A 40-Something Looks Back at ‘Thirtysomething’
When finally you are set up in front of the show, prepare yourself for the fashion. On the endless late November day when “Thirtysomething” seems to take place, the characters, differentiated in personality and marital status, meet squarely in the same aisle of an L.L. Bean, where they have somehow all found that they have the exact same taste in Fair Isle sweaters, plaid scarves, elastic-cuffed sweatpants, cozy woolen socks, tucked-in sweatshirts, tucked-in cardigans, jumper dresses, wide-legged jeans, long, full skirts, Top-Siders, suspenders. For outerwear, Hope, the same-age-as-everyone-else matriarch, wears a puffy, shoulder-padded coat that looks like a burrito costume. Ellyn, Hope’s childhood friend, has a black leather coat so angular that it makes her look like the commander of a space army from the future.
But the flannel was the real star of the show. It is in the show’s flannel — as opposed to, say, its casting — that “Thirtysomething” commits to diversity: Tartan, Scotch, Black Watch, Tattersall, Glen, you name it. When Nancy gets cancer, her sister, Deb, brings her a navy plaid flannel robe, whereas Deb has a red flannel one, almost the same model. There is so much flannel in this show that Hope even addresses it in Season 2. Packing for a camping trip, she speaks dreamily of her feelings for the fabric. She loves it so much, “especially,” she says, “when it gets so worn it’s about to rip.”
Once the shock of the show’s fashion subsides, it is easy to relax into its pleats. The creators of “Thirtysomething” always said it was a show about the small moments of life, and it was this smallness, now in my second watching, that made me understand why I’d gotten so attached in the first place: close-up expressions, close-up emotion, tiny gestures, the recognition of each character as a sub-archetype of the main yuppie archetype. Michael, the Jew in search of a way to accommodate his values and his hedonism; Hope, his conservative, judgmental stay-at-home wife; goofy Elliot, Michael’s philandering business partner; insecure Nancy, Elliot’s long-suffering, squelched artist of a wife; ambitious, insecure, unmarried Ellyn; desperate Melissa, Michael’s photographer cousin who delivers every joke about her therapist tinged in borscht belt; idealistic hippie Gary, Michael’s friend from college, played by a Nordic wolf.
The show is so much about small moments that when big moments arrive, you could lose your balance. Nancy’s cancer, Gary’s death — hoo-boy, Gary’s death. I wasn’t allowed to watch “Thirtysomething” as a 10th grader, and so the night Gary died, I was left alone in secret with no one to process it with. I called up my friend Pam and we sat quietly on the phone together.