When it debuted in 1987, thirtysomething was a revelation—long before the marriages of Atlanta housewives or Jon and Kate became regular TV fare, series creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick depicted “real life” on television. Though the characters in the show’s suburban Philadelphia setting had more interesting lives than most viewers, part of what made thirtysomething so radical was its banality.
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Hope and Michael Steadman, the new parents, have minor meltdowns about the state of their house (always in disrepair), Hope’s overcritical mother, Michael’s efforts to start his own small advertising business, and other annoyances of daily life. Elliot Weston quietly cheats on his wife, Nancy, who feels lonely as a homemaker, saddled with toddlers. Hope’s best friend, Ellyn, worries about being unwed and childless at her age, but mostly wants to succeed at her City Hall job, while Michael’s best friend, Gary, is a handsome, boyish professor who still acts 25 and can’t seem to commit to a woman. And Melissa, Michael’s cousin, is a depressive photographer who can’t seem to get over her insecurities and retreats to self-help books and single-gal delusions.
There were no big narrative arcs on thirtysomething (aside from Nancy’s ovarian cancer, which dropped into season three like a bomb), and instead the characters of thirtysomething worked on a more basic but difficult task: learning how to become adults. True to their boomer cliché, the characters are all excruciatingly anxious: anxious about getting older, about moving forward, and about making a difference in what had become a quite indifferent, insulated world.
Now, as the DVD of Season One is finally released (after years of legal holdups), angst is making a comeback. The economic meltdown has come and gone, and we are biting our nails to see how a new president lives up to the promise surrounding him—the high-tension world of thirtysomething doesn’t really seem so foreign.
Still, we have come a long way from 1987—just note the lack of baggy sweater sets and cinched-waist tribal dresses—and thirtysomething feels comfortingly dated. Nancy’s shocking ovarian-cancer news is far less complex than the ailments on, say, House. And cable dramas like Mad Men or The Sopranos have brought a level of sophistication to family dysfunction on television that thirtysomething could never reach. But these shows all owe something to Zwick and Herskovitz’s experiment, and had there never been any breakdowns about breastfeeding and inter-office relationships, we may not be enjoying the marvelously complex television landscape that we do now.
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.