2 August 2013 DVD


Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, thirtysomething (yes, all in lower case) was the hottest thing on American television. Yet today the show is all but forgotten, its legacy ignored by cultural commentators. That’s partly because its legacy largely resides in forgettable prime-time weepies like Brothers & Sisters; and partly because the series’ fan base was made up, unsurprisingly, of people who were thirtysomething themselves. As people age they tend to return to (or never discard) the obsessions of their teens; thirtysomething is a great show, but, sadly, it seems no one wants to revisit a time of career woes and crying babies. 

Over four seasons, thirtysomething looks at the intertwined lives of seven Philadelphia yuppies. There are the two married couples: advertising copywriter Michael Steadman (Ken Olin) and social activist-turned-mother Hope (Mel Harris); and Michael’s advertising partner, Elliot Weston (Timothy Busfield), and illustrator-turned-mother, Nancy (Patricia Wettig). And there are the couples’ friends: womanising university lecturer, Gary (Peter Horton); Hope’s high-school best friend turned local government bigwig, Ellyn (Polly Draper); and Michael’s photographer cousin, Melissa (Melanie Mayron). 

Michael struggles with his Jewishness and feelings that he’s betrayed his creative side; Elliot and Nancy’s marriage fractures; Hope tries to find meaning in her life beyond being a mother; everyone else has relationship dramas and ends up married – apart from Melissa, the most likeable of the bunch. Unlike the talky, self-obsessed shows that followed it, thirtysomething wasn’t a soap opera: it seriously set out to examine the state of being, well, thirtysomething. Episodes built around illness (Nancy has an extended battle with cancer), AIDS, job loss, loneliness, miscarriage, drifting apart, the homeless, annoying kids and evil bosses (the awesomely satanic Miles Drentell, played by David Clennon) are standard.

Fortunately, it is also pretty funny. Not when it tries too hard – thankfully the fantasy sequences fade as the series progresses – but the character comedy is often laugh-out-loud. There are dud episodes (Elliot’s late turn to Catholism is a chore) and its refusal to go full soap means it fizzles out towards the end as there becomes less to say with some characters. Plus Hope turns into something of a shrew, which is jarring. But its psychological underpinnings signal the introspective path television drama was to take (think of that other show built around a square-jawed ad man – Mad Men). It’s an enduring, compelling, compulsively watchable snapshot of its time, and of a certain time in life. 


Thirtysomething: The Complete Series is out now.

Anthony Morris