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HOWARD ROSENBERG

NEW TV GENERATION GETS OLDER, BETTER AT 'thirtysomething'

September 29, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

TV may be getting better.

Yes, you're right: What a subjective comment. "Better" is in the mind of the beholder. To fans of "Dynasty" or "Knots Landing" or "Hotel" or take your pick, TV was already "better." Go to it.

Viewers aching for more alternatives, though, should be encouraged by some of this season's new prime-time series. Perhaps 25%--almost a bumper crop--stride into braver new worlds of entertainment.

The last of these to arrive is "thirtysomething" at 10 tonight on ABC (Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42). Take it from a viewer aged forty-something, here's something that's pretty terrific.

The hour drama from Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick is not a "yuppie series," as some have narrowly labeled it. Nor is it the weekly sexual adventures of chic modern couples, a sort of Michael & Hope & Elliot & Nancy ode to "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice."

It's about a small circle of well-educated, middle-class friends in their 30s (all right, they are rather chic and modern) whose relationships shift, twist and bend as they confront the routine challenges of life that seem routine only in retrospect.

The core characters are Michael (Ken Olin) and Hope (Mel Harris), a couple whose young marriage seems to be buckling under the stress of parenting. They have a 9-month-old daughter.

Elliot (Timothy Busfield) is Michael's friend and business partner who is having more serious marital problems, and his wife, Nancy (Patricia Wettig), struggles with insecurity. Rounding out the circle are Hope's friend Ellyn (Polly Draper) and Michael's friend, Gary (Peter Horton), and cousin, Melissa (Melanie Mayron).

Michael and Hope are shown fitfully and unglamorously adjusting to parenthood tonight. The rigors of child-rearing--and the mind games that couples sometimes play--are pointedly and amusingly noted when Michael is angered by Hope's endless search for just the right baby-sitter. (There was a similar sequence in the premiere of NBC's "One Year in the Life.")

Michael admits to his fatigued wife that he sometimes jealously views their daughter as an intrusion, wishing he could turn back time to when Hope was always beautiful, exciting and "there for me."

Meanwhile, Elliot confesses to Michael how simple it was lying to Nancy after his first affair. "The worst part of it is, it's totally easy. It's like there's some psychopath lying around inside me waiting for a chance to jump out."

If only there were more TV like "thirtysomething" waiting for a chance to jump out.

The cast and execution are excellent, the literate stories bristling with fun, wit, intensity and honest emotion, the dialogue free-flowing and natural, always producing a sense of real people doing real things. There's lots happening--some evident, some intriguingly below the surface, all of it universally applicable.

Tonight's premiere was directed by Herskovitz and written by Herskovitz and Zwick, who have something to say and, as a bonus, say it superbly. Only occasionally do their likable, interesting, complex, layered characters seem a bit too mannered, glib and witty.

It is the vulnerability of those characters, in fact, that gives "thirtysomething" much of its dramatic realism. They are every bit as flawed as they are appealing. Future episodes reflect that and the producers' intent to avoid the soap opera trap by giving their stories a rare scope, dimension, intelligence and creative vitality.

One episode becomes a sort of domestic "Rashomon," exploring truth and human nature, as Michael, Hope, Elliot and Nancy have clashing recollections of the same marital crisis.

Another, about a visit by Hope's parents and the blurring of loving and hurting, is stratospheric, simply a higher realm of TV. There is painful unfinished business between Hope and her mother (Shirley Knight) that may never be resolved, and the rawness of their volatile relationship is explored with unusual subtlety and nuance.

There are no tidy endings on this series, which plays like a fascinating extension of life. Premiering tonight, a special something.

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