An 80s Ode to Community
Today’s piece, brought to you by Kate Lucas, marks the first in GenMeh’s American Dream guest essay series. More info on the project and details on contributing can be found here.
My TV viewing time has been hijacked the past several months by one show: the 1980s hit thirtysomething, which recently came out on DVD. I tore through the first two seasons and since then, I have been anxiously awaiting the leap of season three to the “active” section of my Netflix queue. (Hello, Netflix: you do know season three was released on May 11, don’t you? I know I called already, but I just thought another reminder couldn’t hurt.) While there are many things that are very dated about the show—pleated pants, feathered hair, oversized tortoise shell glasses, you get the idea—I have been surprised by how many things have struck a chord with me as I near the end of my twenties.
It’s not that I have found my life mirrored in any real way, barring a handful of moments, particularly those involving the two single women characters in the show. (Although even then, one must stretch the mind to, for example, substitute online dating for video dating in a storefront downtown.) It’s more so the emotional tenor of the show that has struck a chord. One element of this was described well by Porochista Khakpour in her recent New York Times piece about the show, what she describes as “that no-man’s-land paralysis … that cold-sweat-panic moment when youthful rebellion runs headlong into the responsibilities, pains and joys of full-blown adulthood.” Whether it is balancing work with friends and family, single friends coming to terms with friends who are married, or redefining adult relationships with parents, the show continually bumps up against these kinds of tensions.
But I think the most interesting and poignant emotional undercurrent is the characters’ search for community and belonging, and I am particularly taken with the way they find it. An easy shorthand to describing it is the photograph on the DVD case for season two: a cozy, intimate jumble of legs, arms, dog, and the heads of the main characters, on the front stoop of one of their houses. Indeed, it is a cozy, intimate, jumbled life they live. They are forever stopping over unannounced at each others’ houses or apartments or studios, letting themselves in and opening the fridge. They know the good, bad, and ugly in each others’ lives. Marriage and parenthood have not created a curtain behind which Hope and Michael, or Elliot and Nancy, shrink. Hope and Michael’s house is in a constant state of disrepair, but they don’t seem to mind, and it doesn’t keep them from providing the hangout of choice for their friends.
This all seems beautiful to me. And yet it is a lifestyle that has found scant existence in reality, or at least any reality I have brushed against. In my experience, marriage and parenthood have created profound differences in the makeup of friendships, and home ownership seems to garner expectations of a much higher level of perfection. I think American culture is still very wedded to the nuclear family and the continual striving to make our daily lives just a little bit better … which most often means the latest gadget or the highest quality granite countertop. (How far the lives of thirtysomething seem from this consumerist beltway makes me particularly surprised that the show was criticized for highlighting yuppie culture. Perhaps this simply shows how much more materialistic we’ve all become?)
And yet, pop culture seems to have a certain fetish with this idea of a New Extended Family, a quirky conglomeration of friends, next-door neighbors, co-workers, etc. The final, sepia-tone scenes of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain are just two of many examples. It almost seems to me that we have two American Dreams. Our more base desires long for the latest gadgets and the perfect HGTV abode, while our higher selves long for a more enduring, persistent, albeit messy, sense of community.