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'Thirtysomething' On DVD: The Gold-Medal Winner At The Introspection Olympics

The cast of Thirtysomething. i

The cast of Thirtysomething dropped by Talk Of The Nation today — but does the show hold up on video? ABC hide caption

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The cast of Thirtysomething.

The cast of Thirtysomething dropped by Talk Of The Nation today — but does the show hold up on video?

ABC

When it comes to the influential TV work of Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, I was more a My So-Called Life person than a Thirtysomething person.

(Note: Yes. They never used a capital letter. The credits say thirtysomething. That is a typeface choice. I don't refer to Lost as LOST just because that's the way they write it in the logo. Please don't e-mail me.)

But while I didn't watch the show much at the time, I was surprised to see how well it holds up as I looked at the new DVD set of the complete first season that's coming out today. (Note that the cast came to Talk Of The Nation today to discuss the show.)

Strollers and singles and ties, oh my, after the jump...

Thirtysomething was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series for all four seasons of its relatively short run. This, mind you, was the age of well-regarded ensemble shows like L.A. Law and China Beach, when television drama was reaching an age of increased respectability, but little of that respectability was awarded to humble family shows. And in fairness, little of it is now. It's still enormously rare to find largely gimmick-free shows about family life competing with the cop shows and supernatural shows and crime shows that get most of the big critical talk.

The knock on the show at the time, as you will recall if you were around, was that it was whiny, in the sense that introspection read as self-pity on the part of middle-class yuppies — remember yuppies? — who fretted over home renovations and stroller prices, and boo-hoo, woe is me. Interestingly, in the booklet that comes with the new DVD set, Herskovitz and Zwick themselves speak of how overly ponderous some of the dialogue is, and how clunky some of it sounds, even to them, even as they still have great affection for it.

There are certainly a couple of hurdles to get over in enjoying this particular show. It is impossible to miss the fact that the two single women in the ensemble are miserable and desperate "unlucky in love" types, while the single man is simply a free spirit. Some of the fantasy sequences are overly precious. The fashions can be...an issue. (The suspenders...oh, the suspenders.)

But it's actually quite affecting, even 20 years later. One example: the episode "Couples," in which the unhappily married Elliott and Nancy (Timothy Busfield and Patricia Wettig) have a fight while socializing with the happily married Hope and Michael (Mel Harris and Ken Olin). The terribly overused Rashomon model, in which the same event is seen from various points of view, works surprisingly well to reflect the way people really fight. In different recollections, subtle differences in inflection, as well as entirely different dialogue, drive home the way people really fight, in that everybody really believes he didn't start it.

I wasn't expecting to have much patience for this show, which I remembered as a sort of self-congratulatory salute to how very special and important and challenging it is to own a house and raise a baby. It doesn't much play that way, though. It plays as a show that takes ordinary feelings seriously — in that sense, it almost reminds me of a John Hughes movie.

Nobody is suggesting that the problems of teenagers — or, here, the remodeling dilemmas of well-off families — are the equivalent of crime-fighting or political unrest when placed in the context of the entire world. But with the caution that it's easy for introspection to turn self-indulgent, and that does in fact happen here from time to time, there's still some touching material here where regular workaday feelings are treated as what they really are, which is the emotional meat of most people's actual lives.

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