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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

'Thirtysomething' blurred age differences

In the tapestry of characters, we saw ourselves and our family and friends.

August 23, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

When "thirtysomething" debuted, I was still a young twentysomething. Although I am, to my everlasting dismay, technically a tail-end baby boomer, my friends and I came of age in the midst of boomer disillusionment, when organized protest had dropped to an inescapable social whine. Love beads gave way to power shoulders, hippies morphed into yuppies and the only solace was irony. (This was a self-indulgent generational viewpoint too, of course, but that took me a few more years to understand.)

Still, we all loved "thirtysomething."

Loved to hate it, certainly, but with the telltale obsession that separates devotion from dismissal. We loved it because the characters, despite their trappings of home and children, of high-paying jobs and super-cool lofts, were Just Like Us. Hope and Nancy, Elliot and Michael, Ellyn, Melissa (everyone's female favorite because she was artsy) and Gary (everyone's male favorite because he was so cute) spent hours combing through their emotions and thoughts, picking apart the details of their pasts and presents like a family of chimpanzees grooming each other. Just like we did.

Their friendships were in no way trumped or compromised by marriage or parenthood, they had very nice stuff but felt appropriately guilty about it, they were never quite satisfied with their romantic relationships and they always wanted to Talk About Everything.

Unlike the actual thirty- and fortysomethings who surrounded us, Hope and Nancy seemed to have all the time in the world to sit over a cup of coffee and contemplate their life choices, to weigh each word Michael or Elliot had muttered that morning. Yes, they had child-care issues, but the kids were just another topic to be discussed, not the money-sucking black holes of flu symptoms and behavioral issues, entrance exams and 3 p.m. school performances that real kids seemed to be.

We looked at "thirtysomething" and thought: We could do that. We could do marriage and motherhood (although no way would we give up our careers), we could face passing through our 20s, with its freedom to be completely self-involved, because the 30s looked exactly the same.

At one level this was a lie, but at another it was not. "Thirtysomething" has been credited for creating a whole new sort of television show, the "talkie" as it were, in which emotions and thoughts are given as much creative weight as a car chase or a doctor brandishing the paddles and yelling, "Clear!" But perhaps more significantly, "thirtysomething" creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick were the first perpetrators of the great age blur that now dominates popular culture.

Undone by technology and the puer eternis dedication of the baby boomers, the traditional milestones that once marked a person's progression through life have all but disappeared. A college student can be a self-made millionaire, a woman can have her first child at 43, the clothes at the Gap and Gap Kids differ mostly in size, and if films like "He's Just Not That Into You" can be believed, everyone is dating far into their 30s.

"Thirtysomething" may have come into being just as TV was focusing its attention on the youth market, but it also helped that market widen to include just about everyone, 60 being the new puberty or whatever we're down to now.

Nowhere is that more apparent than on the blogosphere, which may owe more to "thirtysomething" than even "Seinfeld" does. With its reliance on endless self-revelation and catchy phraseology, the blogosphere dispenses with the shackles of narrative structure, and you don't even have to worry about getting Botox. Like "thirtysomething," we all love and hate it in equal measure, for pretty much the same reasons.

Watching "Julie & Julia," it wasn't hard to see the blogging Julie (Amy Adams) as a direct descendant of Melissa Steadmen.

If "thirtysomething" were made today, Michael and Elliot would have their own website, Melissa would work for Gawker and Hope would be a Mommy blogger. And they'd all be in their 40s or 50s. Not that it would matter.

--

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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