"something" Worth Remembering
I’m a sort-of fan of the fashionable American Movie Channel series Mad Men, which depicts the Scotch-soaked world of Madison Avenue in the early ‘60s with painstaking accuracy and an oddly distanced directorial style that makes it appear as if the actors have been hypnotized before being allowed to hit their marks. That’s not a completely outlandish notion; the great director Werner Herzog actually hypnotized the actors in his 1976 film Heart of Glass, and the performances in that movie aren’t much different from those of Jon Hamm, who plays a womanizing and exceptionally shady advertising executive named Don Draper, and January Jones, who plays his long-suffering wife.
For the most part, it isn’t an issue of competence; Hamm, in particular, is a fine actor, and the dialogue he is given is superb, but the series’ creators appear to have decided that the pre-revolutionary, pre-hippie world of the early ‘60s was so conformist, so competitive, and so steeped in booze, bigotry, and nicotine that the real-life advertising executives of that era and their families really did move numbly through their lives as if acting out a role someone else had written for them.
This sense of dislocation and unreality sometimes makes Mad Men feel like a science fiction show without the science fiction. In fact, the dazzling January Jones, with her crinkly dresses and vague disquietude, resembles one of those blank and bewildered female characters from The Twilight Zone (which actually was produced in the ‘60s). Rather like Anne Francis, who wandered around an empty department store after hours before discovering that she was a mannequin and not a human; or Inger Stevens, who drove fearfully down a highway, harassed every few miles by the same terrifying hitchhiker, before realizing that she had died in an auto accident days before. Jones’ character, Betty Draper, seems headed for a similar crash.
The last American television series before Mad Men to treat the world of advertising seriously was called thirtysomething, and while it lacks Mad Men’s intriguingly enigmatic dialogue, in other respects it is a far more satisfying series, in addition to being an actual period piece, rather than a meticulous and self-conscious re-creation of one. A generation after its premiere on ABC, slipping again into the world of thirtysomething after watching Mad Men is like sipping a warm cup of Earl Grey after a long night of way too much Canadian Club.
Oddly enough, thirtysomething was the more controversial of the two productions. Those who never saw the original show but decide to catch up on this ripe slice of ‘80s zeitgeist via the newly arrived first season box set will probably have trouble imagining why this tender and humane series, with its case-sensitive title and just-plain-sensitive characters, could have ever been even remotely contentious. Created by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, thirtysomething was one of those rare television shows that seemed to reflect life as it actually was. The problem was that the life it reflected was that of a once-reviled social grouping known as the yuppie, or Young Urban Professional, and thus every other review of this series, back in its prime, seemed to contain the phrase “whining yuppies”.
Much of the enmity against yuppies (the term isn’t used much nowadays, and sounds as dated as an LP from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) was motivated, I think, by envy on the part of those lower on the social scale (envy of what—suspenders? burdensome mortgages?) and seigneurial disdain from the intellectual classes, who found striving distasteful. The advent of political correctness also had made it more difficult for the naturally bigoted to lash out at their usual targets, and so the conspicuous consumption and ambition of the overwhelmingly white young urban professional class became a safe target for their free-floating contempt.
The central cast of thirtysomething consists of Michael and Elliott, copywriter and art director, respectively, for their own small advertising agency in Philadelphia and, later in the series, for a large agency run by the cadaverous, vulpine Miles Drentell (played, in one of television’s greatest sustained performances, by David Clennon); Michael and Elliott’s wives Hope and Nancy; and their single and rootless friends Ellyn, Gary, and Melissa. It’s true that Michael and Hope, and to a lesser extent Elliott and Nancy, were yuppies, but their friends, especially the neurotic photographer Melissa, struggled far more than the yuppie stereotype would suggest.
Michael and Elliott’s agency, never on solid ground, eventually collapsed, and they and their families were always on shaky financial footing. Thus, the oft-repeated charged that the characters, who also faced, and helped each other face, issues of infidelity, personal and professional insecurity, and death and disease, were merely “self-absorbed”, always seemed to be as inaccurate as it was callous.
The first season box set contains the rather stagey pilot, as well as some touching and well-written episodes about the marital discord and eventual separation of Elliott (Timothy Busfield) and Nancy (Patricia Wettig), the silent struggle on the part of Hope (the beautiful Mel Harris, whose dimples are indelible) to welcome Michael’s not-quite-platonic college girlfriend into their home for a visit; and Gary’s (Peter Horton) efforts to gain tenure at the college where he’s an assistant professor.
But the series’ pivot point is the advertising business. Witnessing Michael (Ken Olin) and Elliott grapple with creative block, incompetent assistants, their own shaky creative skills, and the need to be ever-more-obsequious to their clients is a delight, because it seems so well-founded in reality. The producers dance around the actual creative product, so we don’t get to see much of the ads they produce, but the agony of creation, and in particular Elliott’s hyper, childish, breezily cynical, and quite probably coke-fueled verbal riffs will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has spent time in the agency world. And Michael, copywriter, inveterate worrier, and frustrated poet, is every bit as familiar. Here’s a glimpse into their distinctive personality types:
Michael: “Twenty five percent of the work we do happens to be pro bono for all kinds of non-profit organizations and good causes and other non-toxic things.”
Elliott: “...that we really only do so people will see our work and like it and hire us to do real work, which is sell things to people who don’t need them.”
Ken Olin, who plays Michael, is perhaps the best thing about thirtysomething. He’s a remarkably warm and likable actor, despite his gluey diction (he talks about providing for his “fyamily” and refers to a “shyaft of light” and, in reminiscing about a poem he composed with a college girlfriend, notes that “first I wrote a styanza, then she wrote a styanza.”) Throughout this first season and the series, Michael’s attempts to keep his family together, including not only his wife and his brother, introduced later in the season, but also his college friend Gary, his cousin Melissa, and pretty much everyone who passes through his life make him seem, in his low-key and ultra-sincere way, a model for an enlightened American man. He’s everything that Don Draper is not, and vice-versa.
Burnished by a beautiful acoustic score and lovingly produced and directed, thirtysomething ultimately falls just short of greatness. Michael’s ultra-sincerity is indicative of what the show lacks; there’s little subtext, and far too many reaction shots (as well as a few too many dopey fantasy sequences designed to illustrate the characters’ unspoken thoughts), and as a result, the characters’ motivations are rarely mysterious. But they are always true to life, and that is a very rare and welcome phenomenon on television, today or in the ‘80s.
The box set comes with a 36-page booklet with a complete first-season episode guide and several thoughtful essays, including one that notes that “in thirtysomething we… are furnished with a glimpse of what the Seinfeld gang might have become had Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer miraculously gained 35 IQ points apiece but misplaced much of their footloose, philosophical forbearance in the face of crisis.” That’s a pretty accurate summation of the grounded, practical, but deeply neurotic worriers that make up the world of thirtysomething.