Although seen as an ensemble drama, the series tended to revolve around husband and wife Michael Steadman (Ken Olin) and Hope Murdoch (Mel Harris), who provide the focal point for the group. Michael's cousin is photographer Melissa Steadman (Melanie Mayron), and his business partner is Elliot Weston (Timothy Busfield), who has a troubled marriage with his wife Nancy (Patricia Wettig). Michael's best friend is Gary Shepherd (Peter Horton), who eventually marries Susannah (Patricia Kalember). Hope's best friend is Ellyn Warren (Polly Draper).
Michael Steadman and Hope Murdoch Steadman: Michael works in the advertising business with Elliot (initially in their own business, but later for DAA). Hope is a writer and stay-at-home mother who struggles between her desire to be at home with her daughter Janey (and later son Leo) and her need to work. She sometimes feels like a sellout for having become a homemaker. Hope is from Philadelphia, Michael is from Chicago but remained in the area after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. Hope's parents have moved to Arizona. Hope doesn't get along well with her mother which makes their visits trying for both. Michael (who is Jewish) and Hope (who is Christian) are also an interfaith couple, a fact that was referenced throughout the series. During the third season of the series, Hope is attracted to environmentalist John Dunaway (J. D. Souther) and contemplates having an affair with him, but decides against it. The Steadmans have bought an old house and are trying to repair it with some redecorating and modernization. Gary Shepherd often is relied upon for the actual work.
Melissa Steadman: Michael's cousin and Gary's former girlfriend. Melissa is a photographer whose career includes the cover of an album by Carly Simon and photos in the magazine Vanity Fair. In the first season Melissa dates a divorced gynecologist with a daughter played by Kellie Martin who doesn't want more children. She later becomes involved with a younger man, Lee Owens (Corey Parker), a house painter, but the relationship is fraught with problems based largely on the age difference and on Melissa's insecurities. Melissa's friendship with gay artist Russell Weller (David Marshall Grant) developed in season two and continued off and on the last two seasons.
Elliot Weston and Nancy Krieger Weston: Elliot works in the advertising business with Michael (initially in their own business, but later for DAA). Nancy is an artist and stay-at-home mother to Ethan and Brittany. Like Hope, she often feels bored and unhappy in her role as a homemaker. In addition to coping with Elliot's infidelities, Nancy struggles with and overcomes ovarian cancer during the last two seasons. She also becomes a successful children's author and illustrator and was an Art major at the University of Rhode Island.
Ellyn Warren: Hope's childhood friend. Ellyn works at City Hall and is initially involved with Steve Woodman (Terry Kinney), who works at City Hall as well. Later, she has an affair with a married man, Jeffrey Milgrom (Richard Gilliland). During the final season, Ellyn becomes involved with (and marries) Billy Sidel (Erich Anderson), a graphic designer.
Gary Shepherd and Susannah Hart: Gary, Michael's college roommate at the University of Pennsylvania (Ken Olin actually went to Penn), is a free-spirited professor of English literature at Haverford College. When denied tenure at Haverford College, he thinks about becoming a social worker. It is at this point that Gary meets Susannah, a social worker. Despite the fact that no one else likes her, Gary marries Susannah when they have a baby, Emma. Gary dies during the final season in a chain-reaction car accident (ironic since he is a bicyclist and hates cars), just as Nancy recovers from cancer. Prior to Gary's death, Susannah accepts a job-offer and moves away to New York, the two marrying on the day of her departure.
Miles Drentell (David Clennon): Michael and Elliot's boss at DAA. Miles' lack of ethics propels Michael into periods of self-reflection and depression, in particular when he is forced to fire Elliot. David Clennon reprised this role in the series Once and Again (1999–2002) which is where Miles eventually dies.
Influences and cultural impact
Thirtysomething was influenced by the 1980 film Return of the Secaucus 7 and the 1983 film The Big Chill. The show reflected the Angst felt by baby boomers and yuppies in the United States during the 1980s, such as the changing expectations related to masculinity and femininity introduced during the era of second-wave feminism. It also introduced "a new kind of hour-long drama, a series that focused on the domestic and professional lives of a group of young urban professionals, a socio-economic category of increasing interest to the television industry [...] its stylistic and story-line innovations led critics to respect it for being 'as close to the level of an art form as weekly television ever gets,' as the New York Times put it." During its four-year run, Thirtysomething "attracted a cult audience of viewers who strongly identified with one or more of its eight central characters, a circle of friends living in Philadelphia." Even after its cancellation in 1991, it continued to influence television programming, "in everything from the look and sound of certain TV advertisements, to other series with feminine sensibilities and preoccupations with the transition from childhood to maturity (Sisters), to situation comedies about groups of friends who talk all the time (Seinfeld)." The show also influenced the British television series Cold Feet, which featured similar storylines and character types. The creator of Cold Feet wanted his show to be in the mould of successful American TV series like Thirtysomething and Frasier.
Some were particularly critical of the show. Susan Faludi, in her 1991 bestseller Backlash, argues that the show exhibited a disdainful attitude toward single, working, and feminist women (Melissa, Ellyn, and Susannah) while at the same time "exalting homemakers" (Hope and Nancy). The season three episode "Strangers," which showed a male couple in bed in one scene, prompted five regular sponsors to pull out of the episode.
Oxford English Dictionary
Almost immediately after the introduction of the show, the term "Thirtysomething" became a catchphrase used to designate baby boomers in their thirties. This cultural shift was reinforced by the Oxford English Dictionary, which added Thirtysomething in 1993 (under the word thirty) and defined the term as follows:
[popularized as a catchphrase by the U.S. television program Thirtysomething, first broadcast in 1987], an undetermined age between thirty and forty; specifically applied to members of the ‘baby boom’ generation entering their thirties in the mid-1980s; also attributed as an adjective phrase (hence, characteristic of the tastes and lifestyle of this group).
Shout! Factory (under license from MGM) has released all four seasons of Thirtysomething on DVD in Region 1.
Mill Creek Entertainment has re-released the first season on DVD in two volume collections. On January 18, 2011, they released Season One, Volume One, which features the first 10 episodes of the season.Season One, Volume Two, which features the remaining 11 episodes of the season was released on January 10, 2012.
In Region 2, Revelation Films has released the first two seasons on DVD in the UK. Season 3 will be released on July 21, 2014, followed by season 4 on October 20, 2014.