A 40-Something Looks Back at ‘Thirtysomething’

You will never believe how I grew up. My mother, truly out of nowhere, became religious when I was 12. Not just regular religious, lighting Shabbat candles and forgoing pork, but truly Orthodox. Mega-Orthodox. Ultra-Orthodox. She and my father had divorced six years before, and now we lived in Brooklyn, in what was called Flatbush at the time and has probably been renamed something fancy. My mother remarried when I was 14, to a newly Orthodox Israeli just like her, and suddenly nothing in my house — now located in Canarsie, which retains its name — made sense.

Literally, it didn’t. I didn’t know Hebrew, and that’s what they spoke. My sisters eagerly followed my mother’s path to observance. I was sent to a yeshiva, and, with no friends outside this community, I began to grow concerned that I was not being prepared for the larger world.

The TV, stored in the basement, was my gateway to mainstream society. I watched a very strange short-lived show called “Tribes” to learn how teenagers should interact. I watched “A Different World” to see what college would be like. I watched the news to make sure I wasn’t pronouncing words with a Yiddish or Israeli accent (so much so that I overcorrected; it wasn’t until I registered for wedding gifts that I learned that the word “spatula” was not pronounced “spatuler”). I watched “Beverly Hills, 90210” so that I could understand what public school was like, as if religion makes school any more or less terrible than secularism does.

This wasn’t self-loathing, I promise. (There was plenty of that, but this was not it.) This was self-preservation. This was survival. I was going to leave my house and never wear a long skirt again. I was going to smoke cigarettes and dance with men. I was going to have sect-choo-uhl intercourse, despite being told several times over a health class in my yeshiva that good girls don’t use condoms, stop writing down what the surgeon general is saying in this short film!

I was going to date. I was going to marry someone who was not even a little religious. And my marriage would be normal and I would be a regular wife. But right then, I knew I didn’t stand a chance. So, one Tuesday night at 10 p.m., I found my marital instruction guide: I found “Thirtysomething.”

“Thirtysomething” was a four-season-long ABC drama about a group of friends who live in Philadelphia and struggle with their marriages and relationships as they settled in for middle age. It debuted in 1987, when I was 11, but I didn’t get wind of it until I was in 10th grade, just before it was canceled. But it soon aired late nights on Lifetime, and I watched it like the Phi Beta Kappa scholar of secular society I had become.

Because here were characters who could teach me something. Here was a social class I could aspire toward. I wanted so badly to be just like them: middle-class, comfortable, seen, loved, career-driven, relationship-driven, tortured by tiny things but overall a good, upstanding yuppie trying to navigate her place between her idealistic values and what the world demanded of her. This was my American dream.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about “Thirtysomething” again. All these years later, I am publishing my first novel this month and it just so happens that it’s about marriage and how it has changed as we inch closer to gender parity (actual or perceived). It is about this agreement we make, rooted in religious observance and in tax law, and trying to figure out if it’s still a valid one, if it can ever be a fair one. Lately, as I’ve been discussing the book, I’m asked the same question over and over: People wanted to know when I started thinking critically about marriage.

The answer is that I’ve been doing it for so long I can’t remember. I began wondering just how much “Thirtysomething” did end up influencing me, how much I was affected by those late nights, watching in the darkness and silence of my childhood home. I decided to watch the series again, all the way through. Here I am, I thought. I made it to 13 years of marriage. I’m not young and impressionable anymore. I’m not even in my 30s anymore. I’m safe. I can evaluate this like a scientist, now that I’m safe.

As if you’re ever safe.

It’s not that easy to watch “Thirtysomething” again. I don’t mean emotionally, though yes. I mean that it’s actually difficult to watch it: None of the seasons are currently available on streaming services and YouTube is spotty. It’s not on every night in perpetuity like, say, “Friends,” or “Seinfeld,” a tether to the past that makes a person wonder if time is actually passing. Basically, you need to buy the DVDs. Once you have the DVDs, you may realize that you haven’t used DVDs in a very long time and that you have to buy a DVD player too.

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.

As I rewatched the show, I felt something I didn’t expect, particularly since I’m generally so nostalgic I could think back on a mugging with affection. Something was leaving me hostile and withered, though I couldn’t figure out what. I tried to remember what it felt like to love the show. I tried to remember whom I latched onto as an aspirational character. It’s hard to imagine that I ever wanted to be a Hope or a Nancy, but I definitely would never have wanted to be an Ellyn or Melissa, out there in limbo, video-dating for love while the cold Susannahs of the world got pregnant with upstanding (if doomed) guys like Gary. There was criticism at the time that the show fetishized stay-at-home mothers, and maybe back then I did, too, but the behavior (mine and the show’s) was probably for lack of imagination of a future where being single didn’t mean you were childless, or when childlessness didn’t mean you were considered pathetic or lonely.

There’s an episode in Season 2 that ends with Ellyn reading a book on her couch, the point being that she can do that while the characters chasing babies and folding the endless laundry cannot. You’d have to be crazy to see that as pathetic, while Hope juggles her baby with her passive aggression. But Ellyn ends up married. Gary’s ghost reassures Michael in the final season that Melissa and Lee eventually marry and have a baby. Back then, it was rare to convey to an audience that a person could wind up alone and still have a full life and a happy ending. No yuppie left behind.

Early in the first season, Hope is dancing in the foyer with their baby, Janey, when Michael comes home from work to kiss them both on the lips. She waits at the window sometimes to see Michael’s car pull in then races to the door so she can greet him. Hope is a good domestic partner. She listens. She knows exactly what is going on at every single stage of Michael’s work drama (and you should have seen how resentful he became when she occasionally fell off her game because she had a miscarriage during his first day of work at a giant, menacing advertising firm), his friendship drama, his extended family drama, his spiritual drama, his aging drama, his existential drama. Did I miss anything? He eats the dinner she makes. She clears the table and sets it again for a dessert and coffee course. She is not conveying that her day was long, too — that she wishes they could just be watching TV.

I stayed home with my older son the first year after he was born. I’d left my job at a start-up, and was going to return to writing as soon as he was in some kind of child care situation. I would wait for 4 p.m. each day, at which point I’d call my husband, Claude. I’d ask him — first casually, then panicked — when he thought he might be coming home. The only good answer was, “I’m on my way,” and it was 4, so that was never the answer. But my skin was crawling with stagnancy. Do you know what it is to watch a baby grow up, day by day? It is a privilege and it is a drag. “It goes by so fast,” women who happened upon me at the grocery store or park would tell me. “When does that start?” I wanted to say. “When does it start to go fast?” In my rewatching, I heard echoes of phrases I use when having a conflict with my husband or friends. I saw reactions from Hope and Nancy that mirror the same reactions I have today. But I don’t see myself. I never danced in the foyer with the baby, waiting for my husband. I always sucked up all the oxygen in the room. I never waited for a better time to talk about something stressful. All that watching, all that training and I was never able to absorb the show’s real lesson, which is that marriage is a thing that thrives not just on love but on self-control and fortitude. That’s where I failed. Having realized that Hope was an ideal I had already failed to reach, I turned my eyes to Nancy and Elliot, a couple I hadn’t given a thought to when I was young.

Elliot had left Nancy in Season 1. One day, after a school conference to discuss their son, Ethan, they pull into the driveway and he tells her that he needs some time. Eventually, they file for divorce. Nancy spends time getting her life in order, taking a writing class, finding a boyfriend. And just as she is about to sell her first children’s book to a Fancy Publisher, Elliot realizes that he wants to be married to her again. There is a montage of him trying to win her back, scored to Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy.” She hesitates, but then she relents. They are fine. He has changed, or something. This was the show’s greatest lie, that people who divorce get back together, and once they do, they are like horny newlyweds, that the past is forgiven, that people change — that people even want to change, to be better for each other.

Do you know how hard it is to get divorced? Do you know about the indecision, the paperwork, the constant explanation, the judgment from others? In order to get divorced, people have to hate each other. Right? I think of my parents’ divorce, and sometimes the only solace is that they were so clearly done with each other; if they weren’t, then turning our lives upside down, making the world unstable for us — it would have been unforgivable.

Later, in one of the Thanksgiving episodes (sometimes they all felt like Thanksgiving episodes), Elliot has moved back in. Ethan visits a friend whose parents are divorced. The dad comes home with a new girlfriend to announce that he won’t be able to make it for the holiday. The mother comes out in a bathrobe, angry that he brought his girlfriend into her house. He reminds the mother that it’s his house, really, and that he can come and go as he pleases, and by the way, it’s a pigsty. Ethan leaves and a few nights later, when he screams from his bedroom because he hears sirens in the distance, Elliot races in to show him that nothing’s wrong, that he’s here and he’s not going to leave again.

Before the episode was over, my husband called me down to dinner. But I couldn’t move. I paused the show, frozen. I touched my face; it was wet. I’d been crying. I can’t even tell you how staggering the pain was right then. I had entered into this rewatching because I thought that I was curious about my behavior in my own marriage, but I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about my parents’ divorce. I was trying to understand what had happened to me, this definitional thing that was an event in my parents’ lives, but a chronic condition for their daughters. I never understood my parents. I barely remember their fights. When I was first watching the show, it was to defend myself from their fate; now that I was watching it, it was to try to understand how that fate came to be.

I’m 43. I am bewildered by the people I know who dredge up their childhoods all the time at our age. But look at me: I was backing into that the whole time. Just then, as my family waited for me downstairs, I knew that I didn’t really get into this — not the book, or the “Thirtysomething” experiment — because of any insight I have about marriage. It was because of the trauma of my parents’ divorce — our divorce, my and my sisters’ divorce, the horrible thing that happened to me and to us that I should be over and somehow I am not. God, how pathetic I am. How broken I am. How pathetic I am.

At dinner, my children asked me what was wrong. I told them I had just watched something sad but that I was O.K. My husband reached across the table, took my hand and kissed it. My sons made kissy noises and my reaction was not jovial or light. I hissed at them, like a snake, something primal and reptilian and disgusted rising up in me. I never saw my parents kiss once. I never saw them hold hands. I don’t remember a moment of sentiment over their daughters or our accomplishments that caused them to look at each other warmly. My children have seen us kiss. They’ve seen us fight, and make up. They have seen me seek my husband’s arms for comfort. Usually my happiness that they don’t have to endure what I did is greater than my jealousy of it. That night it was not. That night the pain of my childhood — the pain that has informed my entire life — was like the flannel Hope loved. That night it was so worn it was about to rip. Three years ago, as I looked into the future and saw the arc of my marriage shaped like a rainbow and not like a lightning bolt, I pulled up a Word document and got to work on the novel.

It is called “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” and just like this isn’t the essay I set out to write, it is not the book I set out to write. It is not about marriage but about divorce. People ask me how Claude feels about this. I tell them that it would never occur to him that my obsession with divorce has anything to do with him. How did he know that before I did?

The morning after I hissed at my poor children for delighting in their parents’ affection for each other, Claude found me in bed, finishing Season 3. It was a new episode. Ethan had moved on. He was no longer worried about his parents.

Claude sat down next to me and watched for a while. He said the show seemed miserable. I said it was. I was sorry I had decided to watch it. I was sorry I had written a book. In an hour, I had to do a phone interview about it. Maybe I would cancel the interview, I told Claude. Maybe I would just go back to sleep.

The sadness is always there, I told him. It’s never going away. It is not resolved, just shoved into the background until I do stupid things like this — like write a novel that was supposed to be about marriage but ends up being about divorce, like look at my present through the prism of the past, like look at my success through the prism of failure, like watch all of “Thirtysomething” in what was supposed to be an academic exercise but ended up as part of a continuing, thorough inventory of how I got to be this messed up.

Claude stood up and raised the shades in our bedroom. Sunlight illuminated the dust suspended in the air. He said that it was beautiful outside; we should take a walk. I said I hadn’t showered in two days, that I was too disgusting to go out.

The thing about small moments is that if you are trained to recognize them, they will kill you dead every time. Claude took the remote out of my hand and told me that this was New Jersey in the spring and we never know when nice weather will turn. I told him I had to do the interview. He said it wasn’t for another hour. So I stood up, put on my shoes and we walked out the door. I turned my face to the sun. He was right. There was the past and there was the future, but right now it was beautiful, and I had been inside, missing it all this time.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a staff writer for the magazine, a contributor to Arts and the author of the novel “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” to be published this month.

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