Alexandra Lange | Essays

Suspended Animation

It’s awfully dark for a show with so many suspenders.

That is my husband’s one-sentence assessment of Thirtysomething, and I couldn’t agree more. True, he thought it was a sitcom, confusing it with the concurrent Wonder Years. But there are NO laugh lines, just a wardrobe so laughable it is distracting.

Hope spends the first episode worrying out loud about losing the pregnancy weight, but the woman manages to look thin in belted, blouson, tapered, overall jeans. Every time Ellen, the (accurately) self-described bitter single career woman speaks, I can’t hear her, so distracted am I by the neurotic wiggle of her shoulder pads. I remember Elliot being short and fat (Timothy Busfield was a lot more appealing by The West Wing), but he actually looks pretty trim, despite the orange mullet making its way over his maroon collar. And Michael! I think I am supposed to have a crush on him, but the forest green shirt buttoned to the neck? No. And the Seinfeldian white sneakers? No. And the baggy, pleated, cuffed chinos? No. The only time I am not mentally giving him a makeover is when he wears his Princeton t-shirt, which gets so much air time (“I am smart, smarter than you,” it whispers) the university should probably have paid for product placement. (Note it appears on Hope in the publicity still above, which fails to do justice to the big, big hair.) Nancy, the downtrodden SAHM blonde, goes out to dinner with a pale blue banana clip in her bob. I think the Fug Girls need to devote some time to an episode.

I put Thirtysomething on our queue ages ago, because I remember watching it with my parents — I was 14 in 1987 — and understanding nothing. I have vague memories of Hope and Michael’s Craftsman house, which merged in my mind with the similarly-toned residence of the Salinger family on Party of Five. Melissa’s dysfunctional relationship with Gary disturbed me as it should. I didn’t understand why everyone was always mad at Hope, who seemed to me the picture of warmth and loveliness. Now I see that was her role, princess as punching bag, a smart, educated, beautiful woman who chose to stay home in baggy jeans and her husband’s flannel shirt. Hope’s choice is one that still makes a lot of people uneasy, but we have changed in the last 20 years. Michael, the supposedly liberated and sensitive new-model husband, seems to do absolutely nothing around the house.

Maybe it is too much like my real life, but the show feels like a major bummer. No one has perspective, the dialogue is earnest rather than clever, the couples have the same fights over and over (and I only watched the first disc). If I wanted a voyeuristic look into the dynamics of friendship, sex and marriage I would be more entertained re-reading John Updike’s 1968 Couples, my favorite of his novels. At least in that book, Updike makes every woman sound appealing. On Thirtysomething, so buried are they under bad hair, makeup, and power suits, the only way to know a woman is hot (and that Michael and/or Elliot is undressing her with his eyes) is to have him tell you. But I had a hard time looking at his face and not his suspenders.

For more on the real-life design history of Thirtysomething (Michael and Elliot work in advertising, after all, see Bill Drenttel’s reminiscence, “I Was A Mad Man,” on Design Observer.

Posted in: Media

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