Ode to thirtysomething.
I was a freshman in college when thirtysomething began its four-year run. And even though I was only 18 at the time, there was something about this show that drew me in. It was unlike any program I’d seen before and I remember thinking that when I eventually became a mother, I’d want to revisit thirtysomething to see how its storylines resonated with me.
The focus of the show was a couple in their 30s, both college grads and overachievers who’d just become parents and were struggling with the impact parenthood had on their lives. The husband was the co-owner of a fledgling advertising company and the wife had been a journalist working for an environmental magazine before she had a baby. As the seasons progressed, she worked part-time for that environmental magazine and then an environmental advocacy group, had a second kid, worried about what her Princeton college advisors would’ve said upon seeing her taking the mommy track, and, in thirtysomething’s final episode, took a full-time job at a magazine. The character of Hope Steadman (played by Mel Harris) was flawed, whiny, uncertain, self-absorbed, sometimes martyred, sometimes strong. She wasn’t quite sure how her desires, her career aspirations and her family all fit into her own life. And there was something quite remarkable about that.
But I never did get the chance to see if my thirtysomething self could relate to Hope by the time I became a mother in 1998 because thirtysomething was no longer being shown in syndication anywhere, and, despite public demand, had not been released on DVD.
Then along came Once and Again, created by the same folks who made thirtysomething. This TV drama started in 1999, when I’d been a mother of twins for a tad over a year. I had begun working part-time -- writing from home and was preparing to teach part-time – and was fueled by excessive amounts of caffeine. Surprisingly, I found myself riveted by Once and Again. I was moved by Sela Ward’s character Lily Manning, a mother of two who worked part-time in a bookstore she owned with her sister until she was forced to seek full-time employment when she was going through a divorce with her philandering spouse. It was as if Once and Again took the women from thirtysomething and moved them a decade ahead in time to when they were fortysomething and coping with divorce and with the task of raising teenagers who challenge everything you say and everything you are . . . and then throw it in your face.
As I watched Lily flounder economically – borrowing cash from her father to pay her divorce attorney, having to beg for grocery money from her estranged spouse who’d maxed out her only credit card and left her with practically nothing in her checking account – I saw a character who felt as though she’d lost herself. In one moment, Lily went from being a married mom of two who lived in a comfortable Chicago suburb and worked part-time hours, to a divorced mom who, because she took such a long break from her journalism career (left when she was pregnant with her first child), was forced to take a job as an assistant to a twentysomething editor for an online magazine because she needed the money. Lily – who was occasionally stubborn, fearful and oftentimes courageous – had to re-learn how to navigate the current workplace culture while, at the same time, her teenaged daughter was asking permission to go out on dates for the first time and her 9-year-old was demanding more of her attention. By the end of Once and Again’s run, Lily was bursting with pride at having landed a job as a radio talk show host whose show was being considered for syndication.
Now that my children are in the first and third grades and I seek, on a daily basis, to work out some sort of compromise between my career and home life, I find myself looking for working moms reflected on TV in a realistic fashion. I’ve scanned the contemporary television horizon to find nuanced, multi-dimensional portrayals of working mothers and have found that the offerings are somewhat lacking. There really aren’t any Hope Steadmans or Lily Mannings on TV right now.
There are some programs that have come close, like the short-lived What About Brian, although the working mom tales on that show were simply subplots, grossly overshadowed by the surfer dude of a main character. The drama Medium, featuring Patricia Arquette as a mom of three whose family is financially strapped, has been strong on work-life issues, though its occasional gory scenes and the whole communing-with-the-dead-business is off-putting to some. Brothers & Sisters tries really hard, but it always seems like it’s trying really hard. Its storylines don’t ring as heartfelt and true as did the ones on thirtysomething and Once and Again.
My husband wonders why, for all these years, I have seemed so stuck on Once and Again -- it aired its last episode six years ago this week – and continue to regularly check to see if thirtysomething has been released on DVD yet. (Take a look at the Amazon thirtysomething page and read the comments from fans pleading for the DVD release to see that I’m not alone.) It’s because, to borrow a phrase, they don’t make ‘em like they used to.