'thirtysomething': The Philly-set drama that inspired such shows as 'This Is Us' turns 30

Thirty years ago today, baby-boomer drama thirtysomething premiered on ABC, giving the mainstream a taste of the problems that members of the 1970s counterculture faced as they grew into middle-class adult yuppies in the 1980s.

Created by Ed Zwick and Lower Merion native Marshall Herskovitz, the show would go on to win 13 Primetime Emmy Awards and two Golden Globes across its four-year run, to 1991.

At the time, the show drew comparisons to the 1983 film The Big Chill, but the show’s influence can still be felt today on ensemble dramas like This Is Us. So, three decades after its premiere, we’ve rounded up what you need to know about thirtysomething.

What was the show about?

Thirtysomething followed the lives of husband and wife Michael Steadman (Ken Olin) and Hope Murdoch (Mel Harris) and the various characters that surrounded them. The show was ostensibly set in Philadelphia — sometimes Chestnut Hill, sometimes Bryn Mawr, depending on the addresses given. Two characters even attended Herskovitz’s alma mater, Lower Merion High School. It depicted the couple and their friends in their 30s — an age at which their countercultural youth began to clash with their emerging lifestyle, causing severe anxiety for the show’s protagonists.

Throughout the series, Michael operates an ad agency alongside friend Elliot Weston (Timothy Busfield), who has a tumultuous marriage to wife Nancy (Patricia Wettig). Michael’s wife, Hope, meanwhile, attempts to raise daughter Janey (Lacey and Brittany Craven) while maintaining a relationship with longtime friend Ellyn (Polly Draper) and starting her own career in publishing. Michael’s other friend, Gary (Peter Horton), however, hopes to continue his life of partying following an affair with Melissa (Philly native Melanie Mayron), Michael’s cousin.

Angst, of course, is the name of the game, and thirtysomething has that emotion continuously on display. However, while the show may sound like something of a soap opera (which it kind of is), the presentation is a little more nuanced than all that, thanks to thirtysomething’s thoughtful scripts and realistic characters.

What did we think about it when it first came out?

While the show today is considered a classic, the Inquirer and Daily News’ television critics at the time weren’t immediately onboard with thirtysomething.

Gene Seymour at the Daily News, for example, wrote that the show “is going to bring you down” and “make you uncomfortable,” as well as “remind you of things you don’t necessarily want to be reminded of.” Despite that less-than-flattering description, Seymour did say the show “deserves your attention” and put it ahead of The Big Chill.

“The show really does manage to touch generational dilemmas without Big Chill-type glitz or glibness,” Seymour wrote after the 1987 premiere. “What I’m hoping is that they can lighten up things a little over the next few weeks without succumbing to archness or careless cleverness.”

The Inquirer’s Ken Tucker, meanwhile, in a review after the premiere, called the series’ characters “depressing yuppies.”

Thirtysomething would be infuriating were it not so depressing,” Tucker wrote. “You can’t imagine any of these self-absorbed chatterboxes reading a newspaper, let alone a book.”

Spoiler alert

Thirtysomething‘s most shocking moment is something that TV series now do all the time: kill a main character without warning. In its fourth season, the show pulled a massive bait-and-switch. Nancy, who had been battling cancer all season, was set to go into surgery. It seemed as if her life was in peril. Yet, in the end, she was OK. But all was not well: It turned out Gary was the one to die — killed in a car accident on the way to the hospital to see Nancy.

We’re used to major-character deaths now —  Grey’s Anatomy pulled an amped-up version of this plot point in its fifth season, and we were actually disappointed by the lack of major offings on this season’s Game of Thrones — but at the time, it was “like a punch to the gut,” said Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever.

What did we say about it after it was over?

Thirtysomething concluded its series run in May 1991 with an ambiguous ending that had viewers wondering whether it was really the end. As Herskovitz told Inquirer TV reporter Gail Shister in 1991, it was “virtually 100 percent certain that we’re not coming back.” And they didn’t.

The show’s cancellation was met with joy from movie reviewer Gary Thompson. As he wrote in 1991, thirtysomething’s end worked to make “the airwaves safe from vainglorious soap opera.”

The Daily News’ Francesca Chapman, however, was a little more kind, writing that the show “transcended soaps.”

The series “has told us stories we already know and made it fascinating,” Chapman wrote in a 1991 column. “They were all the more gripping because a good story, told realistically and in detail, a story that doesn’t necessarily have a punch line or a happy ending, is an unusual thing on TV. After tonight, it will be all the rarer.”

Where are they now?

Star Ken Olin went on to appear in shows including L.A. Doctors; Murder, She Wrote; and Alias, and has directed episodes of shows including The West Wing, Freaks and Geeks, and Felicity. Currently, Olin is the executive producer of NBC’s This Is Us.

Costar Timothy Busfield appeared in The West Wing as Danny Concannon, and played Kevin Costner’s brother in Field of Dreams. Busfield also moved on to directing and counts episodes of This Is Us, Aquarius, and Children’s Hospital among his directorial credits.

Co-creators Zwick and Herskovitz — who moved on to shows like My So-Called Life — still work together. They show-ran the most recent season of Nashville, and were two of four credited writers on the recent American Assassin. Zwick directed such movies as Legends of the Fall, Blood Diamond, and Defiance.

Philadelphian Melanie Mayron, who portrayed Melanie on thirtysomething, recently directed an episode of the Netflix series GLOW.