Fans of thirtysomething were treated today to a reunion of the creators and cast of the landmark drama series that aired on ABC from 1987 to 1991. Creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick were joined onstage at the ATX Television Festival in Austin by actors Polly Draper, Timothy Busfield, David Clennon, Melanie Mayron and Peter Horton to talk about a show, which, at the time, was different than anything on the air.
During that particular era of TV, Herskovitz says the landscape was filled with doctor, police and lawyer franchises. He admits he and Zwick weren’t looking to do TV at the time as they were more steeped in film. Even so, they created a simple show about the relationships between baby boomers in Philadelphia.
“It wasn’t written like a TV show,” said Draper. “It was different from what I have seen before. This bridged the gap [betwen film and TV] and changed the whole course of TV history.”
Mayron compared the drama to The Big Chill, adding, “It didn’t read like a TV show…it was way above that.”
With the show, Zwick and Herskovitz set out to do what they wanted to do. They tackled intimate, personal stories and stayed away from big-picture issues. “You have to keep out the giant dramas or they would drown out these [smaller] stories,” said Herskovitz.
That’s not to say these big issues weren’t on the show’s purview. Zwick wanted to find authenticity in the intimate stories, which later fed into issues of greater and grander importance.
The series pushed boundaries with shows that were a “meditation upon a theme.” They tackled struggles of everyday people — financial woes, losing businesses, terminal illness, deaths of friends — and how it affected their relationships. It was a show about life that reflected the era.
Because the show was so progressive and attempted to reflect real life, it led to notes and requests from ABC. With the second episode, Zwick said that ABC was worried that the show was too dark, and the network asked him to lighten it up. Zwick said “no.”
The show was also groundbreaking in that it was one of the first primetime series to show two gay men in bed together — though they weren’t allowed to kiss, even though the original script had them kissing. Herskovitz fought for the on-screen kiss, but one of the actors in the scene, David Marshall Grant, said he didn’t need the kiss because the fact that two gay men were in bed together on ABC primetime television was revolutionary enough, further paving the way for representation on the small screen.
The push for creativity and telling of progressively intimate stories has a legacy, as Zwick said he appreciates networks and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon that leave artists alone and let them do what they want with their shows.
The result has been great, non-homogenized work — much like thirtysomething.