What makes Hope and Michael and Nancy and Elliot and Ellyn and Melissa and Gary tick? Simple: Ed and Marshall and Richard and Ann and Joe and Winnie and Liberty -- the writers of ABC's thirtysomething, who in 1990 polished to perfection a storytelling style more often found on the printed page than on the TV screen. A few years ago, thirtysomething was widely reviled for encouraging the yuppie ethos of materialism and whininess. It was always a bum rap, and this year's extraordinary episodes dealing with Nancy Weston's cancer finally brought around many detractors.
Yet, when the events aren't as earthshaking, thirtysomething weaves small, elliptical, seemingly random moments into a densely textured story with TV's best writing.
The scripts come from a team of contentious individuals who meet with one another, then go off into their corners and suffer a process appropriate to a series in which self-doubt and self-examination are essential on-screen. Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, the show's creators, preside over a staff of five: Zwick's wife, Liberty Godshall; Richard Kramer; Winnie Holzman; Joseph Dougherty; and Ann Hamilton.
''In the first season,'' says Kramer, ''thirtysomething was a light fantasy of social life. We all wrote what we wanted in our own lives.'' Times are tougher for the characters now: Marriages have suffered, buddies have been replaced by bosses, lives have been put in jeopardy. ''Things had to happen to these seven characters,'' Kramer explains. ''But when we've dealt with something melodramatic, we've consciously drained the sensationalism out of it.''
What the writers excel at, says Holzman, are ''ordinary moments that gather meaning and finally devastate us or transport us.'' Even competitors concede that nobody does it better. ''Those perfectly observed details that have such tremendous cumulative impact I wish I could do it, but I can't,'' says L.A. Law creator Steven Bochco.
It doesn't come easily, the writers say. ''Just to sit there and figure out why everyone has dropped over to Hope and Michael's again I mean, don't these people have phones?'' says Holzman, laughing. But the characters continue to fascinate them. The wrinkles in Hope and Michael's marriage, the single-woman struggles of Ellyn and Melissa, and the clouded future of Elliot and Nancy will continue through this season, and perhaps for another year.
This spring, fans can savor their favorite moments in a paperback anthology of nine scripts, each introduced by its author. It's a fitting tribute: thirtysomething has kept on rewriting the rules of storytelling, and helped erase the one that said, ''You can't do that on television.''