Monday, February 8, 2010

New on DVD: Season 2 of thirtysomething

[My friend Jon Alan Conrad guest-blogs about one of his favorite series now available on DVD. Enjoy!]

Every once in a while, a new hourlong television drama breaks with custom and decides not to be about lawyers, doctors, or police (or detectives, firefighters, or vampires); instead, it aims to find drama in the ordinary events of life. Most of the time, such efforts fail to attract an audience, and fail artistically as well. But for the four seasons (1987-91) it was on the air, thirtysomething not only did this, but did it well enough to establish itself in TV history as the standard for a certain kind of drama (alongside later efforts from its creators, Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick). Those who recall it will still mention how it captured tiny nuances: the way people deal with longtime friends and new acquaintances, how they communicate in little jabs and jokes, complaining about little disappointments while fumbling for words when real tragedy strikes. And it didn’t wallow in naturalism, either; every episode included a dollop of fantasy, flashback, parody, or slapstick.

After a long delay (largely, we’re told, because of the challenge of getting music clearances), season 1 appeared on DVD last fall, and now we have season 2 (with season 3 announced for May).

This is the season in which Nancy and Elliot were separated throughout, Michael and Elliot closed their own business and went to work for Miles Drentell, Gary met Susannah, Melissa met Russell, Ellyn ruined her relationship with Woodman, and Hope started writing again. It’s the one with such classic episodes as “We’ll Meet Again” (the past history of the Steadmans’ house), “The Mike Van Dyke Show” (anxieties filtered through a classic sitcom), “First Day/Last Day” (the closing of the Michael and Elliot Company), and “Michael Writes a Story.”

To see these episodes intact again, after so many years, is to be reassured that memories of its quality are no nostalgic illusion: it really was as exceptional as we thought. Certainly there’s a line here or a concept there that doesn’t quite come off, but the general quality puts it on the highest level among series of its time -- or any time. At several points on commentaries we hear a director or writer murmur, “You’d never be allowed to do that now” (let a scene play so long, or so quietly, or in the background in dim lighting), but they’re forgetting that they weren’t allowed to do it on other series back then either. From all that we hear from the commenters (and indeed can see for ourselves), Herskovitz and Zwick ran an exceptional ship: giving chances to novices they trusted (directors came from off-Broadway, feature film, acting -- eventually including most of the regulars -- and the writing staff), and encouraging directors to treat each episode as a one-hour movie with its own style (all the while allowing long-term stories to progress).

Fans of the series will have their favorite moments to treasure; mine are all here just as I remembered: Michael drifting in and out of a black-and-white sitcom as he worries about his religion and his wife; Michael and Elliot shutting down their ad agency, even as we watch their younger selves start it up; Melissa getting a big professional break and not wanting to tell friends about it; Susannah, the newcomer, being abrasive at dinner with the circle of friends (and they with her); Michael visually erasing the details of his excessively fancy short story for his writing class; and the first glimpses of iconic boss Miles Drentell (David Clennon). One delight afforded by hindsight is the chance to watch the names who turn up as guest stars: in this season, Jo Anderson, Rita Wilson, Jack Gilford, Courtney B. Vance (overaged for a high school student, though), Lynne Thigpen, Sylvia Sidney, Phyllis Newman, Estelle Reiner, and many more.

Five discs contain the 19 episodes, beautifully restored, 6 with commentaries by writers and directors, accessed from the most user-friendly menu setup I’ve seen; plus featurettes (with newly filmed interviews) about Miles, Susannah, and Snuffy Walden’s music. On to Season Three!


  1. Now if we could only get LOU GRANT on DVD, life would be perfect...

  2. At least seasons 1-3 of Lou are on Hulu.

    Now we need them to finish Mary Tyler Moore (which is in sight) and Bob Newhart (which isn't).

  3. Looking at the art for the second season thirtysomething DVD, I noticed Gary immediately, and then was sad almost as quickly. For an ensemble show, they managed to make all of the characters really 3-D, with good and bad (although it took awhile to see the good in Susannah). I loved Gary. At least they made losing him important, not just a sweeps stunt or something.

    In what season does David Marshall Grant first show up?

  4. In this season. I mentioned "Melissa meets Russell," and DMG is Russell. He's in at least 2 episodes here.

    My reaction to Susannah was interestingly different after all this time. I remembered her as being a nasty prickly piece of work, and in fact she's pleasant and civil a lot of the time -- she then gets very focused at other times and doesn't think about how she's coming off. Patricia Kalember has interesting words in the new interview about how she imagined Susannah's personality.

  5. I remember liking Susannah better than the rest of the world seemed to at the time, mostly because it was Patricia Kalember and I had liked her on a soap. I believe it was "Loving." It was set in a college town, and she was the first female lead. I think she was cast opposite Bryan Cranston, who played a sweet but not very dynamic nice guy who always got cheated on. He certainly turned into something different when he left that soap!

    I didn't catch the Russell reference and I do apologize. I loved him, too. I'm happy that DMG is busy with Brothers and Sisters, but I still think he didn't get as much acting work as he should've. He's too good an actor to be sort of retired from it to be a show-runner.

  6. Oh, there's no apology necessary! I was just pointing to my reference as a way of indicating that, indeed, I hadn't forgotten about David Marshall Grant! He meant a great deal to me at the time, when I was hungering for gay characters on TV who weren't overtly offensive (I was willing to settle for so little!), and here was one who was completely rounded and human, and had his ups and downs like all the others. To a younger viewer now, I bet he doesn't look like a big deal at all, which I suppose is as it should be.

    I agree that I wish he were acting more; I always enjoyed seeing him. Of course you and I caught him in Angels in America (and it was fun to see him as Anne Hathaway's father a couple years ago), but there could have been so much more. I hope he's content doing his writing and producing, but I do miss him.

  7. I am with you 110% on "thirtysomething". One of my two very favorite television shows of all time ("Six Feet Under" is the other one). Somewhere in my house are worn-out videotaped copies of each of the "thirtysomething" episodes, but I am so thrilled to finally be able to have them on DVD. Like many other people, I was very impatiently waiting for the DVD release, and I was euphoric when it was finally announced. I was literally the first on my block to get my DVDs when they were released, making a special trip out to Best Buy the morning they became available. (Of course, I doubt that anyone else on my block is quite as passionate about this series as I am.) And I absolutely agree that time has done nothing to diminish the series. It really is as good as I remember it being. Of course, now we get to chuckle at the hairstyles and the padded shoulders, but the interplay between the characters is just as honest and true as it ever was. And when my favorite "thirtysomething" moments come along in the re-watching, I'm moved just as much as I was the first time. During the commentaries, I'm impressed with how some of the creators are somewhat taken aback by the show themselves, having forgotten just how outstanding much of what they created was -- and is. Can't wait for seasons three and four. My only regret, though, is seeing how Ken Olin turned from such a sexy hunk in "thirtysomething" into a Harvey Fierstein clone on "Brothers and Sisters". Oh, well. The ravages of time. It happens to us all, I guess. Anyway, I'm always glad to learn of another passionate "thirtysomething" devotee.

  8. I remember "thirty something"! And I remember being "thirty something"!

  9. Steve, thanks for the response. It's always good to know there are like-minded souls around.

    "Of course, now we get to chuckle at the hairstyles and the padded shoulders"

    Yeah, I try not to let myself condescend to the past too much about styles -- I figure if it looked good to people once it will again -- but certain things test my limits. One is a particular women's hairstyle that apparently was in for about a year in the early 40s (a rolled-up pompadour in front PLUS a full head of hair hanging down straight behind) that I've seen sported by Ginger Rogers and Loretta Young. And another is, yes, the 80s shoulder pads. One of my biggest chuckles on the Season 1 "thirtysomething" DVDs is the commentary with Olin, Busfield, and Wettig where the two guys are being all analytical about the nuances and technicalities of a scene and Patty breaks in with "Oh please let's focus on what's important here, OH MY GOD THE SHOULDER PADS!" (On her, in the scene where she's trying to look pretty and seductive for her husband.)

    One thing I'm glad of in this set of commentaries is that someone (in the episode on the house's history) finally pays unqualified tribute to Mel Harris's acting. I felt like it didn't quite happen in Vol. 1; people talked about her skill handling props and kids and knowing how to relate to the camera, which isn't quite the same thing. And I think she's really good in this series, and (maybe because she was a model before, and didn't go on to Prestigious Projects afterward?) she gets underrated. She's every bit the equal of the rest of the ensemble.

    As to how they've aged: I think most of them look like themselves, but older, which is fine. The one that shocked me is the last one I'd have expected to have herself worked over, Polly Draper. In her Season 1 interviews she's backlit and soft-focused (and even so, has clearly had stuff done) and aiming for a dewy-ingenue look. I would never guess who she was.

  10. I was going to say that Polly Draper (or actually Ellyn) was the one I felt less fondly of thinking back. Susannah was supposed to be the prickly one, and Nancy had her moments of not being very appealing, but it's Ellyn I find myself not caring about and more annoyed with. Huh. Didn't expect that.

    I would say that Polly Draper, rather than Mel Harris, is the one whose acting skills sometimes disappointed me. (It's "Let's All Pile on Polly Draper Day"!)

    And, yeah, I'm kinda sad that Mel Harris didn't do much after that. Looking at imdb, I see she's done guest spots on shows I watch, like HOUSE, so I wonder why I didn't spot her? I also see that she has filed for divorce from her 5th husband. I remember discussing her 4th husband, Cotter Smith, at some point...

    (I still think Ken Olin is attractive, btw. Yes, he's aged. Yes, he's heavier and more grizzled than he was then, but he's still hot.)

  11. I saw that episode of House! The mystery patient of the week (2nd season) was a teenage girl, and her parents were Mel Harris and... Lance Guest! I also saw Mel around that time on John Stamos's sitcom Jake in Progress, where she played an aging TV star trying to get work and (if I recall right) staving off bad publicity from having a hot boyfriend half her age. And don't we all recall her mid-90s 2-season sitcom Something So Right, in which she and Jere Burns each had a passel of kids from previous marriages whom they were now bringing up together in Manhattan?

    Yeah, she has conceded that she's not that great at the staying-married thing. But it's nice that the Wettig-Olins are still together.

    Polly Draper is actually the one with the most legit theater credits: 4 shows on Bway, a dozen off. (Important playwrights too, like John Patrick Shanley and Chris Durang.) Patty W has half a dozen credits off-Bway at Circle Rep, and I know she and Ken had both been busy in regional theater. And I saw the play Mel Harris and Cotter Smith did together at Circle Rep in the early 90s -- her only time on a stage, I think.