The Steadman house has no roof. That could explain a great deal. Rooflessness has a way of inspiring a certain, um, anxiety in people. As it happens, this particular roofless house is the exposed nerve center of thirtysomething, perhaps the most equally acclaimed and despised television series ever created. It is a drafty old barn in which every possible feeling of generational ambivalence and inadequacy comes home to roost. All oaken wainscoting and chipped paint, this ersatz turn-of-the-century relic has been hammered together inside a sound stage on the CBS-MTM lot in Studio City, California. If these walls could talk, they would probably stammer, maunder, hedge and occasionally make cunning allusions to Beowulf and Bewitched, not unlike the prime-time characters who dwell within them.
This is the home of Michael Steadman, encumbered adman, husband and father, in whose world none of life’s twitches and tics go unexamined. “Why do I feel so terrible?” he said two years ago in the first episode of thirtysomething, adding, “I know we’re lucky.” And then: “God, I hate people who talk like this.” His is not a solitary universe of pain and self-consciousness; a gang of regulars constantly drops by to compare bruised psyches and see what’s in the fridge. (“My life is so … empty and — say, what’s this brown stuff?”) Nothing much happens here. Teensy moments and little dramas inform their lives. In the neuro-sphere of thirtysomething, no minutia is too minute to explore. Even for the actors, writers and producers, the routine of everyday existence is where the action is.
* * *
Thirtysomething t-shirt legend: “Reality Is An Acquired Taste.”
* * *
Ken Olin is fretting. He’s directing a scene, and like Michael Steadman, whom he portrays, he is beleaguered by jittery self-doubt. (This may be because he has never directed before.) At the moment, he is orchestrating a kitchen-klatch Kabuki whose participants include three of the four principal women players. They are Mel Harris, who plays Hope Steadman, Michael’s winsome wife and the mother of toddler Janey; Polly Draper, who plays Ellyn Warren, Hope’s best friend; and Patricia Wettig (the real Mrs. Ken Olin), who plays Nancy Weston, the estranged wife of Michael’s former business partner, Elliot. In this scene, the women are discussing their fathers.
“This is gonna be great, you guys,” Olin tells the actresses before each take, usually adding, “only faster this time. Faster, faster, faster.” During one take, while Polly Draper executes the requisite move of peeking into the refrigerator, Olin says, “Polly, make your body look a little more normal.” She frowns at this, as is a woman’s wont. “Okay,” he says again and again, “can we take twenty seconds off this, please?” Feminine grumbling can be heard after the seventh try.
“All I need is all three of you mad at me,” Olin says, worried.
“If we get mad at you,” says Mel Harris, “your ship is sunk, buddy.”
* * *
Olin vérité, discoursing on the cultural phenomenon that is his job:
“I guess this is true of most … Um, when you do a series or something and the issues… It’s funny…. I mean… the issues, sort of… I don’t know…. Like, what are you interested in knowing about? Are there things that you really want to know about? I mean, like, what’s Mel Harris really like? What do Patti and I do when we’re home? Do people really care?”
* * *
What Olin and Wettig do when they’re not at home: They find each other. Spouses have worked together on television before, but usually as spouses. Olin, previously Lieutenant Garibaldi on Hill Street Blues, and Wettig, a minor St. Elsewhere alum, are in fact married on thirtysomething, only to other people. Although they perform few scenes together, one is invariably nearby whenever the other works. If the camera is not rolling, they gravitate toward each other. They wander into dark corners together, or else step outside, always with their heads very close together. They talk with quiet intensity, listening to the other’s concerns, sharing connubial advice and technical observations. At such times, they like being left alone.
* * *
“Socialpath,” Mel Harris keeps saying. In the kitchen scene, Hope is supposed to utter the term sociopath. It is not going well. “Write words high-school graduates know, would ya?” Harris moans to Richard Kramer, the show’s executive story consultant, who stands beyond camera range. Then she says, “Hey, you need a bitch on the set.” A spiky former model, Harris has made her first real splash playing Hope, the placid mother confessor to her quavering peer group. Later, in her trailer, she dissects fiction and reality: “I’m very different than Hope,” she says. “We do have similar features: We’re both five foot eight, brunette, and have sort of green-brown eyes. But she’s nicer, sweeter, more easygoing. I make people toe the line a little bit more. I expect more. Hope gives the benefit of the doubt longer than I do in life.”
* * *
Three actresses at the coffee wagon between camera setups, chatting about supermarket tabloids:
Patti Wettig: I heard ABC was actually mad last year because none of us ever made those papers. Well, not mad, but they said, “This is tough; your show doesn’t make the National Enquirer.”
Mel Harris: [Sighs] Our lives are so normal.
Wettig: But Ken and I made it twice this year, so ABC should be happy.
Polly Draper: What did they say about you?
Wettig: A lot of trash. Jealousy stuff.
Draper: The funniest would be if they got a picture and pasted another girl’s face on your body.
Wettig: [Laughs] “Caught With Another Woman!” My grandmother would be happy, ’cause she reads the Enquirer. She tells me that one day I might even be popular enough to do a game show.
* * *
Specifically, thirtywhat? According to the producers, the characters are no less than thirty-three, no more than thirty-five. The actors’ ages: Timothy Busfield is thirty-one; Polly Draper, thirty-two; Mel Harris, thirty-two; Peter Horton, thirty-five; Ken Olin, thirty-four; Patti Wettig, thirty-three.
* * *
Michael Steadman’s per annum salary:
Mel Harris: I’d say seventy.
Ken Olin: Sixty seems about right.
* * *
What the Steadmans do with disposable income:
Their stereo system is at least a dozen years old, clunky, dusty; Quadroflex turntable and Fisher deck; no compact-disc player. Michael drives a rusted-out Volvo 1800S. He bought it approximately fifteen years ago, probably while attending Penn. On camera, it sort of looks like a Porsche, an illusion that confounds the producers. Indulgences (tucked in the freezer): Wolfgang Puck frozen pizzas and chocolate desserts.