Thursday, April 21, 2016

Thirtysomething, revisited

The Horror!!
Isn't it amazing what does and does not hold up over time? Certain fashions never go out of style. Fresh, homegrown food never tastes passé. Good manners, gorgeous flowers, hiking boots and Chippendale chairs are all timeless things that are, in the words of The Desiderata, "as perennial as the grass."

The television show Thirtysomething? Not so much.

For the record, I used to LOVE Thirtysomething back when I was a twentysomething in the late 1980's. I thought it was an honest, realistic look at the lives of young marrieds and singles of the time.  There was Ellyn, the career gal with intimacy issues. Nancy, the artist trapped in a bad marriage with a cheating husband. And Hope and Michael, the shows anchors and the perfectly perfect married couple. 

In a way, I either identified with aspects of each character, envied them, or knew someone they reminded me of -- a sure fire indicator that the shows developers had hit the jackpot in terms of cultural relevancy for my age group.

So you can imagine how excited I was when I discovered that after 30 years the show's four seasons had been put onto DVD and were now available to see again. I headed down to the library and immediately checked out Season One, came home and started watching right away. I had told Big Ag (who'd never seen the show) how great it was and was looking forward to binge watching some episodes with him (fun factoid: there was no such thing as "binge-watching" in the late 1980's, for better or worse).

So I'm couch-surfing into my past, and a few episodes in, I have a revelation: Thirtysomething sucks now. It's an hour-long drama-fest filled with...nothing. Desperate concerns about finding the right babysitter, the right man and remodeling the kitchen. Or having a workplace relationship. Or finding oneself. Oh yes, lots and lots and lots about finding oneself.

And watching it as a fifty-something, I can't help but ask myself...were we Yuppies that self-centered? Were we that unaware of how different life was for those not in our socio-economic demographic (and therefore how lucky we were)? Did we really talk everything to death and overanalyze ourselves to the point of being repulsive?

Of course the answer to that is yes. Yes we did.

And yet, for all the terrible things that have gone on in the 30-something years since Thirtysomething occupied our Tuesday nights, those same terrible things have caused everyone who identified with the characters in that show to grow up and look at the damn world outside themselves (me included).

Four years after Thirtysomething debuted, the United States entered the Gulf War, and in one way or another, we've been sending the next generation of 20 and 30-somethings over there to fight ever since then. We've seen 9/11 change our nation's landscape forever. Plus race riots, Katrina, the Banda Aceh tsunami, computers, the internet, The Crash of 2008 and a resurgence in the Back To The Land movement, prompted by food safety concerns and the need to feel self-sufficient in a less than secure world.

It turns out, Thirtysomething is so appallingly self-centered because it's also incredibly innocent -- the grown-up, childish place where a blessed generation found themselves after growing up in the 50s and 60s. 

In case you weren't there, it was a place where you listened to Joni Mitchell while pondering Neitzche and wondering if you were living at the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It was a short breath in time before the rest of the world and their concerns came crashing in through the window and took up permanent residence in the breakfast room were, just last week, all we were worried about was whether paisley or stripes would be a better choice for the walls.

It's funny how the lens of popular culture at the time -- the television shows we watched -- can allow us to take an honest look back through the things we thought were important. And it's even more interesting when you find yourself alternately cringing and hitting the fast forward button through another discussion about finding out "what you're all about," "confronting your past" and other hobbies of the well-off, well-educated and well-fed.

We may be hoisting our sails in a global shit storm nowadays, but at least we're awake and aware, with the ground we stand on listing back and forth and the cold spray hitting our face, conscious on a basic, survival-oriented level we just weren't back then. 

No, in many, many ways I'd never go back to Thirtysomething and 1987, either in real life or for an afternoon of couch surfing. You really can't go home again, once your world expands past the issues of your own innocent, delayed childhood. And just like real childhood, Thirtysomething is filled not so much with nostalgia, but rather marked embarrassment and a head-shaking disbelief that, yes, that really was us.


  1. isn't it funny how much better Golden Girls holds up than Thirtysomething? I feel very much this way about Friends. Watching it now I'm more struck at how pathetic it is that they each literally only knew five people! Another example is Sex and the City. I remembered how weird it was to watch SATC after 9/11, which was not incorporated into the show (wisely I think, would have been cheap to use as a storyline) but the show did all of the sudden feel disconnected from New York. that said I think SATC holds up for the most part.

    1. SATC is one of my favorite shows of all time and is truly as enjoyable today as it was when it debuted. I adore it. Can't quite figure out why it has stayed so relevant yet Friends and Thirtysomething seems SO dated now. Probably better writing and more fun surprises in whatever was going to happen each week. And great shoes!

  2. Really enjoyed reading this post, learning new perspectives of these earlier decades. I will say that Friends remains a favorite of mine, if for no other reason that it saved my sanity post 9/11...after falling into an economic abyss that began far earlier than the 2008 "crash." This crash really kicked off as of 2001/2002. All indicators were there back then. For me, it was a personal claw-your-way-back slugfest. Along the way I met many people who experienced some version of the same.

    As a side note, I recently read that Friends has seen a resurgence in popularity, from the most unlikely audience...teenagers. The article noted that these teens find some solace in the series, make them wish for a life where they could have such mundane problems, enjoy their early adult years.

    I agree with your point about Thirty Something. Unfortunately, I feel the same about SATC. It doesn't hold up for me. It feels like we've moved beyond that particular brand of sexual liberty. It even feels innocent in comparison to current trends.

    Meanwhile, I completely agree with Stephen about Golden Girls. It's a classic in so many ways.

    Cheers, Ardith

  3. I never could get into Thirtysomething. I was a thirtysomething at the time, and it just seemed 'too real', if that makes any sense. It was like watching my own life. I watched very little television anyway, outside of PBS. I am now catching up on all the shows I missed, thanks to DVDs.