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thirtysomething: The Complete First Season (1987-1988)

Shout Factory!
DVD Released: 8/25/2009

All Ratings out of
Extras: 1/2

Review by Special Guest Reviewer Stephanie Long, Posted on 8/10/2009

The eighties had many quintessential shows that bring a sense of nostalgia and affection for a decade defined by yuppies, the war on drugs, Live Aid, and Madonna. Shows like The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls, Cheers, and Growing Pains were the most popular shows in 1987, and dramas like In the Heat of the Night, LA Law, and Dallas secured spots of popularity in the top 25 most watched shows. Once DVDs became popular in the late nineties, an influx of these popular eighties shows began to be released at a prolific rate, and I waited with anticipation for my favorite eighties drama to be released. And I waited. And I read about others on-line who were also waiting and wondering- where was thirtysomething?

In September 1987, ABC premiered thirtysomething, an ensemble drama about a group of baby-boomer yuppies dealing with angst in the suburbs. The show centered on Hope and Michael Steadman (played by Mel Harris and Ken Olin), a well-educated married couple coping with a new baby, home, and business in suburban Philadelphia. However, it is the story of the family and friends of Hope and Michael that gave the show its heart and complexity. Michael’s business partner Elliot (Timothy Busfield) is dealing with his failing marriage to Nancy (Patricia Wettig). Professor Gary Shepherd, played by Peter Horton, is Michael’s best friend, and is dealing with an intense phobia of commitment towards women and academia. His past relationship with Michael’s cousin Melissa (Melanie Mayron), a creative photographer looking for Mr. Right, has evolved in to a deep friendship. Ellyn, played by the scratchy-voiced Polly Draper, completes the ensemble as Hope’s career-driven best friend, who is constantly re-evaluating and re-considering a relationship with her boss, Woodman. Each character has their own life struggles that they face each week, but it is their relationships with one another that elevate thirtysomething in to a complex, dead-on picture of what it means to be in your thirties and coming to terms with who you and those closest to you have become.

The strength of thirtysomething rests in the incredible writing. Many thought of the show as a whine-fest- what, this incredibly beautiful house the Steadman’s bought is a fixer-upper that needs constant work? What, being able to stay-at-home with your child, although you miss the career you loved, is not always as fulfilling as you would like? What, you are in your thirties, and own your own business, but it isn’t as easy as you thought it would be? Cry me a river! But, that attitude dismisses what makes the show so great. Not everything that happens to us is always bad, or always good. Life is a series of ups and downs, and the challenge is in how you deal with it, and who you turn to for support. The relationships in the show are so scarily realistic, that even though I was a freshman in college at the time the show aired (and should have been unable to relate to the characters), I was glued to the T.V. to witness their journey. Their relationships were messy, and the characters were flawed, but being able to accurately portray that through dialogue and plot, and still come out feeling for these characters, was no easy feat, but one that raised the bar as to what constitutes quality television drama.

This is not to say that all of the episodes hold up well over twenty years later. There are some cringe-worthy scenes, especially in the earlier episodes, when attempts to add “fantasy” elements in to the show fall embarrassingly short. Hope’s pretend conversation with her infant daughter’s older perky persona, or the image of all of the cast members as babies that Hope has to deal with, not to mention the episode where badly dressed midgets embody Michael’s fears and anxieties, jar the viewer momentarily away from what are otherwise good storylines. But these transgressions can be easily forgiven when the first season is viewed as a whole. Exemplary episodes of award-winning writing and impeccable character portrayals by the cast include Episode 4: “Couples”, Episode 9: “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, Episode 11: “Therapy”, Episode 13: “Separation”, and Episode 15: “Business As Usual”. These five episodes alone require an entire box of Kleenex. The raw emotion and realism of the characters’ words and actions in these episodes, as well as the season as a whole, has not been duplicated since.

thirtysomething: The Complete First Season leaves Janie unattended on DVD courtesy of Shout Factory! The six-disc boxed set contains all 21 episodes from the show's first season. The episodes are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The show was shot on film and this transfer shows the pros and cons of this. Actually, what it does is highlight the flaws in the show's aesthetic approach. This is a very dark show, and there are many scenes where the characters don't turn on many, if any, lights. The result is a very dark image where, at times, it difficult to make out the action. Some scenes, such as those in Michael and Elliot's office are fairly bright, and these reveal an image which shows acceptable sharpness and clarity. The picture shows some slight grain and there are minor defects from the source material. The colors are good, although they are slightly washed out at times. The DVD sports a digital stereo audio track. The audio here is quite weak and I noted that the volume had to be set much higher than my normal listening level. The dialogue often sounds dubbed and has a "canned" feeling. While the dialogue is never garbled, once must listen closely at times to make out what is being said. The show's music does come through nicely.

The thirtysomething: The Complete First Season DVD set contains several extras. The set contains a booklet which has essays about the show and photos. There are AUDIO COMMENTARIES for the following episodes: "Pilot" -- Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick; "I'll Be Home for Christmas" -- Mel Harris and Melanie Mayron; "Therapy" -- Timothy Busfield, Ken Olin, and Patricia Wettig; Competition -- Writer Joseph Dougherty; "I'm in Love...With a Wonderful Gynecologist" -- Director Scott Winant; "Whose Forest is This" -- Busfield and Writer Richard Kramer; "Nancy's First Date" -- Director Ron Logomarsino; "Undone" -- Daugherty; "Born to Be Mild" -- Harris and Logomarsino. The remainder of the extras can be found on Disc 6. "A Conversation between Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick" (32 minutes) is exactly what it sounds like. This isn't an interview, this is simply the two sitting together and reminiscing about the show. They start from the very beginning and give a very detailed account of how the show came together, the casting, and the reaction to the show. As the two have worked together for years, they rib one another while having a serious talk about their work. (There are some spoilers for future season here.) "From thirtysomething to Forever" contains two sections. "Beginnings" (30 minutes) is a making-of featurette which contains comments from the cast and crew. The speakers talk about how they got involved with the show and how it evolved. The actors talk about their characters and everyone comments on how the storylines were taken directly from the writers' lives. "The Following Years" (16 minutes) contains comments from the same speakers commenting on what transpired after Season One. (This does contain spoilers.) "The Couples" focuses on "Michael and Hope" (10 minutes) and "Elliot and Nancy" (11 minutes) and looks at how these characters changed and grew throughout the show. Similarly, "The Singles: Gary, Melissa and Ellyn" (11 minutes) looks at these characters. "The Writers" (6 minutes) contains interviews with the various scribes who worked on the show, while "The Directors" (7 minutes) profiles those behind the camera. "Cultural Impact" (10 minutes) looks at how the show was labeled a "Yuppy" show and also how the show began an era of tailoring advertising towards a certain demographic.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long