Twenty-five years ago — on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 1991 — viewers of ABC’s existential yuppie drama “thirtysomething” readied our Kleenex boxes for what we all thought would be a real weeper of an episode. Nancy Weston (Patricia Wettig), who had suffered plenty enough as the wife of self-absorbed, Elliot (Timothy Busfield), was waiting to see if her ovarian cancer had spread. Things seemed very dark.
Nancy’s cancer had occupied a significant portion of the show’s fourth season; in true “thirtysomething” fashion, creators Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz and their actors conveyed Nancy’s illness with an honesty and realism that was not yet de rigueur on prime-time TV. In interviews, Herskovitz and Zwick had alluded for weeks that a tragic event — something “devastating and true” — was in store. On the day the show aired, that morning’s Washington Post included a brief, 300-word plea from Style writers Elizabeth Kastor and Marjorie Williams, begging that Nancy be spared:
“We beg you, consider your alternatives, and listen to your audience. Did you ever think about offering a number viewers could call to vote? We’re sure they’d agree that an obvious solution is at hand — one that would give you Nancy and your Ingmar Bergman pretensions too, one that would satisfy your fans no end.
Say the word and we’ll call:
Some 17 million viewers tuned in. Near the episode’s end, all seemed well, even triumphant: The surgeons had found no cancer — she was in remission. The gang gathered at her bedside to celebrate. Then Michael Steadman (Ken Olin) stepped outside to check his phone messages.
“Gary’s dead,” he reported back to his wife, Hope (Mel Harris).
GARY IS DEAD?
Gary is dead. Gary is still dead. It was an unfathomable swerve from happy to sad. Gary Shepherd, played by Peter Horton — with his long curly locks and perpetual stubble and sexy English-professor vibe, he was “thirtysomething’s” McDreamy — had been killed in a car wreck on his way to the hospital. Michael had urged Gary not to ride his bicycle — his usual mode — on that snowy Philadelphia night.
To have watched the episode live that night was like a punch to the gut. Many of us were rather reluctant “thirtysomething” addicts to begin with, tuning in as a guilty pleasure. Critics kept deriding the show’s preciousness, its narcissism — and we recognized all of that, but we fell in love with the characters anyhow.
Those of us in our early 20s could not come up with a satisfactory answer to why we’d been so sucked in to a show that was all about the domestic problems of well-off baby boomers who were 15 years older than us. We were already feeling the demographic squeeze that author Douglas Coupland would give name to with his novel, “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture,” released in March of that year. All our lives we had been trained to pay attention to whatever the boomers — Michael, Hope, Elliott, Nancy, Gary, et al.; our older siblings — were into, rebelling against it only occasionally and not very effectively. (Don’t worry. Nirvana’s “Nevermind” was only seven months away, and X-ers got busy channeling our identity crises into pioneering the so-called “information superhighway.” And we eventually had our lasting revenge: To this day, the millennials can’t stop watching reruns of “Friends,” which is about as Gen X as you can get.)
But back to poor, dead Gary — and the genuine grief we felt for him. His death was not enough to save “thirtysomething” from cancellation a few months later, but it remains an early example of what has become a standard feature of today’s Golden Age of TV: Surprise sudden-death syndrome.
Gary’s death wasn’t just a one-off, it seemed. A mere five weeks later, on NBC’s hit drama “L.A. Law,” the bitch-on-heels Rosalind Shays (played by the fabulous Diana Muldaur) suddenly and unexpectedly plunged to her death down the elevator shaft at the McKenzie Brackman office.
It’s hard to remember, but for many, many years, TV was in the habit of rescuing main characters in peril. Where were the firefighters who would dramatically rescue Rosalind from a tangle of cables? Where was the hospital scene, the recovery?
It wasn’t coming this time. Rosalind had been Gary’d.
Use of this narrative device picked up in the dramas that followed — especially with the rise of premium-cable narratives, which played by new and terribly cruel rules: Anyone can go at any time, and without the advance notice or obvious foreshadowing that we used to get when an actor had decided not to renew his or her contract.
To watch a network, cable or streaming drama in 2016 is to remain in a constant state of emotional preparedness. Showrunners and network publicity departments have learned to keep upcoming character deaths remarkably hush-hush; critics and fans are equally compliant about spoilers, keeping us in a state of anxiety over who’s next to go.
CBS was able to snuff out “The Good Wife’s” Will Gardner (Josh Charles) in 2014 to everyone’s surprise. When it came time to end AMC’s “Mad Men,” everyone pretty much assumed Don Draper would have to die. (Or somebody would — how about you, Betty?) Shows like HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and AMC’s “The Walking Dead” (especially “The Walking Dead”) subsist on a steady stream of sacrificial shockers. Yet we still make the effort to mourn fully for each one on Twitter. With all this death, we haven’t grown numb.
The morning after Gary died, I came to work and commiserated with the only other “thirtysomething” watcher in the newsroom. We didn’t know quite know how we felt — he wasn’t real after all; he wasn’t even our favorite character. But something was different after that episode — something changed about what I expected from a one-hour drama series.
To this day — dozens and maybe hundreds of TV deaths later — whenever we grieve the loss of a main character on a big show, I think of the night Gary drove his car instead of riding his bike.