‘Thirtysomething’ altered TV landscape

Zwick/Herskovitz series took ensemble to new level

Edward Zwick, along with producing partner Marshall Herskovitz, certainly didn’t invent the TV ensemble, but their impact on the popular genre is surely felt today.

With “thirtysomething” — the yuppified ABC drama that ran for four seasons (1987-91) amid a bevy of critical huzzahs — the duo brought intimacy and high drama to the bedroom and office. Beforehand, the settings in serialized shows were mostly police precincts, law firms and hospitals.

“Those scripts were so great,” says Timothy Busfield, who starred on the show as Elliot Weston, an ad man whose partner in business was Michael Steadman (Ken Olin) and whose marriage to Nancy (Patricia Wettig) was incredibly rocky. “We used to call these guys (Zwick and Herskovitz) Captains Courageous. To write shows that personal was sort of brave. It was a great experience.”

Many of the “thirtysomething” cast were relative unknowns when Zwick and Herskovitz tapped them. Busfield had starred in “Trapper John, M.D.” while Olin had arcs in “Hill Street Blues” and “Falcon Crest.”

On the distaff side, Polly Draper (Ellyn Warren) and Mel Harris (Hope Murdock Steadman) were just starting out, while Wettig had appeared on a few episodes of “St. Elsewhere” and Melanie Mayron had done a handful of episodic TV shows.

Right from the start, “thirtysomething” was an Emmy and critical fave.

“As an actor, it was incredible,” recalls Olin. “All of us were in the same place in our careers, the same age. We were all very balanced and kinetic, all equals.”

Adds Busfield: “We avoided all the conventions. We knew we couldn’t get away with looking like we were written. It was all blocking and how we shot it. The feel on the set was very happy, and it felt like a feature.”

Old school

While Busfield and Olin still ply the acting trade, they also spend a lot of their time as directors. They learned the craft because of the chance Zwick took on them behind the camera. Busfield helmed three “thirtysomething” episodes and Olin six, and both say it was often arduous but worthwhile.

“I experienced Ed as a teacher,” Olin says. “He couldn’t have been more generous and communicative to me as a pupil, a student of directing. He told me to think of directing as a lab and find out what works and doesn’t work. He would take the time to go through the work with me, and not just as we were approaching a script.

“I remember my first episode wasn’t very good and thinking I was going to die. If Ed had said to me, ‘I’ll finish this for you,’ I would’ve said, ‘Yes, I don’t need this.’ In terms of staging and storytelling, he was generous and incredibly articulate.”

He says Zwick was a disciple of Woody Allen, and many of the long tracking shots of “thirtysomething” were very Allen-esque. Olin continues that tradition. “One thing Ed said that I never forgot is that Woody would withhold something so the anticipation of the payoff would be great,” he says.

Busfield, like Olin, looks back on his “thirtysomething” experience with great affection, from both an acting and a directing standpoint.

“I remember I was directing an episode (and) saying to Ed that I wanted to shoot these flashbacks in black-and-white with a handheld camera,” he recalls. “And he went, ‘Huh?’ But he said, ‘It’s your movie.’ You wanted to please him. I just felt like he was our coach and said, ‘Let’s go.'”

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