Centering on the peculiarly intertwined lives of Philadelphia yuppies, "thirtysomething" is a celebration of banality that borders on the demented.
The program's big problem is twofold: First there's its subject matter. The harsh truth is, yuppies are not interesting, and to that extent the program is on target.
Then there's its unwitting subtext: Trying to highlight the characters' vulnerable natures, "thirtysomething" succeeds only in dramatizing interpersonal and psychological malfunctions.
On this show, for example, friends are not just friends. They are judges, juries, severest critics; at least their companions perceive them that way. Chums shed their benign look (in the eyes of their cronies) and turn distorted and grotesque like puppets in a Grand Guignol as they stare critically and mutter nasty thoughts. Nice camera work to make a point. But what's curious is how psychopathology is smartly packaged and gussied up to suggest trendy lifestyles.
Viewers are not supposed to see these friendships as sick, but rather as examples of sincere, in-touch relationships.
Strangest of all -- and this is paradoxical in light of the show's with-it veneer -- the characters and their concerns seem oddly dated. The single women, for instance, are constantly bemoaning that "no man will commit himself to a woman unless he's gay or married." Hasn't everyone in America heard this at least a dozen times?
The married women fare even worse. Indeed, the series' heavy-handed signature is its obsession with the issues, conflicts and dilemmas that have been endlessly discussed in the style/living pages of the major urban newspapers over the past decade: enlightened husbands who still don't share housework; or the crisis of finding a reliable baby-sitter. (The opening episode spent much of two hours on this "problem.") Communication gaps and "separation anxiety" between mom and tots are also dramatized and analyzed.
More serious, all of the characters are yuppie cliche's of the '80s. There's Hope, the wife/mother who constantly chides her husband for not enthusiastically participating in toilet training their 2-year-old: "You have yet to earn a gold star in the potty sweepstakes." Then there's Michael, an ad man who has agonized that his big-buck work is corrupting his ideals and aspirations.
And, of course, there's Ellyn, the career woman who desperately wants a baby, but can't land a husband. In one unintentionally hilarious scene, Ellyn admits she is terribly jealous of Hope, who in turn confesses her jealousy of the career woman. Together, they weep.
The men express low-keyed "male-bonding" physically: finger-flicking a buddy's stomach, resolute hand on shoulder and the ever-present high five. Michael and his ad agency friend Elliot also bond by slam-dunking into a hoop they've set up in their office. And by ending virtually every work day by sitting under their desks to rehash the day's events and their feelings about them.
Complicating the narrative of these cardboard figures is the slick visual treatment. Indeed, the look of "thirtysomething" might prove particularly instructive to the ad-man because almost any scene could be used to sell some product. In a recent episode, the three females are picnicking on the grass and, as usual, plodding on about men and life and stuff. What's striking, especially if one turns off the sound, is how much the scene resembles a commercial for, say, a douche. You can almost imagine one of the women asking, "What do you do when you get that not-so-fresh feeling?"
But the series' major flaw is the smug sensibility in its reference points -- lots of hip allusions to TV, movies, literature and art -- and, the quality of lives depicted. "Thirtysomething" describes people for whom having it all is an entitlement: friends, family, successful careers. Frustrations and disappointments pop up, but usually within those parameters. Michael and Elliot's business goes belly-up, but they find new and better-paying jobs. Similarly, Michael's cousin Melissa and Ellyn yearn for partners-in-life, but even if they don't find them, they both have something: very successful careers.
Yet that doesn't stop anyone from whining, whining, endlessly whining. The writers and devotees no doubt find these characters sensitive. To this viewer, they seem simply stunted: fictitious figures created by and for the over-protected, over-indulged and over-analyzed. In fact, "thirtysomething" could best be seen as a teaching aid for psychiatrists specializing in severe narcissistic disorders.
"Thirtysomething" is essentially the tot's universe, where every thought, every feeling is significant. Here, the most mundane events in daily living become springboards for overblown narratives.
Take, for example, the episode "Michael's Campaign." At work, Michael is battling the mean-spirited director, Miles Drentell (David Clennon). The bulk of the hour is spent on Michael's soul-searching, interspersed with at least half a dozen flashbacks involving his relationship in adolescence with his late father. This job trauma has brought to the surface the heady issues of self-worth, Dad, and intergenerational relationships.
And just to let the viewer know that with large themes there is continuity, after Michael takes on the director -- the way Dad would have wanted -- and scores at the agency, he meaningfully hugs his infant daughter, lavishing her with praise for the gold star she received on her painting. He is doing for her what his father did for him.
The women's stories also reflect terminal narcissism. For starters, there are ongoing conversations about babies and child-rearing, and lots of earnest shots of mom and child, sometimes child alone. Frankly, it's deadly. Married women wallow in how children affect their lives. Having babies, they clamor over and over, changes everything. Whoop-dee-doo!
Like their male counterparts, they experience the details of day-to-day living as the gravest trials and tribulations. "I can't imagine a time in my life when I wasn't taking care of my husband and baby and trying to stuff a 20-pound turkey into the oven," Hope laments on Thanksgiving as she nostalgically flips through a photo album featuring pictures of herself when she was single and less encumbered.
Despite its feminist gloss, "thirtysomething" has a curious antiwoman bias. The married women in particular embody a retro-image of the wife as homebody-drudge, combined with the worst of the post-feminist woman: self-pampering and demanding. Some are downright parasites.
In one episode, Hope, who pursues environmental causes because, among other things, she doesn't want her "breast milk poisoned," finds it too burdensome to come home and make dinner. The fact is, Michael's job has made it possible for her to indulge her own interests. Is it too much to expect that Hope will be home to make dinner? It's called division of labor.
But perhaps nowhere is the narcissistic self-absorption more vividly dramatized than in the characters' dream and fantasy sequences, almost weekly staples.
Ellyn, the single career woman, has a blind date with a man she met through a video-dating service. As she waits for him in a posh restaurant, which could serve as a backdrop for a credit card ad, she takes an imaginative flight. Suddenly, she is starring on "Geraldo" in a program entitled "The New Old Maid." Geraldo Rivera actually appears in this one, strutting and interrupting just the way he does on his show. Ellyn babbles on, attempting to explain why she's not married. Meanwhile, off to the side in silhouette, Michael and Hope have shown up to discuss their embarrassment at having a single-woman friend. But they don't want to be recognized.
Melissa's subterranean life is equally rich. Her latest dream sequence focuses on her conflict over an unsuitable boyfriend who is substantially younger than she. She has fallen in love with him but drops him because of age difference and is torn up over it.
Transformed into a lightweight boxing contender in a 1940s black-and-white movie, Melissa charges through the smoky crowd up to the ring, ready to take on her opponent, only to discover she's facing herself. Pugilist One represents Melissa's desire for the young man. Pugilist Two is social opinion. Get it?
As in Ellyn's fantasy, Melissa's friends play various parts: boxing manager, referee, radio announcer, gambler.
One can't help wondering why these people are friends at all, since they have nothing in common except their individual and collective narcissism. In real life, they would have long since drifted apart. But here they are bound together almost incestuously, involved in each other's lives and compulsively worried about the others' opinions. In fact, it's kinky.
To judge by the fact that an audience of millions across the country identifies with these characters, some truths are being voiced. But truth in itself does not good drama or television make. Art has to go beyond just what is. And the ironic twist here is that to attempt to do that with "thirtysomething" would be to falsify.
Simi Horwitz is a New York freelance writer who admits to being thirtysomething.