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fiftysomething: Looking back at a guilty pleasure

By Glenn John Arnowitz

Photo by Sergey Katyshkin on

Okay, so I have a few guilty pleasures. Well, more than a few. A big one was that I was a fan of the show, thirtysomething, the late 1980s hour-long drama that depicted the lives of a bunch of baby boomer yuppies. Don’t make a face. I feel guilty enough. When that show debuted, I was part of the graphics design studio at Laura Ashley. Four of us (it was a small team) would get all geared up for the Tuesday evening broadcast and then spend most of the following day discussing the show and reexamining every scene. We were all thirtysomethings. We felt a certain kinship to the soap opera life struggles of Michael, Hope, Elliott, Nancy, Gary, Melissa, and Ellen, the rise and fall of the Michael and Elliott Company and especially the inner workings of the ad agency DAA with its zen-inspired, eccentric and out-of-his-cotton-pickin’ mind principal, Miles Drentell. Such melodrama! And of course all of that agency shoptalk gave us a vicarious thrill (Larry Tate was old news and Don Draper wasn’t even news yet). Not that the show was a morality play, but it did impart some good advice now and then—such as “don’t go into business with your buddy” and “if you’re an obsessed bike rider and avoid cars like the plague, don’t break tradition.”

There were many poignant episodes but the storyline devoted to Michael’s rise at DAA was my favorite. Here, the svengali Miles maliciously drives a wedge between Michael and Elliott, who he couldn’t stand, with the hopes of destroying their friendship. Michael and Elliott, once equals as business partners with their own ad agency, experience a gradual shift in their roles as Michael climbs the corporate ladder of success leaving Elliott in the dust. Miles declares: “you can’t be one with the people you manage.” When I was promoted through the ranks to creative director, like Michael, I was conflicted. It’s really hard to be part of the gang when you’re managing the gang, especially when you used to be one of the gang. So, it is possible—as long as you lead with conviction and passion and don’t lose yourself in the process. I’d like to think of myself as a benevolent leader who hasn’t lost his authority or the respect of his team.

Not only was Michael having difficulties managing and working with Elliott, a creative live-wire against his buttoned-down conservatism, but also with Peter, the gay designer who just learned he is HIV positive. Let’s face it. Michael was the quintessential mensch; with Peter, as well as with Elliott, he wanted to be everything yet constantly struggled with his responsibilities as a boss and friend. Peter, though, sees right through Michael and knows that he doesn’t fit in anywhere. “You’re a combo platter. A leader of men with the touch of a poet.—that’s how he puts it. But nobody knows this about Michael. Only Peter does. And Gary. But Gary, Michael’s best friend (the biker) who knew and understood Michael’s inner conflict between living the American dream and following his muse, was recently killed in a car accident, which has left a void in Michael’s life and continually haunts him. Did I lose you?

Well, even if you found the characters self-absorbed and whiny, the show did explore many of the conflicts we all endure. At home, at work, with friends and family. Especially for us creatives who tend to be hypersensitive when life gets messy. How do you balance the demands of your family and the need to satisfy your artistic itch? Creative business partner and friend? Hmmm. Is it possible to rise to a management position while maintaining the friendship and comaradarie of your direct reports? Is sacrificing your personal time or time spent with your family worth the rewards of professional success? At what age should you be free of your parents’ approval rating?  The show touched on many of these themes affecting the baby boomer generation in trying to make sense of their family, professional and moral obligations. And I was one of them.

So I give a nod to thirtysomething for seeing me through a life crisis here and there and I often think about those thirtysomethings, who are now fiftysomethings like me, and wonder where they are in their lives. Did Michael and Hope’s marriage survive? How about Nancy and Elliott? Did Melissa ever find her Prince Charming? Did Miles self destruct? Is Peter okay? And I’m not alone. The show’s cult following continues to grow through tribute websites and commentary all over the Internet and 20 years after the show went off the air, the series has finally been released on DVD! (My birthday’s in May in case anyone’s interested…)


Glenn John Arnowitz is a musical and visual artist who is always looking for new ways to scratch that insatiable creative itch.

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