are inside). The episode where Ellen’s parents were divorcing gave Draper some of her best acting moments, as she went home, literally and figuratively, to reclaim the lost child she had left there long ago. Speaking of “lost,” Draper was nominated for an Emmy for the first year, lost, and was never nominated again and for that, I’m at a “lost” for words!

GARY SHEPHERD: Next to Hope, Gary played by Peer Horton was probably one of my least favorite characters of the TV series. Gary was a college professor with a thing for the ladies who, like Ellen, finally settled down with a very cold Susannah who became a regular character in the final season of the series (I refuse to write about her character because she got on my nerves!). Bummer about this marriage, though, because it wasn’t too long afterwards that Gary died in a car accident. What I do like most about the character of Gary is his death (sorry), because the producers decided to allow Horton to direct some episodes of the TV series which were some of the best episodes of the entire TV series! In fact, though not directed by Horton, the “wake of Gary’s death” episode is not only the best episode of the entire series but also the best episode of ANY TV series I’ve ever seen.

MELISSA STEADMAN: They say we are to save the best for last, which is why I saved Melissa for the last character analysis of the TV series. Melissa Steadman was ME!!!! She was a photographer who was BOTH immensely talented AND immensely tortured. Played by Melanie Mayron, who won an Emmy, Melissa was highly creative which brought her a lot of highly emotional moments in her life. She brought to us a gay friend, Russell, and this “bringing” made TV history when it was first TV series to show a gay couple in bed. I remember watching this episode and before it aired, there was a disclaimer about how this might be “disturbing” to viewers. Really? I’ve never been “disturbed” when I see a man and woman in bed on TV, so why would I be “disturbed”” by seeing two men in bed on TV? When Gary, as mentioned above, died in a car accident, Melissa who had once dated him was no longer speaking to him, so the unfinished business of their relationship gave Mayron her most memorable acting work. I have to say without the character of Melissa, I’m afraid this series would not have been nearly as memorable.

I remember reading a review from a TV critic who said that thirtysomething was just about a bunch of spoiled yuppies complaining about their lives and their little problems. I do hope I did the series justice by showing that even though this was a TV series about a bunch of yuppies complaining about their lives, they did NOT have little problems. What they had were ALL our problems and what they gave this “fiftysomething” man was invaluable lessons on love, life, and the families we are born into and the families we have to make for ourselves.

2 thoughts on “thirtysomething (1987-1991)

    1. It was a pretty darn good TV series! The last season was particularly spectacular with death and suffering front and center stage. What I found particularly exceptional was the “wake of Gary’s death” episode because the characters posed a question that I found quite profound: “Why is it when someone passes away, we can’t stop thinking about ourselves and our own pain?” It’s almost like we become incredibly selfish, almost forgetting the one who passed away should be front and center stage. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we know that the person who passed away is finally at peace but we are not? Maybe we’re even a wee bit jealous that the one who passed away is finally at peace and we are not?


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