By Porochista Khakpour
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — The year was 1987.
In my journal, I wrote: "Dear Diary, I've been dreaming a lot about being an author. Face it! I write books! But what about my life? What about my man? What about my children? I don't want to fall in love with writing and hate everything else."
I had a point, of course, but I was in the fourth grade, still a few months shy of double digits. I played House endlessly, when I wasn't playing Writer. I had life-planning woes galore and career angst aplenty, man trouble and procreation anxiety to boot. I scanned the plastic globe for honeymoon spots. I romanticized divorce the way I romanticized braces and glasses and pimples and periods - I wanted every rite of passage, and pronto.
I sucked my cheeks in to make cheekbones in photos; I loved shoulder-padded power suits and pumps rather than hypercolor T-shirts and graffitied Keds; fruitlessly pleaded for Lee Press-On Nails when all the girls were busy begging for crimping irons; and preferred male company to female company for mostly untomboyish reasons.
I just wanted to be a grown-up already.
Part of it was that I was always among adults. My parents were Iranian immigrants who still didn't trust Americans and the American way of life fully, so certain kiddie-congregation classics like camp and slumber parties were out. Instead, I forced myself to love shopping with Mom and playing chess with Dad, and eventually I did. I preferred Marilyn Monroe on VHS to "Jem and the Holograms" cartoons, turned crayons into prop cigarettes and once even got caught perusing Playgirl in the magazine aisle. My parents, too busy with their new lives, never noticed the rather "adult" child they were creating in cloistering me from more innocent playmates.
In 1987, we were just a half-decade into American life when ABC began broadcasting Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz's hourlong drama "Thirtysomething." It was about a group of seven friends, all baby-boomer yuppies, all at the boiling point of adulthood. For me, pretty much everything about the show - the pretentious lowercased logo; the setting in pre-sixth-borough-glory Philadelphia; the almost painstakingly unfamous cast; the difficulty in figuring out whom to crush on and whom to relate to - did not compute, and for some big reasons.
First, for a smart child with adult aspirations, I was sure slow to get some basics. I was late to get death (at that point, it had never occurred that we, the real people of the real universe, did in fact really and truly die, a bubble burst most crassly by my mother, who, after realizing I thought cemeteries were just gardens filled with statues, explained that "people's hearts are buried under there"). Despite my early porn peeks, I was actually late to get sex (explained by a preteenage friend of a friend, who pointed to a couple writhing under blankets at a park before breaking out the old plug-and-socket analogy). And somewhere between these two elements was the entirety of "Thirtysomething."
So it was not really a show I watched, but one I tried to study curiously, the way children peer into their parents' underwear drawer. I looked at the pictures. I saw old people fighting, crying, hugging, kissing, but mostly just talking. All the adult talk started to take on instructional-video magnitude for me. Like school, "Thirtysomething" felt urgently essential and yet confusing - always the signs that a given issue had to do with America and the fact that I was an immigrant - and every week I tuned in hoping to learn how to talk the adult talk and maybe soon walk the adult walk.
By adult, I, of course, meant an American adult. My 30-something parents were Iranian adults, and they didn't count. I looked at Hope and Michael and their pleated pants and suspenders and Ivy League sweatshirts, while my parents, overdressed, fallen aristocrats still holding on to their '70s-best, spiked with ever more sore-thumbish Kmart and JC Penney additions, totally fell short. I decided to give up on my parents, and looked to the television.
Maybe, I thought, one day I will have a chance to be like that.
Maybe one day, I still think. I'm 31 now.
AT Yaddo, the writer's colony where I'm supposed to be working on my second novel, I'm instead watching episode after episode of "Thirtysomething," the first season of which finally arrives on DVD this week. One evening, I even showed the pilot to about a dozen writers and artists in West House, where 50 years ago the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath resided. (Plath, of course, killed herself just a few months after her 30th birthday.) After the screening, many of the artists said they found it "outdated" or "boring" or "depressing." The show has always inspired, along with absolute love, serious derision - Susan Faludi decried its all-sacrificing mothers in her book "Backlash."
I, too, joined the crowd, rolled my eyes - and then rushed to my laptop to watch more. The first season was about what I expected: money problems, friendship crises, crying babies, mortgage talk, parental visits, endless breakups, rekindled affairs, co-worker crushes, job insecurities, couples therapy, bed chatter, blind dates, tenure anxieties - all the dreams/nightmares playing house is made of. But this show that once inspired its contemporaries to comfy-cozy viewing nights left me - naturally jaded, trying-to-be-cynical, post-sentimentality me - in a stew of mixed emotions: it is true, it is real, it is me, it is not me, it is horrible, and I love it.
Even after 27 years of being American, the last 8 as a true citizen, I was once again filled with a foreigner's panic and reverence at the show's slice of American life. But the reasons were different this time. I was drawn to "Thirtysomething" not for what it could teach me about life as an American adult, but because of its very distance from the American adults I am and know. I was watching not to emulate their lives, but because theirs are lives I just don't see, period.
I'm part of the Peter Pan-ish Gen-X final trickle - and what do we know about growing up? My friends are all broke, say "whatever" too much, still live in Converses and constant hangovers, still yell at their parents on the phone and two seconds later ask for money and possibly a place to crash, are still deferring college loans and say everything is the new something-else, including the 30s, which are the new 20s. The economy is in crisis, and they don't care; they have become Zen about debt, having been impoverished, if trust-fund-less, since they got out of college at the beginning of the millennium, a time of tragedy and war and turmoil, their entire 20s devoured by someone they refer to only by a twangy iteration of his middle initial.
But now, as a writer playing Writer more than ever and a woman on the verge of playing House for real, I find myself torn between the decadent counterculture of my 20s and a desire for things "properly" adult. And this is the very no-man's-land paralysis that "Thirtysomething" was obsessed with, that cold-sweat-panic moment when youthful rebellion runs headlong into the responsibilities, pains and joys of full-blown adulthood.
In this second-chance viewing as a thirtysomething, I am amazed and inspired by all the everything-in-between, all the nothing-happening, all the ambivalence and the stagnation. At times, the camera lingers too long on the expressions of a jilted Nancy or an overwhelmed Michael or a hopeless Hope, and those are the looks no one shows you in real life much anymore, much less on TV. It's as if with its devotion to the faithful naturalism of everyday details and all the microcosms of absolute, roller-coaster intimacy, it is the real reality TV, every bit as boring and dazzling as the real "real life."
In an interview on the DVD, one of the producers, Richard Kramer, summed up about the very purpose of art when he said the show was trying to get at, simply, the challenge of "trying to be a good man or woman in an impossible world." Whether you're with "Thirtysomething" or not - or still trying to figure it out - that predicament properly explored, on paper or on screen, never quite gets old.
Posted Aug. 24, 2009