The whole thing kind of snuck up on me. Maybe it was the soft acoustic guitar and banjo melody. Or the sensitivity toward detail and style. Could've been the wit, the allusions to pop culture. And the characters themselves: authentic, cozily familiar, appealing in different ways. So. Here I am: smitten as can be by "thirtysomething," and happily charmed to bits.
(Before going any further, it's important to point out that I know that this show, like all shows and like TV itself, has its flaws. It can whine. But then, so can Woody Allen. I can live with some whininess. The point is, "thirtysomething's" virtues outweigh its imperfections by a mile, and that's what keeps me watching.)
I love "thirysomething" because I fall within the appropriate age bracket. And I'm a single working woman -- like Ellyn -- who's got an irritatingly stable best friend from childhood who's married with young children -- like Hope -- who's got a beautiful, slim, blond, understated Gentile friend -- like Nancy. I'm Jewish, creative, borderline neurotic and sort of funny-looking -- like Melissa. I was an English major in college whose nebulous goal was to be something like a writer -- like Michael. God knows I've encountered lit. professors who come across hip and non-conformist and turn out to be basically all right in a sleazy sort of way -- like Gary, who would inevitably fall for the bitchy likes of a Susannah. I have been, shall we say, approached by extremely married men -- like Elliot and Jeffrey. I have longed to be approached by great-looking, hip, artistic, sweet, unattached, intense younger babes -- like Lee (what's your phone number, Corey Parker?). And I have parents who drive me crazy and whom I love -- like all of the characters.
I love the way the show looks. The cinematography enhances its appearance and gives it Vermeer-like luster and texture; it provides warmth and visual depth. The sheen of Nancy's hair in sunlight, the transparency of her blue, blue eyes; the nocturnal golden glow of well-being and domesticity given off by the menorah candles Hope and Janie light; a heavy autumn rain streaking across the windshield of a car as we watch it from the inside; a close-up of cream altering the blackness of a steaming mug of coffee ...
All this attention given to the potential dazzle of everyday images (which most of us in our daily lives either overlook or take for granted) enriches not only what we see, but how we see and what we sensually experience as viewers. These concrete examples also help to modulate and define a given mood, and give the narrative aesthetic momentum and carefully crafted direction.
"Thirtysomething" is wonderfully musical. Whether it's the pleasure of recognition or the pleasure of an introduction to a new song, you feel pleasure. Michael Feinstein, Fine Young Cannibals, Stevie Nicks, Rickie Lee Jones, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell. And others. And the music is used in the same way the visual elements are. Threads in a fabric, all interdependent and singular at the same time. It's not a new idea -- deliberately using music to develop and enhance an emotion -- but you rarely see that (hear that) on TV shows.
And in the case of "thirtysomething," used so well. Elliot and Nancy trying in vain to get a goldfish inside an aquarium with "She Drives Me Crazy" in the background. Or Hope and Michael, dressed to the nines and ballroom dancing, Hope's hair swept up into a fancy steppin' out chignon as Michael Feinstein croons a ballad at the piano behind them. Ellyn and Jeffrey stumbling into adulterous consummation -- and Rickie Lee invisibly singing, "It must be love that whispers in my ear, must be love that we keep on trying to hear ... (There are other, less obvious aural cues: Ellyn's gorgeously raspy voice, the sound of ice tinkling in a cocktail, the magnified whoosh of an exhalation of cigarette smoke, a loudly dripping faucet, the crackle of static as Hope brushes her hair.) If the show attempts to reflect the times we live in and a slice of the American population, then popular music is an inescapable part of it.
And what about the women on the show? These are not a bunch of unattainable, blow-dried "Dallas" types. Sure, they're all skinny and pretty. Yet each has her own peculiar, distinctive style: Melissa's single earring and bicycle shorts; Hope's pony-tail holders and dangly '60s-era earrings; Nancy's glasses and French braids; Susannah's long, messy waves of hair and ankle-high boots; Ellyn's disgustingly perfect body and amazing working wardrobe. This is how many women I know look. Or would ideally like to look: relaxed, pulled-together, funky or professional.
"Thirtysomething" men have a style of their own, as well. Michael's suspenders and annoying tendency to over-analyze; Gary's Bjorn Borg tresses, glasses dangling on a cord around his neck, and generally hipper-than-thou outlook; Elliot's lurid ties, lapel pins and chronic horniness; Lee's unkempt I-am-not-an-art-school-graduate charm. You know. Guys.
I also love the quirkiness, originality and appropriateness of the fantasy sequences. Like our dreams, they can express secrets and illuminate character. Melissa shrinking into gigantic Mary Jane's in her father's law office; Hope's discovery of a '40s diary whose characters come to life and interact with her; Michael's melodramatic attempts at film noir fiction where individuals' dialogue is comprised strictly of stylized, late-night platitudes.
And then there are the flashbacks, used to illustrate why these people are the way they are. Though they appear unexpectedly, neither the fantasy sequences nor the use of flashbacks feel perfunctory. Some come off better than others, but I appreciate the creators' willingness to experiment with such a format. When they work, these techniques resonate, and are integral to the whole scheme and world of the show. They make "thirtysomething" unique, fresh, surprising, funny, fun.
Is any of this realistic? I once had a drama teacher who told me, "You want realism? Go take a walk down the street. That's real life." So there it is. Like looking in a mirror, television can only be an individual reflection of ourselves. A biased approximation. The intimacy and exasperation we feel toward "thirtysomething" comes damn close.
Gigi Anders is an editorial aide in the Style section of The Washington Post.
When ABC's "thirtysomething" debuted in 1987, the television world immediately divided into two kinds of people: those who love the series, and those who hate it. Here are opinions from each camp. The good news for next season -- or the bad news, depending on your camp -- is that the series will return in the fall.