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The Contemporary Television Series$

Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780748619009

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748619009.001.0001

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The Lack of Influence of thirtysomething

The Lack of Influence of thirtysomething

(p.27) Chapter 2 The Lack of Influence of thirtysomething
The Contemporary Television Series

Jane Feuer

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The term ‘prime-time serial drama’ is no longer specific enough to account for the range of programmes that have populated the television screens in the United States over the years since thirtysomething went off the air in 1991. ‘Prime-time serial drama’ is the most authored form of American television and each authorial franchise has put its particular stamp on the stream of shows produced. Not only do the television shows take on individual voices, but also the term itself is now too general to have much meaning. Nearly everything on U.S. prime-time television, from Will and Grace to Survivor, is now ‘serialised’ in the sense of having at least some continuing story arcs. The distinction between ‘serialised’ and ‘series’ television that once defined the difference between daytime and prime-time television formats no longer really exists. This chapter makes a distinction between two strands active in prime-time serial television in the 1980s, 1990s and beyond: ‘prime-time melodrama’ and ‘quality drama’.

Keywords:   thirtysomething, television shows, United States, quality drama, prime-time melodrama, series television, prime-time serial drama, prime-time television

When I made thirtysomething (1987–91) my main example in Seeing through the Eighties, it was not because it was my favorite show but rather because I thought it was typical of ‘something’. What that something was seems much clearer to me in retrospect: it used what this book calls ‘prime-time serial television’ to explore the inner lives of a particular class fraction otherwise not ‘realistically’ represented on American TV: what Barbara Ehrenreich calls the professional-managerial class and what I called ‘yuppies’. The term ‘prime-time serial drama’ is no longer specific enough to account for the range of programmes that have populated the US television screens over the years since thirtysomething went offthe air in 1991. ‘Prime-time serial drama’ is the most authored form of US television and each authorial franchise has put its particular stamp on the stream of shows produced. Not only do the shows take on individual voices, but also the term itself is now too general to have much meaning. Nearly everything on US prime-time television, from Will and Grace to Survivor, is now ‘serialised’ in the sense of having at least some continuing story arcs. The distinction between ‘serialised’ and ‘series’ television that once defined the difference between daytime and prime-time television formats no longer really exists. In addition, the term ‘prime-time serial drama’ does not distinguish between programmes as disparate as, say, Ally McBeal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos. In order to discuss the influence, or lack of influence, of thirtysomething, I will need to use more precise terminology. I will need to distinguish between two strands active in prime-time serial television in the 1980s, 1990s and beyond. I will refer to these as, first, ‘prime-time melodrama’, a tradition of ‘trash’ or ‘camp’ TV dating from Dallas and Dynasty in the 1980s; Melrose Place in the 1990s, and certain ‘reality’ shows (e.g. The Bachelor) today. The second and more directly relevant tradition I will label ‘quality drama’, a term that Robert Thompson and I have used to refer to a particular genre of dramas in the 1980s and (p.28) 1990s that today is most manifest in some of the ‘HBO’ dramas such as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. By the 1990s, Robert J. Thompson was able to argue that:

quality [drama] has become a genre in itself, complete with its own set of formulaic characteristics. As is the case with any genre … we come to know what to expect. All of the innovative elements that have come to define ‘quality TV’, even in its unpredictability, have become more and more predictable. By 1992, you could recognize a ‘quality show’ long before you could tell if it was any good. Quality television came to refer to shows with a particular set of characteristics that we normally associate with ‘good’, ‘artsy’ and ‘classy’. (Thompson 1996: 16)

I will be using ‘quality drama’ in this way as a generic term, not as a judgement of aesthetic value. But what I want to argue is that thirtysomething, although clearly belonging to the genre was not in its mainstream, nor did it have as much influence on subsequent quality dramas as did other authorial franchises. Of all the prime-time dramas that followed, thirty something most influenced two important but lesser-known products of its own production company, ‘The Bedford Falls Company’ fronted by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz: the short-run cult teen TV show My So-called Life (1994–5) and the three-season Once and Again (1999–2002).1

Before explaining where thirtysomething fits within ‘quality drama’, I need to say why it is not typical of ‘prime-time melodrama’. Although the show belonged to the genre of melodrama broadly speaking in that it focused on the interior emotions of the bourgeois class within a familial context, thirtysomething was not ‘melodramatic’ in the sense I believe this term applies to US television drama of the 1980s and after. For US television, ‘prime-time serial melodrama’ carries a particular edge. The most typical 1990s prime-time melodrama had to have been Melrose Place (1992–9), a show airing immediately after thirtysomething's demise but with a different tone, audience and mode of reception. By that I mean that following in the tradition of Dallas, Dynasty and their clones in the 1980s, prime-time melodrama had to share with some film melodramas a tendency towards camp or at least excess. It could be said that these prime-time melodramas were in fact constructed by their audiences, subcultural groups and fan cultures, whose camp readings of the shows became the primary readings of the show as they were incorporated into subsequent scripts by the producers.

Prime-time melodramas could not be characterised by quality acting or subtle psychological plot construction but rather tended like daytime soap opera to pursue an acting style that remained a little bit over the top. (p.29) In terms of theories of acting, we might say that while thirtysomething incorporated the kind of naturalistic theatrical acting associated with Stanislavski, Melrose Place was more in the tradition of Kuleshov. According to legend, the Kuleshov experiment was supposed to prove that all cinematic acting was an effect of montage. To this end, the same reaction shot of an actor's face could be juxtaposed with other shots to create different meanings from the same image. For example, a shot of an actor with a neutral expression would appear to represent sadness when intercut with shots of a funeral, or happiness when intercut with shots of a wedding. The crucial point here in terms of acting styles is that the Kuleshov experiment can be used to argue that film acting is not really acting, simply an effect of montage. This argument can then be used to denigrate soap-opera acting, relying heavily as it does upon reaction shots, at the expense of the more nuanced ‘true’ acting we find in the theatre where a performance can be allowed to unfold or in art cinema where theatrical acting techniuue is valued.

On an episode of Melrose Place (Season 3, Episode 73 ‘And Justice for None’), Jo is on trial for the custody of her child. One by one, the inhabitants of Melrose Place come to the stand to testify in her behalf. But as they are questioned, close-ups of each remind us of every ridiculous scandal to which Jo was subjected in the first three seasons of the show. As we look at each face, we are reminded of the backstory surrounding that character's interaction with Jo. The audience feels pretty certain that Jo is not going to get custody, but the effect is camp rather than tragic as we relive some of the more ridiculous storylines. In effect, the fan/viewer is filling in the gaps between the close-up shots and the backstories to which they refer.

Ultimately a show like Melrose Place makes us wonder if we really know the difference between Kuleshov and Brecht, who wanted to use a non-expressive acting style to make the audience think about the ideas being-presented rather than getting carried away by emotional identification with the characters. A now-defunct fan website entitled ‘Billy Campbell Master Thespian’ pretended to want to replicate Kuleshov but wound up providing a Brechtian critique of soap-opera acting.2 The site offers to give us ‘a look at the vast emotional range of Melrose Place's master of subtlety, Billy Campbell’. A series of identical photos of Billy/Andrew Shue has the actor looking into the camera with an admirable blank affect with each shot accompanied by a caption describing the emotion Billy is supposed to be showing, ‘happy, sad, angry, distraught, excited, afraid, nervous, worried, and drunk’. Thus bad melodramatic acting becomes an unintended consequence of the Kuleshov effect. But when the Kuleshov effect is thus ‘camped’, it may have other outcomes. The effect of montage may be seen (p.30) to have little or no effect if the acting is ‘bad’ enough. The effect may thus be distancing in the Brechtian sense. Not much has been written about the consequences of ‘bad’ (i.e. non-realist but also non-Brechtian, or, shall we say, ‘failed realist’ acting). Yet an effect of realism attempted but not achieved is crucial to the impact of the prime-time ‘trashy’ melodramatic serial and to the fan culture that surrounds it. In fact such an acting style may well be the crucial distinguishing mark between the higher ‘quality’ drama (such as thirtysomething) and the trashy serial (such as Melrose Place). Although fan culture around thirtysomething could also take on a mocking tone, it did not imply that the actors on that show were incompetent or that they were unable to embody the characters. When a fan website claimed that, ‘thirtysomething follows the lives of seven thirtysomething yuppies … linked by blood, love, fate and really bad taste in relationship partners’, they are not talking about effects of ‘bad acting’ but rather about more or less authorially intended scripted effects. Whether or not Melrose Place validated the Kuleshov experiment, it cannot be said that thirtysomething invalidated Stanislavski.

Robert J. Thompson includes thirtysomething in his book on ‘quality drama’, and the show certainly fits the genre's basic defining characteristics: the ensemble cast, continuing storylines, literate writing, etc. As I explained in Seeing through the Eighties, thirtysomething, perhaps more than any other show of its decade, attempted to capture the ‘quality’ audience in terms of demographics. Moreover, thirtysomething more than any of its contemporaries was able to define the quality audience on its own terms and in very specific age and social class dimensions: the show was crucial in delineating what the term ‘yuppie’ came to mean for the 1980s.

Being ‘authored’ is perhaps the most important factor distinguishing quality drama from ordinary TV, and this is even more true in the 2000s than it was in the 1980s. It was the MTM and Steven Bochco ‘franchises’ that initiated ‘quality drama’ with Hill Street Blues in 1981 and that defined quality drama for the 1980s and 1990s. This lineage pays particular attention to the television medium. It ‘recombines’, to use Todd Gitlin's phrase, traditional television dramatic genres, the cop show (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue Homicide), the lawyer show (LA Law, Ally McBeal, The Practice), and the doctor show (St Elsewhere, ER, City of Angels) with structural elements taken from the daytime soap opera and mixes in the personal ‘quirks’ of the show's auteur. For example, TV hyphenate-auteur (see Roberta Pearson's chapter in this book) David E. Kelley specialises in legal dramas, but he also specialises in ‘quirky’ often sexually perverse legal cases and odd character types. Thus he has worked on more or less mainstream quality dramas such as LA Law and The Practice as well as ‘quirky’ (p.31) dramas such as Chicago Hope, Picket Fences, Ally McBeal and The Brotherhood of Poland New Hampshire (2003).

This tradition continues into the next decade with The West Wing, which I believe is a prominent descendant of TV's quality drama tradition, with the workplace setting (The White House), the serialised narratives, the large ensemble cast and hyphenate-auteur Aaron Sorkin's distinctive voice. Although thirtysomething continually referenced TV history (most notably in the ‘Mike van Dyke’ episode I described in Seeing through the Eighties), and although it was serialised and authored, I do not believe that thirtysomething fits the mould of the genre. When the ‘Mike van Dyke Show’ episode references a sixties TV sit-com, it does so by inserting the thirtysomething characters into the diegesis of the earlier show, an ‘artsy’ technique that stresses thirtysomething's difference from a fondly remembered television tradition, not its continuity with one. As I have written, authorship on this show took a different form than it did in the mainstream of the ‘quality’ tradition, thirtysomething laid claim to a literary and theatrical idea of authorship found more often in British television dramas, thirtysomething did not really have a foundation in a traditional television genre, even though it complied with the home/workplace alternation central to MTM. If anything, the show took its generic material from the daytime soap opera, but as I have just explained, relocated this material in a realist social context. Its material was not the professional lives of highly valued or dramatic occupational groups, but rather the examination of the inner lives of a particular class fraction (yuppies) and a particular generation (baby boomers). The writers of thirtysomething set out to distinguish the show from the main tradition of television drama. The writers wanted to link the show more to an art cinema tradition than to anything televisual. In this sense, thirtysomething seems to me more closely related to an HBO drama such as Six Feet Under than to any of the more central quality TV dramas of the eighties and nineties. In both shows, the inner lives of the characters are individuated and linked to dream diegeses. Their occupations, advertising and funeral homes, respectively, are opposite to the heroic tradition of professionalism in the mainstream of TV drama. Yet the thirtysomething characters were not, to use a term beloved of TV writers, ‘quirky’ in the sense of another quality drama tradition running from Chicago Hope to Twin Peaks to Northern Exposure to Picket Fences to Six Feet Under. They were meant to represent social types that the audience could accept as ‘real’, not quirky types that the audience could accept as ‘eccentric’.

Although My So-Called Life achieved cult status as teen TV, and although it can certainly profit for us to categorise it as teen TV,3 what links (p.32) it to thirtysomething for my purposes here is the continuing saga of the parents of the teenager at the centre of the show's narrative. Written and produced by Winnie Holzman, who also wrote for thirtysomething and would go on to write and produce for Once and Again, My So-Called Life is characterised by a reliance on what in literature is called ‘interior monologue’. Certainly thirtysomething was obsessed with the interior psychic states of its characters, but the later shows would go even further in using subjective techniques to convey interiority.My So-Called Life employed the teenage Angela's voice-over narration in every episode, giving us a well-written and nuanced view of her private thoughts and making hers the only narrating voice we heard. Once and Again went further in employing the device of black and white ‘confessional’ sequences for all its characters. In these sequences, which interrupted the main narrative, the characters appeared to be confessing their innermost fears to an unseen therapist. The effect of having the sequences shot in direct address was that the audience of the show then became that therapist for the characters.

Since My So-Called Life made Angela the narrator, one would think that the show followed the teen film tradition of excluding the point of view of adults or of seeing parents only from the (jaundiced) teenage perspective. In spite of the voice-over narration, My So-Called Life frequently gave the parents equal time. Using the kind of pointed parallelism that thirtysomething borrowed from soap opera, My So-Called Life could interweave the angst of teenage life with the kind of generational perspective of the parents found in thirtysomething. The show dealt with the parents' lives apart from Angela's. Frequently we are shown the parents' point of view independent of hers. Even though Angela controls the voice-over narration, the parents are given equally confessional moments in the diegesis. Subjectivity is more than just an effect of narrative voice.

This is demonstrated in the ‘Father Figures’ episode.4 So reliant is this episode on parallelism that even its plot summary on the TV Tome website uses a parallel sentence structure, ‘in multi-generational father-daughter conflict, Patty must take control of the printing business from her father, and Angela approaches Graham for the first time as a person rather than a superhero’. The episode opens with a flashback to Angela (the teenager played by Claire Danes) as a little girl, waiting for ‘Daddy’ to come home. There is a match cut on an image of Graham's (her father's) briefcase and the audio of young Angela's words, ‘Daddy's home’ to a present-day continuation of the same scene in which the welcome home is far less enthusiastic. A bit later, we see Angela's younger sister cuddling happily with Dad. The episode parallels Angela's discussion of her father (with her friends Ricky and Rayeanne) with the parents' discussion of an impending (p.33) Internal Revenue Service audit based on the 1992 return that Patty (Angela's mother) filed when she took over her own father's business due to his heart attack. Later the parent/child alternation is replaced by a father/daughter one in which each father/child set confronts the other. In each generation, it is mentioned or shown that the daughter ‘pushes the father away’ if he tries to kiss her without shaving. I am not going to offer an interpretation of this episode because the oedipal conflict and its resolution are conveyed well enough by the writers. But I want to emphasise the structure whereby a shot of Angela hugging her grandfather from her parents' point of view carries as much weight as Angela's voice-over musings. As in thirtysomething, Graham and Patty are baby boomers for whom adulthood is a constant struggle. So much of this theme is carried by dialogue and by realist acting that cinematic techniques such as voice-over and point-of-view shots only reinforce the meanings conveyed by the scripts and bv the realist actingstvle.

All three Bedford Falls shows involve nuclear families with children whom we see at home and at work. Unlike other quality dramas that meet these criteria, the focus is resolutely inward. The workplace is not a generic site for breeding exciting plots (as are the hospital, the courtroom and police precinct) but rather a place for further narcissistic self-examination.5 For thirtysomething a story arc that spanned all seasons of the show's run involved the dissolution of the Michael and Elliot Company and their having to go to work for the large corporate firm headed up by evil yuppie Miles Drentell. When Once and Again was under threat of cancellation in its first season, the writers re-introduced the Miles character into a new diegesis. On Once and Again, he was the architect male lead Rick's most important client, now undertaking an enormous building project in Chicago. As an archetypal villain, Miles jars with the realistic inward bent of both shows, but in combining New Age spirituality and old-fashioned capitalist greed, he epitomises the class and generational emphasis that defines the Zwick-Hershovitz productions.

Reviewers speculated that Once and Again updated the material of thirtysomething from that of eighties parents with small children to a portrayal of nineties fortysomethings with teenage children. In many respects, the newer show was less experimental: it did not indulge in all kinds of dream diegeses, it did not define the social context for its decade, it played safe by catering to the teen-TV audience. Yet its resolutely inward, psychic focus made it unusual for the mainstream of quality drama. There is even less plot than on thirtysomething. The pilot episode shows the lead romantic couple meeting and immediately falling in love. Yet by the end of the first season (episode 22), they are only just introducing their children to one (p.34) another. What, then, has transpired in the first twenty-one episodes? In terms of plot, not much. Lily moves towards divorcing Jake, Lily gets a new job, her sister Judy gets involved with a married man, Rick's ex-wife Karen gets involved with a younger man. But in terms of psychodrama, a lot happens. Unfolding primarily in a series of one-on-one emotional and sexual encounters, the characters have crept forward emotionally. The two legally separated couples have moved towards emotional separation. And the audience has heard approximately ten black and white therapeutic confessions per episode.

It is the confessional inserts that allow the audience to know the inner thoughts of the characters. I have said that the audience takes the place of a therapist in hearing these confessions. It's important to explain why I don't think we take the point of view of a priest, another figure accustomed to hearing private confessions. I believe the context of these black and white outpourings to be resolutely secular. Although Once and Again does have a spiritual side (as when Grace tells Lily upon viewing her brain-dead grandfather that she now knows what a ‘soul’ is), all three shows find salvation in the language of psychotherapy and not in the language of Judeo-Christianity. Part of the ‘realism’ of these shows consists in their having very well-defined characters, for example, ones that are explicitly labelled Jewish rather than stereotyped as generic American Christians. But psychotherapy is the religion of the educated professional-managerial class portrayed in all three dramas and it is also the source for their language, a vocabulary always adequate to the expression of fleeting emotional states. Therapy on these shows is always talking therapy, and the black and white sequences emphasise that. Yet the confessional sequences do not just convey hidden, darker thoughts. Often they are reminiscences, even happy ones. The characters black and white faces are keylit and they appear joyous. Just after Lily's father dies, we see him for the first time in black and white, fully alive and talking about what he plans to do after he retires. ‘What do I want from retirement? The same as anybody else … time-that's what anybody wants – time to do the really important things.’ He laughs in slow motion as the black and white dissolves back to the colour of the hospital corridor where, of course, time has run out for him. We are left to interpret the sequence as ironic, but the confession itself was a happv one.

The Bedford Falls shows are not populated by inarticulate characters whose emotions need to be conveyed exclusively by subjective camera or voice-over narration. The characters often do say what they are really thinking, then they say it again in the confessions and through the camera. Nothing is left unsaid. When in the finale episode for the first season, Lily (p.35) finds a note in the pocket of her late father's old sweater, the camera shows us what it says, ‘get gifts 4 kids’. The audience can interpret this as meaning that she now has four kids, because the families are about to be united. This kind of symbolism is fairly obvious to the show's audience. But just in case we missed it, Lily has to offer this interpretation to Rick later in the episode. Although the show appears to share with art cinema reliance upon the understated and the subtextual, in fact it is overwritten. Everything must be said.

This is a very different use of the confessional from its status as a trope of reality television from MTV's The Real World to Survivor to America's Next Top Model. When used, as it always is, on reality shows, the confessional is not so much a way of conveying subjectivity as it is a way of letting the audience know what the characters are really thinking as opposed to what they actually say in the interactions with other characters. The game structure of most of these shows and their voyeuristic bent make the confessionals much more of a direct address to the audience than a look inside the characters' psyches. On reality TV we always know more about the characters than they do about themselves, but they always know more about their true motives than do the other character/contestants.

For thirtysomething and its two offspring, subjectivity is not a game, rather it's the whole show. These shows are literary in a way that distinguishes them from the more televisual tradition of quality drama. Writing, and words, is the most important channel and although it appears that the writers speak for the characters, in fact the characters also speak as writers, as educated, articulate self-knowing literary types. This distinguishes the three shows from the tradition of melodramatic excess that feeds into reality TV as well. Strong emotions are the foundation of all these shows, but for the Zwick-Hershkovitz trio, the emotions never appear to be in excess of what the highly subjective narratives would demand. Ironically, Survivor expresses much more emotional excess than does Once and Again, which, in keeping with its high cultural roots, always shows those emotions repressed and kept in check and yet expressed verbally. Even though the two later shows do not pay as much attention to a specific socio-economic milieu as did thirtysomething, they nevertheless express the psychic Zeitgeist of that class as much as the original show did. All TV drama is confessional, and all quality TV deals with the psychology of its characters but thirtysomething did so in a way particular not just to an educated demographic but to one conversant with modern art and drama. If all quality drama appeals to an educated audience, then thirtysomething and its offspring could be said to appeal to that segment of the educated audience that majored in English literature and that feels comfortable with the subjectivity of art cinema. Hill (p.36) Street Blues in the eighties and The West Wing in the nineties rewarded those viewers who had large vocabularies but thirtysomething et al. in addition rewarded viewers who had been psychoanalysed. In this sense, it was too specialised to have had much impact on the quality tradition of the 1980s-90s. It was not until the arrival of HBO with its far more specialised pay-TV audience that such a sensibility could have free reign in shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.


Bibliography references:

Feuer, Jane (1995), Seeing through the Eighties: Television and Reaganism, London: BFI.

Hills, Matt (2004), ‘Dawson's Creek: “Quality Teen TV” and “Mainstream Cult”?’in Glyn Davis and Kay Dickinson (eds), Teen TV: Genre, Consumption and Identity, London: BFI, pp. 281–305.

Thompson, Robert J. (1996), Television's Second Golden Age: From ‘Hill Street Blues’ to ‘ER’, New York: Syracuse University Press.


(1.) The first season of Once and Again is available on DVD as is the only season of My So-called Life. The latter show was brought to DVD at the insistence of the internet fan community surrounding this show.

(3.) Teen TV is already emerging as its own genre. Matt Hills has convincingly argued that Dawson's Creek could belong to a subgenre called ‘quality teen TV’. As such it straddles the line between being a ‘mainstream cult’ in the manner of Melrose Place and being a quality drama in the tradition of thirtysomething (Hills 2004).

(4.) The fourth episode was aired on 15 September 1994, written by Winnie Holzman and with a cameo by the writer in the role of the high-school guidance counsellor.

(5.) Of course most quality dramas deal with the inner lives of the characters. This is what distinguished them from old-fashioned cop, doctor and lawyer shows. But the Bedford Falls shows have an added element of narcissistic self-absorption that ER and The West Wing lack.