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Five years after thirtysomething

Star Tribune
October 1996


More than any other show in recent history, "thirtysomething" split us apart.

Fans believed the angst-ridden adventures of the middle class made breakthrough television, proving that riveting drama didn't have to revolve around shootouts and bedroom hanky-panky. During its 1987-91 run, it won a Peabody award and an Emmy for best drama. The main characters, the Steadmans, became the poster couple for baby boomers everywhere, trying to maintain their career, friends, marriage and sanity. To detractors, "thirtysomething" was about a bunch of spoiled whiners, about as tolerable as a car alarm. David Letterman liked to call them "skinny white guys from hell."

Well, love 'em or hate 'em, they're back.

Consider this: The two best new dramas of the season were created by "thirtysomething" alumni.

- The show's creators, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, are the executive producers for the perfectly romantic "Relativity" (9 p.m. Saturdays, KSTP-Ch. 5). Reruns of their last series, the critically acclaimed "My So-Called Life," were popular on MTV earlier this year.

There is Oscar buzz about the Zwick-directed "Courage Under Fire," starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan.

- Ken Olin, who played the agonized Michael Steadman, stars as a cool cop on "EZ Streets," which has been lauded by critics but was just pulled from CBS' lineup after only one week on the air. (CBS said Monday that the show would be "reintroduced later this season." See story above for details.) "EZ Streets" was created by Paul Haggis, a supervising producer for "thirtysomething" during its first season, who won an Emmy for his writing.

- In sitcom land, Mel Harris (Hope Steadman) stars in the new "Something So Right" (7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, KARE-Ch. 11), which has done well enough in the ratings for NBC to claim a minor hit.

The primary reason "thirtysomething" vets are contributing to top-quality TV is that they were not only getting good roles on that program, they were earning an education.

"I actually think of {"thirtysomething"} as my master's degree," said Harris, who also stars in the TV movie "What Kind of Mother Are You?" (8 p.m. Nov. 18, KARE-Ch. 11). "It was the kind of film school money can't buy."

During the show's four-year run, five of the seven main cast members directed episodes. Few had any experience behind the camera. Three went on to make directing a full-time career.

Peter Horton (Gary Shepard) directed the 1995 AIDS weeper "The Cure," filmed in the Twin Cities. Melanie Mayron (Melissa Steadman) made her feature-film debut last year with "The Baby-Sitters Club." Olin, whose only behind-the-scenes work before "thirtysomething" was a college play, was a full-time director between the two series. He directed last week's episode of "EZ Streets."

"The thing that was most extraordinary about that situation was how encouraging Marshall and Ed were," said Olin, who in real life is married to "thirtysomething" costar Patricia Wettig (Nancy Weston). "They liked the idea of creating a laboratory to discuss their theories of filmmaking. You would sit in dailies and hear all sorts of very esoteric terminology. That was all fine and good. If you liked it, you would incorporate it into your style. If you didn't, you just let it go."

Zwick and Herskovitz, who met as students at the American Film Institute in 1975, saw themselves as working professors, partly because they love to teach and partly because they didn't trust anybody else.

"At that time, most TV directors had terrible habits," Herskovitz said. "Most of them that we met had ways of shooting we didn't like, so we needed to do more hiring from the outside - theater, film - and we grew our own. We probably used more first-time directors than any other show."

What television was lacking in the mid-'80s, Herskovitz said, was a "personal" style of storytelling that required spending more time with actors and taking more risks with the cameras. Since then, he said, he believes the overall look of television has gotten much better, pointing to the work of Stephen Bochco ("Hill Street Blues, " "NYPD Blue") and the team of Carol Black and Neil Marlens ("The Wonder Years").

Mary Helfrich, who managed the story department for "thirtysomething" and also worked on "My So-Called Life," said Herskovitz and Zwick used television the way it was intended: as a laboratory.

"It's something you can love or absolutely hate. It shouldn't matter," said Helfrich, who recently moved back to the Twin Cities. "These guys are willing to make every mistake in the world. You have to be willing to do that or it's worth nothing."

Haggis, who left the show during the first season, said Herskovitz and Zwick set a very high standard for what they wanted. "My first script for them, Ed came in and said, `It's terrific, Paul, but I'm not going to do it. It's not the show. Here's what I want you to do: Throw it out and try again,' " he said. "He pushed me to do my best work, and I'll always be grateful for it. I certainly learned how to direct by watching them. I got to sit down and edit. In a lot of ways, I learned by trying to ape them and then find my own style."

Herskovitz and Zwick were able to set their own course with "thirtysomething" - as well as with their two subsequent series - with no interference from ABC, an almost unheard-of relationship in network television. The reason dates back to the NBC TV movie "Special Bulletin," which won the 1983 Emmy for outstanding drama special. The docu-style film, which examined how a nuclear war would be reported by TV news, was the first TV project for the Zwick-Herskovitz team, and it came when NBC was trying to dodge a few bombs of its own.

"It was such an odd film, one about nuclear terrorism, but it was done at a time that NBC was utterly in the toilet, and they didn't know what to do about it," Herskovitz said. "Basically, they let us do what we want, and we gained a reputation to just leave us alone."

Since then, they have created some of the finest dramas on television. But they haven't exactly burned a hole in the ratings. "My So-Called Life," starring Claire Danes, may have been one of the smartest programs about teenage angst, but it never captured a wide audience. Despite great reviews and a starmaking performance by Kimberly Williams, "Relativity" is in the Nielsen basement.

Herskovitz is not willing to compromise to cast a wider net. He wouldn't know how.

"When we submitted the pilot of `My So-Called Life,' they said, `We don't know who's going to watch the show.' But how do you figure out how to get that?" he said. "I might as well look for it in the entrails of sacrificial animals."

He insists it doesn't bother him that he has yet to have a substantial hit. "I don't mind. A failure on TV in the ratings is a show that only reaches 12 to 15 million. Do that math on a movie that reaches 15 million, and it's made $75 million. So, go figure, " he said. " `My So-Called Life' was an absolute ratings failure, but it reached a new audience - adolescent girls - that didn't have a voice on television. I have a lot of pride that we did that."

Whether "thirtysomething" hit home or made you nuts, one thing is clear: Those yuppies changed everything. "I think it was finally a speciality item, but it certainly broke new ground," Herskovitz said. "That's pretty rare on television."

Copyright 1996 Star Tribune.

“Lately, I can't even look at my mother without wanting to stab her repeatedly.”

Angela Chase, Episode 1: "My So-Called Life (Pilot)"