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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
erry Stahl is a great writer who once upon a time had a very rough time of it while trying to write TV scripts in Hollywood. He became addicted to heroin and watched his career and life quickly spin out of his control. He mapped out these experiences in a grimly humorous tell-all called “Permanent Midnight,” which was later made into a rather tepid movie starring Ben Stiller. One of the shows Stahl worked on during his days and nights of near oblivion was “thirtysomething.” Here are a couple paragraphs from the book detailing his thoughts on the show:
“By the time I hit thirtysomething, I had this bad habit of spraying a bloody jumbo Z on the tiles of whatever TV show toilet I happened to be shooting up in. Kind of like an intravenous Zorro. It was my way of saying ‘Just because I happen to be here, writing an episode of thirtysomething, that doesn’t make me ONE OF YOU REEBOK PEOPLE!’
Maybe I did overreact, tweaked by that nasty, subconscious realization I just couldn’t shake: I was perfect for the show. The horror! Because I had the wife, the home, and there was probably a baby on the way. And some part of me wanted all that. I hated admitting the extent to which I could relate to the very things I considered most despicable.”
Now, I’ve never succumbed to heroin addiction, but I’ve been around a few blocks a time or two, and after watching three full seasons of “thirtysomething,” I can relate to Stahl. The kinds of lives these people lead aren’t what most people in my circle envisioned when they were young, and yet these are the sorts of lives that most of us inevitably end up living. Maybe we dream of climbing the mountain, but few of us ever actually get around to doing it. I should stop myself before I slip and fall into a full-on, Harry Knowles-esque recount of the first 30 years of my life, and just get on with the fucking review.
Season Three may very well be the best season of this series (although with one more season to go, I’m hesitant to make that call). It’s certainly at least as good as, if not better than Season One, and it’s far more cohesive than Season Two, which had a transitional vibe, in addition to being somewhat depressing. Indeed, back when I wrote up the second season, I didn’t quite know what was off about it, but having watched the third, it became much clearer. Season Three is focused, and knows exactly what it wants to do coming out of the gate. I hate to recommend seasons out of order, but if you didn’t get around to the first two, it wouldn’t be a televisual travesty to start here. The show remains just compartmentalized enough that within a few installments one could get into the “thirtysomething” groove, and figure out who these people are and what they’re about.
At the close of Season Two, Elliot (Timothy Busfield) and Nancy (Patricia Wettig) were separated, but getting close to one another once again. Season Three kicks off with the couple bridging the gaps in their relationship, and trying to put the painful past behind them. Nancy’s mother, Eleanor (Elizabeth Hoffman) shows up in the first episode, and there’s some misunderstood friction. Something that’s really admirable about this show is the manner in which the central characters’ parents are portrayed. There’s quite the diverse selection of parents that pop up in this series, and each is written with as much care and attention to detail as if they were a main character. Eleanor appears several times this season, and on each occasion brings something important to the table, not the least of which is her willingness to help out when Nancy is faced with ovarian cancer.
Yes, cancer is an issue this year, but as always with “thirtysomething,” it’s handled in a way that’s much different than we’re used to seeing. Only three episodes are devoted to it. The first is about Nancy discovering she has the disease, the second involves how the family deals with her post surgery, and in the third she develops an unhealthy friendship with another afflicted woman. It frankly all seems rather sanitary in its own way, and doesn’t cover the same ground we’re used to seeing on TV and in the movies. For instance, chemotherapy is talked about, but we never actually go through the process with her, which is mildly bewildering. But in sparing the viewer what they’ve no doubt already seen countless times, the show rises to the occasion and gives us something equally as profound, even if it isn’t what we expect. Wettig is just marvelous here, and this season scored her a second Emmy for her work on the show.
As with last season, the highpoint revolves around Michael (Ken Olin) and Elliot at DAA, the advertising firm they both work for. There are at least a half a dozen episodes devoted to the ongoing storyline of Michael’s rise in the company under the watchful eye of Miles Drentell (David Clennon), all while Elliot progressively finds himself more and more a fish out of water. Clennon’s Drentell remains an outstanding addition to this series, and watching him slowly warm up to Michael, as well as watching Michael earn this complicated man’s trust, is thoroughly engaging material. Few will believe that a great deal of the drama here is strikingly reminiscent of “Mad Men,” but it is. (In all fairness, I should disclose that it was my wife who noticed the parallels, and I was unable to argue the point.) One wonders if Matthew Weiner saw this material once upon a time and it stuck with him.
As for the other characters? Well, Hope (Mel Harris) finds herself pregnant once again, and finally the cracks start appearing in hers and Michael’s marriage, which was long overdue for this fictitious couple. Late in the season, Hope even begins falling for an environmental activist (played by singer-songwriter J.D. Souther, of all people). Ellyn (Polly Draper) finally finds a man she loves – only he’s married. Yep, she sure knows how to pick ‘em. Melissa (Melanie Mayron) also finds a man, only he’s 10 or so years her junior. Gary (Peter Horton) and Susannah (Patricia Kalember) have their baby, which brings its own set of problems to their already troubled relationship.
The plotlines involving Melissa and Gary did very little for me this season. That’s not to say they’re poorly written, just that the material didn’t speak to me. No doubt plenty of people would find the episode in which Susannah gives birth – which is unveiled backwards, “Memento” style – very engaging. I’m just not one of those people. Another reliable aspect of “thirtysomething” is that if you find yourself disinterested in a particular plotline, you can rest assured that the next episode will move on to something else entirely. That’s just the way this thing rolls. Bring on Season Four, Shout! I’m ready to see how all this wraps up for these folks.
Special Features: There are even fewer extras on this set than there were for the last set, which already saw the bonus material dwindling. There’s a very brief intro from grand poobahs Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz in which they discuss two aspects of the season in particular. There are also seven commentary tracks featuring various members of the cast and crew, and that’s it. Not that this is bad showing – certainly one should never devalue a good commentary track – but it would’ve been nice to have some featurettes, especially given how rich this particular season is.