by Meredith O'Brien
It began and ended with a mother’s angst about being apart from her child for a whole weekend. The first time she tried to accomplish this feat, her daughter was 7 months old and still breast-feeding. The plans were that she’d go camping with her husband Michael, his best friend Gary and Michael’s cousin Melissa. But, at the last minute, she got cold feet and Michael, usually pretty sensitive and in touch with his feminine side, was steamed, worried that their sex life was circling the drain, sacrificed at the altar of parenthood. It just wasn’t the right time for her to do this, Hope said. She wasn’t ready.
However by the 21st episode of the Emmy winning, freshman 1987-88 season of thirtysomething , Hope Steadman was able to (reluctantly) leave her daughter -- by now, a toddler -- with a close friend and go on a weekend escape with Michael at a romantic seaside hotel, their first such trip since becoming parents. Hope finally loosened up and dealt with her guilt about enjoying solo time with her husband. She even resisted the urge to race home after her friend Ellyn, who was watching Janey Steadman, panicked when Janey got a rash and raced the tot to the Emergency Room.
After a long, long wait, fans of the TV show thirtysomething can finally revisit the Steadmans’ Philadelphia home with its peeling wallpaper, beat-up woodwork and exposed bathroom plumbing, and watch Hope and Michael come to terms with the impact that having their first child had on their lives, as the first season DVD has finally been released. I spent hours watching the 21 episodes on the DVD set and was fascinated by not only how much the episodes have held up in a world that’s gone beyond typewriters, rotary phones and vinyl albums, but by the DVD extras, which include audio commentaries for nine episodes and six documentary-style interviews with the co-creators, actors and staffers which offer up interesting bits of trivia, like the fact that ABC originally wanted the show called Grown-Ups because executives hated the title thirtysomething, and that execs had also complained that the first few episodes were too tonally dark.
When Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick created the show, they were thirtysomething years old themselves and preoccupied with what they saw as the contradictions of their Baby Boomer lives: “You want to be free, but you want money. You want to be single, but you want to be in a relationship. You want to please the client, but you want to have integrity.” They said they tapped both their own veins and those of their friends for intimate, real material about their lives in order to present authentic, insightful, honest and sometimes unflattering portraits of lives of urban, professional thirtysomethings in the mid-1980s. As a result, thirtysomething was one of the first “television series to explore what’s actually inside the heads of people in all of those suburban houses that we see all over the place,” said Syracuse University pop culture professor Robert J. Thompson in one of the DVD special features.
The TV series took on the basic but, at the time unexplored notion that everything changed for a couple from the moment a child entered the picture, Herskovitz and Zwick said, particularly for Hope Steadman, the show’s female lead who became somewhat controversial because she was an at-home mom in the first season, though the Ivy League educated character eventually did go back to work as a writer. “Here’s a woman, very capable . . . has a career as a writer and chooses to stay at home,” Mel Harris, who played Hope, said in one of the DVD extras. (Harris’ own son was 2½ when she started working on thirtysomething.) “. . . At the time, there were people who frowned upon that portrayal, that that wasn’t doing a service to the women’s movement or to feminism and my personal view on that is I think when women do what feels right for themselves, that is the strongest way anyone can be a feminist.”
“It was so polarizing to women on both sides to presume to talk about this ambivalence” that Hope initially had about her career, Zwick said. When he co-created the show, he was the father of a breastfed 6-month-old. Zwick’s wife, Liberty Godshall, went on to write the episode “Weaning,” about Janey stopping breastfeeding on her own and also raised the issue of whether Hope should go back to work. In that episode, Hope tried returning to work at an environmental magazine as a researcher, but decided the schedule was too insane for her at that moment in her life, so she temporarily tabled full-time work.
Susan Shilliday, Herskovitz’s wife, and mother of a young child, was also a writer for the show and won a Writers Guild of America award for the season one episode “Therapy” about Elliot and Nancy Weston’s raw, emotional marriage counseling sessions. Shilliday said the editorial decision to put Hope in the Steadman home with her baby for the first season, “was a very emotional decision. I didn’t judge it. I had no political agenda.”
The wide-ranging impact parenthood has on people was explored in other ways in that first season. For example, the incident in the pilot episode where Hope and her best friend Ellyn -- the single, career gal -- had a giant fight because Ellyn was jealous of Hope’s all-encompassing relationship with Janey and the fear that motherhood would trump her friendship with Hope, was based on a real life disagreement Godshall had with one of her friends. “Having a child,” Zwick said, “. . . caused epic change.”
Once called “the best-written, best-acted series on television” by Entertainment Weekly, watching DVDs of the first season was as pleasurable as I thought they would be, made even more so by the interesting nuggets of info I gleaned from the audio commentaries. If you were ever a fan of thirtysomething, once you get past some of the 80s wardrobe choices, you’ll discover that the poignant observations made by Herskovitz, Zwick & Co. ring as true today as they did 22 years ago, on Sept. 29, 1987 when the show premiered.
The thirtysomething season one DVD set  will be available for sale on August 25.
More Meredith on thirtysomething:
Ode to thirtysomething. 
thirtysomething Stalker.