The Big Thaw: “Togetherness” and What Thirty-Something Means Now




thirtysomething and Togetherness, airing almost 30 years apart, open on the same scene: a couple in their thirties in bed, their newborn in the other room. But where the first pair is making love, the second is not. The husband looks down his wife’s top, glances at her rear, and, his advances spurned, proceeds to masturbate. It is perhaps a fitting analogy for the difference between the two generations — where one has settled into adulthood, the other is still exploring itself.

On television, delayed maturity is usually reserved for the twenty-somethings who populate the messy landscapes of Girls and Broad City. Small screen thirty-somethings tend to fulfill at least two, if not all, of the traditionally age-appropriate expectations — career, mortgage, family. In 1987, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz foreshadowed the likes of Ally McBeal and Grey’s Anatomy with their baby boomer drama thirtysomething, which arrived four years after The Big Chill and, like the film, revolved around the lives of a handful of “yuppies” (the now-defunct epithet for young urban professionals). They all had jobs, they all had homes, and if they didn’t have successful relationships, it’s because they were careerists or free spirits. Their biggest worry was squaring their conservative middle-class present with their counterculture past.

These days, TV’s thirty-somethings have more existential concerns. The cohort in Togetherness, Jay and Mark Duplass’s HBO series which premiered on January 11, wants to get there but none of them are sure where there is anymore. All they know is, as one character says, “It’s where I’m not.” Those words reflect the contemporary thirty-something life in America — dwindling middle-class, high unemployment, an even more delayed adolescence — in which we live lives that contradict our parents’.

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At age 34, I am a writer who has been living with a documentary photographer for almost 10 years. We are not married, have no babies, no mortgage, and no car — we can’t afford any of it, we can hardly pay our rent. This is the plight of a large number of Gen Xers who preferred the coffeehouse guitarist to MTV. We are more highly educated than our parents, but we make a lot less. When we do have jobs, they are unstable — following the Great Recession, even more so. According to the University of Michigan’s 2011 “The Generation X Report,” we are a hard-working social generation with a declining divorce rate. But since the 1960s, the middle class has been shrinking, unemployment has reportedly been spreading, and those who work get paid worse than before, despite putting in longer hours. Ultimately we lack financial stability, but in our society that is tantamount to having no value at all.

Our downward mobility was our parents’ upward mobility. At the same age I am now, my mother was a psychiatrist married to another psychiatrist. The year was 1981 and they had two kids, a mortgage, and a car. She and the rest of the baby boomers rejected traditional values and in their youth aligned themselves with a number of counterculture causes, promoting civil rights, feminism, and pacifism. But with age came conservatism and a life oriented more toward family and capital, less toward revolution. My brother and I grew up in a three-story house in a yuppie neighborhood. We went to private school. But our parents also instilled in us the belief in nontraditional values; that we should stick to our ideals regardless of the bottom line. And we did, because our bottom line was always covered. “You were brought up with plenty and in some ways it didn’t prepare you for adversity,” my mother says. Within the confines of my privilege I am now poor. My mother is 67 and makes more than 10 times what I do a year. Sometimes she still puts money in my account. If she had stuck to art school, she might be in the same position as me. But that’s not what baby boomers are known for.

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The baby boomers were one of the earliest cohorts branded as a distinct “generation,” distilled into a white, socioeconomically snug model that initially took form in The Big Chill. Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 film followed a group of college friends who meet after 15 years following the death of one of their coterie. They pay much lip service to the evils of selling out, but it’s the ones who didn’t become young urban professionals who kiss the dust. Alex — a social worker-turned-manual laborer — kills himself, while unemployed former radio host Nick is a literally impotent drug addict. These men are considered wastrels by their more successful friends, including a doctor, a lawyer, a TV star, a showbiz journalist, and the owner of a running shoe empire (nimbly named Running Dog after Mao Zedong’s “running dogs of capitalism”). As Kasdan, himself 34 when he made the film, explained it, “The Big Chill is about a cooling process that takes place for every generation when they move from the outward-directed, more idealistic concerns of their youth to a kind of self-absorption, a self-interest which places their personal desires above those of the society or even an ideal.”

Last year around the Criterion release of The Big Chill, Phillip Maciak argued in Slate that the film originated the quarter-life crisis genre, which he defined as “an anxiety about beginnings.” According to Maciak, the big question of our twenties and early thirties is, “Is this what the world I’ve idealized is really like?” He argued that Lena Dunham is indebted to The Big Chill for posing the question first, as are a number of post-mumblecore films, including the Mark Duplass–produced Your Sister’s Sister. But there’s a big difference between the anxiety you feel at 25 and the anxiety you feel at 35. At 25 the crisis is very much post-graduate — your ideal is still close enough that you can touch it; it’s just a matter of whether or not the world will let you. At 35, the crisis is the ideal and whether or not you did with it what you should have. At 25 the problem lies ahead, at 35 it’s right behind you.

The Big Chill was a mainstream success and eventually spawned thirtysomething, an hour-long series about young white self-involved urban professionals. The ABC show launched a new genre of “artsy” dialogue-heavy TV dramas, including My So-Called Life, which Herskovitz and Zwick produced for the next generation. The central couple in thirtysomething is social worker-turned-homemaker Hope Steadman and her husband Michael, a writer who couldn’t cut it and literally sold out (he’s in sales), who have just had a baby. Swirling around them are Hope’s best friend and foil Ellyn, who chose work over domesticity, and Michael’s best friend and foil, Gary, a single, Fabio-haired English professor. The show’s leitmotif is continuous with that of The Big Chill: adults attempting to come to terms with middle-class lives anathema to their revolutionary youth in the 1960s. “We sort of noodled around about people we know,” Zwick told The New York Times in 1988, “not just our lives, but a lot of lives.”

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Jay and Mark Duplass, along with childhood friend Steve Zissis, also used real life as the inspiration for Togetherness, but their raw material was more, well, raw. Their series is propelled by a couple, Brett and Michelle Pierson (Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey), who have to contend not only with their two kids, but also with two other adults crashing at their home: Michelle’s sister, Tina Morris (Amanda Peet), a single fading beauty who is “not good at anything,” and Alex Pappas (Zissis), a single, out-of-work actor. According to Jay, these two characters were him back in the early 2000s when he was turning 30 and living off $15,000 a year trying to be a filmmaker. “All of the kids that we went to high school with were rich and successful, and we were poor and unsuccessful and had been for quite some time,” he told BuzzFeed in January. “We made some really terrible movies, and it’s funny to talk about, but it was so painful for us at the time.” That pain is what sets in when the big chill does not, when we do not move from the outward-directed, more idealistic concerns of our youth. While thirtysomething and Togetherness share a number of themes — infidelity, isolation, the stigma of being a single older woman, the struggle to live up to our adult responsibilities — where the former’s overarching theme is angst over selling out, the latter’s is angst over losing one’s identity.

Angst might actually be too strong a word for thirtysomething; it’s more like brief bursts of restlessness that quickly resolve themselves. “If you can’t have the revolution, you might as well have a great breakfast nook,” Michael hears in a dream early on in the series. Once a wannabe writer, he is now an ad man renovating his house, which fuels nightmares filled with slurs like “bourgeois” and “yuppie” in which he is accused of betraying his real values. “What are we to think of this profit-mongering capitalist who goes to greater and greater lengths of deceiving the people in his insatiable quest for corporate hegemony blindly aping the current fashion of the decadent ruling class?” he is asked with verbose aplomb. But it’s nothing more than a bad dream. Everyone in thirtysomething is professionally successful; even the permed, velvet-frocked photographer has shot a Carly Simon album cover.

As for sacrificing one’s old life for a family, that question is equally moot. “There’s got to be more to life than getting a baby to sleep,” Gary says in an episode in which Michael and Hope refuse to go camping for want of a suitable sitter. But there isn’t, not here. Even though Hope vacillates between being a stay-at-home mom and returning to work, the latter is generally presented as the less fulfilling alternative. And though Hope becomes attracted to men other than her husband, she never risks her family for it. Her life is a sacred cow, not a sacrificial lamb.

Nothing is sacred in Togetherness, everyone is in flux, in various stages of forging an identity — reclaiming it (Michelle), searching for it (Brett, Tina), consolidating it (Alex). Not even Michelle’s “married perfect little nest of a family” is immune, even though her sister thinks she has everything. She doesn’t. Michelle must resort to masturbating like her husband because mounting him repels her. Brett himself admits, “I’m not in love with having sex with the same person for 10 years.” A “C+” is good enough for him while the couple in thirtysomething remains ace at ass. But, then, Hope loves her life and Michelle does not. “Every part of my life, I know what it’s gonna look like,” she laments to her sister. It’s only once the social work grad returns to her old idyll and joins a community group fighting for a local charter school (unlike her husband and the yuppies that preceded her, she doesn’t want her kid to wear a uniform) that she feels alive again.

It’s Michelle’s husband, Brett, the “anal grumpy vegan,” who is most closely connected to his TV forefathers. Like Michael in thirtysomething, he hates his boss and considers schmoozing “gross.” Yet he finds comfort in the yuppiest of places: reading Dune in a Barnes and Nobel with a peppermint tea. “It’s a solace thing,” he tells his wife. Within a life full of compromises, it’s the best he can do. “I have responsibilities, so I lie,” he tells a New Agey woman he meets in the woods. She characterizes him as a “ghost in chains,” alluding to Scrooge’s deceased business partner in A Christmas Carol who is punished for his materialism by becoming a shackled spirit haunting the world, unable to help anyone in need. Brett only frees himself by leaving his job and making the spontaneous decision to take his tantruming daughter to the beach on a school day. “I was like you, basically,” he tells his best friend, Alex, “I had that excited feeling like when you’re going off to college and your life can be anything.”

But refusing to compromise has not been as exciting for Alex. He is a literal outcast. Not only has he been evicted from his apartment, he is an out-of-work actor … in Los Angeles, where you are nothing if not in show business. Alex is a self-described “tweener,” not fat enough for fat roles or thin enough for the regular ones. Back in high school in Detroit, he was president of his high school, a good sportsman, and a ladies’ man, but his fate was sealed by his high school bully, to whom he unfortunately admitted his aspiration to become a star. “He said, ‘If you do that, you’ll end up sucking dick on Hollywood and Vine,’” Alex tells Brett. “Back then I thought he was an asshole, but now, in retrospect, he’s a fucking prophet.” Losing his apartment seems to put everything in perspective for Alex — he’s sick of the relentless hustle that his ideals require. “It’s over,” he says. “I’m done. I’m going home.”

Exhaustion has set in for Tina too. With no talent, unless you consider her aptitude for looking good, she often jokingly offers sex as currency but knows its value is running out. She becomes something of an aging manic pixie, helping everyone around her, especially Alex, to get their “shit together”; she appears to be the only one she can’t help. “I’m so tired of banging my head against the wall,” she says. “I’m just so tired.” Yet even when rich TV producer Larry (Peter Gallagher) offers to look after her — “You’re making this harder than it has to be,” he says — and she accepts, she can’t settle into the comfort of her new life, because it’s not really hers. In a decidedly rom-com move, Alex shows up at the luxury hotel where Tina is staying with Larry and attempts to whisk her away. In a decidedly non-rom-com move, she rejects him. “It’s better this way, trust me,” she says, her tears confirming it’s not. Safer, maybe, not better.

Neither generation believes it’s better this way. Togetherness and thirtysomething are united by references to Frank Capra’s anti-capitalist classic It’s a Wonderful Life. The 1946 film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, an impoverished family man about to kill himself to at least be worth his insurance money. He is saved when his guardian angel interferes and shows him how he has improved the lives of those around him in his community of Bedford Falls and how bleak life would have been without him. (Herskovitz and Zwick used George Bailey’s hometown as the name of the production company they formed to release thirtysomething.) Meanwhile in Togetherness Alex finds comfort in repeated viewings of It’s a Wonderful Life while Brett’s guardian angel, the New Agey woman he meets in the woods, makes Brett “connect with his death” by leading him, literally, to a shallow grave. So is the answer simply the old chestnut that money can’t buy happiness? Not quite.

“If the quarter-life crisis film is about asking a particular set of existential questions, about the narcissism that results from a tunnel-vision search for answers,” Maciak wrote, “then it’s also about the frustration that results when answers are nowhere to be found.” thirtysomething and Togetherness provide answers but to slightly different questions. “What is it about you that makes it impossible for you to enjoy the things you have?” Hope asks Michael in thirtysomething. The question echoes throughout the series and, considering the relative contentment of the characters, the answer seems to be that material wealth — “the things you have” — brings you happiness if you don’t think about it too much. The question in Togetherness, however, issues from the immaterial. Whether or not you have a house, whether or not you have kept your ideals, does not necessarily determine your fulfillment. Happiness cannot be found externally, only internally. This is the generation that prescribes mindfulness not Prozac, after all — we don’t buy our happiness, we cultivate it. As Brett points out in the final episode, “Who the hell am I to know what’s going to make anyone happy at this point?” For now he knows what makes him unhappy, and that’s a start.

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Soraya Roberts is a freelance writer based in Toronto.


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