Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Even in its Emmy Award-winning heyday, one felt a little apologetic about admitting one watched thirtysomething, the kvetch-filled chronicle of yuppie icons Michael and Hope Steadman and their friends. But hey, it’s the dog days of summer. There’s nothing on but Big Brother (which is to say, there’s nothing on) and little to look forward to in the fall but more reality shows and a sitcom starring Emeril Lagasse. Next to that, yuppie whining begins to look entertaining.

Yes, thirtysomething returned to television last week with a three-hour extravaganza on Bravo. This time, however, the series comes sanctified as art, just the kind of thing you’d expect from those self-loving boomers. To be more specific, it is the first entry in Bravo’s “Art of Television” slot, which will feature The Larry Sanders Show next year and The West Wing in 2003.

It seems like a lot of hoopla for reruns or, in thirtysomething’s case, re-reruns. After its 1987-91 run on ABC, the show moved to Lifetime, where it played on and off for most of the ’90s-and where I managed to avoid it. But 10 years is almost long enough to make me willing to relive the dating woes of Ellyn and the marital breakup of Nancy and Elliot. Lest we forget, of the many shows that have tried to depict the ad business, this was the only one that captured the imagination of real ad folk. Many a morning was spent at the agency watercooler trying to figure out which ad guy Miles Dentrell, the Mephistophelean mind-gamesman, was based on. Before Endemol, thirtysomething was reality TV.

This time around, however, viewers have to deal with host Candace Bushnell, blonde author of Four Blondes and the woman behind Sex and the City. Bravo, mindful that the drama’s original target audience is rapidly disappearing over the edge of the 18-49 demographic, apparently hopes today’s thirtysomethings will buy Bushnell’s dubious claim that thirtysomething was the Sex and the City of its day. (The better comparison is to the aging Friends, which is turning into thirtysomething in spite of itself.) Given the effort to repackage the series as “art,” I’m not sure what purpose is served by a host who cannot utter the characters’ names without looking like she smells something bad. And the segments in which a smirking Candace is inserted by computer into earnest scenes from the series are grounds to fire her agent immediately.

But then, the contempt inspired by thirtysomething’s talky self-consciousness was always essential to its appeal. Even during its original run, the show was more than a mirror into which yuppie boomers raptly gazed. It was also an opportunity to ridicule all that mirror-gazing. It allowed viewers to have contempt for boomer yuppies twice over: first, for the self-absorbed characters on the show; second, for themselves as an audience entertained by that self-absorption.

Boomers may indulge their self-love, but they pay for it with self-flagellation; thirtysomething allowed them to do both.

Those nostalgic for yuppie-hating will find the series still pushes the right buttons. First and foremost is Michael and Hope Steadman’s home, the vast Arts-and-Craftsy fixer-upper so dear to post-hippie tastes and pocketbooks. (Though after the intervening years of luxury fever, the house doesn’t look all that upscale anymore.) Then there’s the cutting-edge red Jeep the pair owned, so prescient of the SUV mania to come. Not to mention Michael’s suspenders.

There’s no reunion show in the offing. Still, it’s fun to imagine what one would be like. Divorced Michael and Hope struggle with their bicoastal co-custody arrangements. Little Janey Steadman has an eating disorder. Miles’ agency has been bought and merged three times over, and now he answers to a holding company CEO who is an even bigger prick than he is. Elliot is trying to get back into commercials, having flamed out at an Internet startup, while Nancy runs a breast-cancer awareness program. Melissa is a single mom in Paris, and unhappily married Ellyn runs a bookstore and has affairs. Gary is still dead.

Wait a minute. Post-divorce trauma? Angst-filled tweeners? Haven’t we already seen this? Of course: it’s thirtysomething creators Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz’s critically acclaimed, ratings-challenged Once and Again, aka fortysomething.

Which brings me to the lasting contribution of thirtysomething. It has nothing to do with the art of television. It’s that ubiquitous “something” suffix, which has made age-related stereotyping so much easier for journalists and market researchers alike.

Let’s see the folks at The West Wing try to beat that.