Typing Faster

August 20, 2009

How thirtysomething Changed Television

Filed under: Craft, Marketing, the biz, thirtysomething — petertypingfaster @ 9:00 am

There’s an interesting article over on Newsday reflecting on the lasting impact that thirtysomething had on modern television.

Before thirtysomething came along everything on television hewed closely to genre conventions. You had procedurals galore (Murder, She Wrote, Magnum, P.I.) and prime time soaps (Dallas), but thirtysomething was totally different.

“It was born in an era of television cop shows, lawyer shows, doctor shows,” co-star Timothy Busfield (who played wayward husband Elliot) said in a recent phone interview. “And the biggest conflict we had in the pilot was a $270 stroller.”

That wasn’t the only way thirtysomething blazed its own trail. The article goes on to list a bunch of trends the show introduced, including:

NO FRANCHISE GENRE Big things had to happen in TV drama’s earlier eras – murder trials, crime investigations, fistfights. But “thirtysomething” was about the why/how of experiencing ordinary daily dilemmas – finding baby-sitters, having job problems, questioning religious faith, trying to balance love and friendship with practical demands. Other ’80s series touched on that territory (“Cagney & Lacey,” “China Beach,” “I’ll Fly Away”), but “thirtysomething” was pure character study, with no cop/war/history thread to hang it on.

“It was such personal subject matter,” co-star Peter Horton (carefree bachelor Gary) said recently by phone. “I’d be having lunch with one of the writers, telling them a story from my life, and in the next script, it would be sitting there on paper. Usually as an actor, you’re trying to fulfill the character. But in ‘thirtysomething,’ eventually they fulfilled us.”

EMOTIONAL CONNECTION Too bad the Internet wasn’t big then – “thirtysomething” would have launched a million blogs. Viewers took the show personally. “We started realizing people were being so emotionally moved,” Busfield says, by the show’s public focus on the private doubts and dreams of so many.

“The show played such an important part in people’s lives,” says Garson Foos, the Shout! executive who obtained the rights to the series (from MGM) and its music for DVD release. Foos says people still react viscerally. “They go, ‘Omigod, I watched that show religiously.’ So much of what was going on in that was going on in our lives.”

INDIVIDUAL VOICE When TV shows were routinely produced by committee, Zwick and Herskovitz were auteurs who encouraged personal statements. Their “thirtysomething” scripts came from individual writers with distinct viewpoints, including Winnie Holzman, who’d conceive the aching teen series “My So-Called Life,” and Paul Haggis, who’d craft the 2004 Oscar-winning film “Crash.”

“Ed and Marshall were not only writers but directors,” Horton notes. “They would find directors who’d done independent films. They wanted people to come in and not just mimic what they’d done but really bring a vision.”

Actors, too. Busfield and Horton both recall joining crew to screen raw-footage dailies. “Ed and Marshall encouraged that we look at the show more as filmmakers,” Busfield says. And like co-stars Horton, Ken Olin (Michael) and Melanie Mayron (Melissa), Busfield would begin to direct “thirtysomething” episodes, broadening his career. Horton says, “We called it Ed’s Samurai School of Directing.”

VARIATIONS ON A THEME The actors were part of a creative troupe, telling stories that forsake flashy plot twists for common life situations. “The conventional way of doing television was plot/subplot,” Zwick recalls in that DVD chat. But “thirtysomething” episodes revolved around a relatable “thematic idea” – trust issues for new parents and insecure spouses, ethical dilemmas over doing the expedient thing or the right thing, old friends versus new family demands.

DEMOGRAPHICS Because the show’s concerns were life-stage-specific, it appealed most to a specific viewership. “We were not doing well and thought we were going to be canceled,” Zwick said in a recent phone interview alongside Herskovitz. “But then a friend of mine on Madison Avenue said we had no idea what a premium the show was getting.” Sponsors loved its demographic sweet spot – young, affluent, family-centric spenders – and ABC loved those sponsors. Demo-targeting would soon mushroom, in shows like ’90s teen soap “Beverly Hills 90210” on the new youth-aimed Fox network. The audience was fragmenting.

TV AND MOVIES, TOO So now Zwick and Herskovitz were running a series, but they kept making movies, too, including the Oscar-honored “Glory” (1989). They’d move on to films like “The Last Samurai” while still producing TV (“Once and Again”). “For a long time,” Herskovitz said by phone, “we were the only producers going back and forth.”

No longer. Movie mogul Jerry Bruckheimer makes shows like “CSI.” Oscar-winning scripter Alan Ball (“American Beauty”) created TV’s “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood.” J.J. Abrams does “Lost” and “Fringe” alongside his big-screen “Star Trek” reboot. Bryan Singer, Brett Ratner, Aaron Sorkin, McG – all move between movies and series TV.

The reluctant creators of “thirtysomething” opened television to new creative energies that continue to energize it 20 years later.

“If you look at the work being done on ‘Mad Men,’ ‘The Wire,’ shows that are unique to the voice of the creator,” Zwick said by phone, “shows that have their own sensibility, shows that are given license to do it as they see fit, I think those are our spiritual descendants.”

Of course it’s still a battle to produce tv shows like thirtysomething. The holy trinity of cop/doc/law has a lot going for it. Stakes that are easy to understand. Franchises that can easily give you story after story. Networks love them, and that’s not going to change. But at least thirtysomething helped open the door to a different kind of show.

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