The 1988 Emmy Awards belonged to the baby boomers.
ABC bookends “The Wonder Years” and “thirtysomething” won comedy and drama, respectively. In the former, an older narrator reminisced on growing up during the innocent but turbulent Wonder Bread years of the late ’60s and early ’70s. The drama showed that same generation all grown up, married with mortgages, kids and careers.
“I was so shocked and amazed that we won because the Emmy establishment at that time was particularly conservative,” recalls Marshall Herskovitz, “thirtysomething” co-creator and executive producer with Ed Zwick.
Neither show was the safe choice that year, as both were ambitious and daring. Ironic since the 40th primetime Emmys were held during a time when the economy was extremely tough, the stock market tanked and George Herbert Walker Bush waltzed into the Oval Office on the back of a landslide.
Maybe that’s why the nostalgia and poignancy of “The Wonder Years” was comforting to Academy of Television Arts & Sciences members, while the characters in “thirtysomething,” as painful as they were to watch sometimes, were equally compelling because it was like holding up a mirror to our own angst.
“The Wonder Years,” created by the married creative team of Carol Black and Neal Marlens, beat out “Cheers,” “Frank’s Place” and “Night Court,” while “thirtysomething” defeated “Beauty and the Beast,” “St. Elsewhere” and “L.A. Law.”
“When you look back at television 15 years ago, we were right in the middle of a golden age or second golden age,” says David Bianculli, a TV critic for 28 years, currently at the New York Daily News.
“Even though we saw a void in programming that truly represented the baby boomers, we had doubts as to whether this show would fill it,” says Herskovitz on “thirtysomething’s” fate. “We really thought our show would be too esoteric for a mainstream audience.”
Clearly a love-it-or-hate-it series, “thirtysomething” had extremely passionate and loyal viewers, a fact Zwick acknowledged when he accepted the award with Herskovitz and the entire cast.
“I remember Ed saying that we could have won for most annoying show as well and I expressed our gratitude to ABC for being able to create a show on our own terms,” Herskovitz says.
“Brandon Stoddard (former ABC Entertainment president) and Chad Hoffman (former head of drama development) were making extremely sophisticated and enlightened decisions and also trusted the voice of a filmmaker to guide a show. Except for Steven Bochco, that hadn’t really been done before.”
Change in procedure
During this time, the Emmy voting process allowed only one episode to represent an entire show’s body of work, and a blue ribbon committee hunkered down in hotel rooms and watched. The episode submitted was extremely emotional. Titled “Business as Usual,” it shows Michael finding out his father has cancer.
The actors of “thirtysomething” also cashed in that night. Timothy Busfield and Patricia Wettig won for supporting actor and actress.
“The experience was really overwhelming. We were constantly being interviewed and the New York Times would write about our show a couple of times a month. We felt like this cultural presence and we were in this remarkable bubble,” explains Herskovitz.
Cable steps up
But 1988 was also a very significant milestone in the history of the kudofest. It marked the first year cable networks met the penetration standards and were allowed to compete with the broadcast nets. “After 1988, the broadcast networks began to lose their monopoly on the most creative parts of television,” says Bianculli.
Cablers would not only threaten the broadcasters’ Emmy dominance but would also change the entire television landscape.
Even in 1988, it’s easy to see now that the writing was on the wall.
HBO won for nonfiction for “Dear American: Letters Home From Vietnam,” the start of their preeminence as a documentary showcaser and producer; “The Garry Shandling Show” was nommed for writing and directing; and HBO’s “Mandela,” starring Danny Glover, was acknowledged.
“It wasn’t just letting cable in changed everything,” says Bianculli. “The networks also abdicated their specialty in movies and miniseries.
“The networks were really strong back then, but today if CBS, ABC or NBC gets one entry in any of those categories they’re lucky. I realize they cost more money and there’s more competition, but if the networks don’t do it they don’t have a chance. You can’t win if you don’t play.”