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Thirty Years Of ‘thirtysomething’

cast members from 'thirtysomething' at the 1988 Emmy Awards
Cast members from 'thirtysomething' at the 1988 Emmy Awards. Photo by Alan Light.

If you are a millennial adult who wonders what your baby boomer parents* were like when we were your age, you could learn a lot by watching the old TV series “thirtysomething.”

(*That is, assuming your parents were white, northern, American, college-educated, city- or suburb-dwellers from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds.)

When we were in school in the 1970s, we were sure we knew all the answers. Then the 1980s arrived, along with relationships, careers and kids. We were no longer so sure we knew all the answers. On our worst days we couldn’t have even told you the questions.

Exactly 30 years ago this fall, we suddenly saw ourselves on television. Many of us realized that we were not alone in trying to build lives that were very different from those of our parents.

The transition away from a world of predominantly male breadwinners and female homemakers (who might generate a secondary income) was surely much harder for the women in my age and social groups. They were obviously as well-educated and well-qualified as the men. As we grew up we always assumed we would work together. By the 1980s Sandra Day O’Connor was a Supreme Court justice, and NASA was sending women into space.

But what did these opportunities actually mean when the fax machine proved to be no substitute for a week-long business trip, once there were children at home who needed to be taken to play dates, pre-school and pediatricians? Men could handle all those things, of course, and some were more than willing. But almost none of us, regardless of gender, had experienced this in our own lives. Melding work and family life required compromises. In my experience, women did most of the compromising. In the best cases, couples muddled through it together.

There was a lot of muddling in “thirtysomething.” Working moms were harried and emotionally conflicted. Fathers struggled to be supportive husbands and effective parents without knowing exactly what was expected of them. The freedom of the world outside home beckoned, but AIDS and other nightmares made it terrifying. People’s jobs demanded that they override earlier priorities and principles in ways that made them feel they were selling out.

Everyone just did the best they could, both IRL (as a millennial might say) and on TV.

If “thirtysomething” was drama that sometimes made people cry, its successors like “Seinfeld” and “Will and Grace” took the path of farce to make people laugh over many of the same topics. Ever wonder what was the first network program to show two men in bed together, kissing? It was “thirtysomething.” It took about 15 years more before those men could have gotten married in Massachusetts, and 25 nationwide, but social progress had to start someplace.

I doubt whether anyone would make a series like “thirtysomething” today, notwithstanding the return of “Will and Grace.” It feels strange to look at photos of the all-white principal cast and realize that their characters were stand-ins for an entire generation, most of which lived a vastly different existence than the one the show portrayed. So many faces and experiences were left out that we would almost surely include today. I never noticed at the time.

For all our errors and omissions, “thirtysomething” reflected my generation’s good intentions. The show’s characters didn’t get everything right, and neither did we. But you millennials are some of our best work, and maybe we will inspire you to do better.

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