“thirtysomething”

Yuppies existed on prime time television before we had a word to describe them.  Yuppie, of course, is a slang word for young, upwardly mobile professional.

Dr. Bob Hartley was a Chicago yuppie on The Bob Newhart Show.

Rob Petrie was a television comedy writer yuppie on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Darrin Stephens was an advertising yuppie on Bewitched.

In the 1986-87 television season, ABC aired Jack and Mike, a show about a yuppie couple played by Tom Mason and Shelley Hack.  It occupied the 10:00 pm time slot on Tuesday nights.  thirtysomething took over the time slot in 1987 and stayed there for four years.

thirtysomething did not merely show problems with neatly wrapped solutions.  It showed the character’s journeys in dealing with these problems.  And while yuppies are defined by income, status, and success, thirtysomething often dealt with failure.  Beyond their CD players, fancy clothes, and money, failure loomed over the characters.

A failed business — The Michael and Elliot Company folded soon after it began.  Michael Steadman, the copywriter with stability at home and in the office, formed this advertising agency with Elliot Weston, a fun but somewhat erratic artist who often didn’t think about the consequences of personal and professional actions.  Michael and Elliot worked together at Bernstein Fox, enjoyed artistic chemistry, and used their ambition to launch their own business.

A failed marriage — Elliot and his wife, Nancy, broke up.  It was not sudden for the winds of change had been in the air for quite some time.

A failed quest for romance — Michael’s cousin, Melissa, constantly sought a man who could appreciate her unique fashion sense, wry humor, and generous passion.

thirtysomething featured success as well.

Michael and Elliot got high-level jobs at DAA, an advertising agency headed by Miles Drentell.  They had to deal with Drentell’s ego that was roughly the size of Saturn.

Elliot and Nancy reconciled, but not before some painful realizations about the hard work necessary to sustain love, marriage, and family.

Melissa relinquished preconceptions, insecurities, and worries about herself when she visited Los Angeles to photograph a television sitcom star for a magazine article.  She realized she could be liked for simply being herself.  The point was confirmed when the article’s writer said, I don’t know you, but I’d like to.

thirtysomething tackled the everyday issues of life and showed no easy answers.

Michael’s struggle with his Jewish identity and what being Jewish means for him posed a terrific problem in the first season episode I’ll Be Home For Christmas.

When his non-Jewish wife wants Christmas decorations and a Christmas tree, Michael is immediately uneasy.  After fighting with his cousin Melissa about an advertising job — Michael hired her as the photographer for an ad campaign — and venting to Elliot, Michael buys a Christmas tree.  It’s his form of an olive branch for Hope.  He wants to make peace during the holiday season.

When Michael opens the door and sees Hope holding their baby and lighting a menorah, Michael is dumbfounded.  He asks where she got the menorah.  Then, Melissa enters the room.  Familial bonds are restored.

On a business trip in the episode Sifting the Ashes, Elliot explores his Catholic roots on a trip to Baltimore, his hometown.  While there, he meets a priest with whom is mother is friendly.  The day after a tense conversation about Catholicism with his mother and the priest, Elliot goes to the school where the priest works.  Elliot admits, I want God in my life.  It’s religion that keeps getting in the way.

Besides religious vision quests, thirtysomething tackled the emotional impact of life’s events through the show’s characters.  Hope’s best friend Ellyn has an affair with a married man.  Michael’s best friend Gary dies in a car accident.  Nancy battles cancer, successfully.

thirtysomething never preached about the consequences of actions.  It never drew a bright line to separate good from bad.  And it never talked down to the audience.  It simply showed imperfect people in a demanding world.  The styles of clothes may have changed.  Pop culture and historical references may be off target for today’s audiences.  And the iPod has replaced the CD player.

But the issues are timeless.

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