Steve Ralls

Now That I'm Thirtysomething, Too

Filed By Steve Ralls | November 07, 2007 11:15 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: ABC, Doogie Howser, gay cheerleaders, murphy brown, steve ralls, television

thirtysomething2ca.jpgI was thirteen years old on November 7, 1989, but I was thirteen going on thirtysomething, too.

Unlike most 13-year-olds I knew, who were watching Doogie Howser or - if they were really scandalous - Cheers that year, I was obsessed with ABC’s Tuesday night drama series revolving around the lives of a group of yuppies. I lived all week for an hour, every Tuesday at 10, with Hope, Michael, Nancy, Elliot, Gary, Ellyn and Melissa.

The friends from Bedford Falls seemed to have it all: Sexy careers, hip friends, nice homes and complicated but intense relationships. (At the time, ‘complicated but intense’ seemed like a good thing to shoot for in relationships . . . . now I know I should’ve been careful about what I wished for.) They went to therapy, had great sex, made a little money and then did it all over again.

But, on November 7, 1989, thirtysomething also shook the very ground on which 80s television stood. It was on that night, complete with a ‘viewer discretion’ warning at the top of the hour, that network television finally showed two men in bed.

There was no Sex & The City or even Ellen back then. Network television was playing it safe. Murphy Brown had not yet taken on single motherhood and Dan Quayle, and the biggest tremor to have crossed the airwaves during the preceding decade was the mystery over who shot J.R.

So when thirtysomething creators Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz decide to put an episode called “Strangers” on the air, all hell broke loose.

The episode, which featured two guest characters named Russell and Peter, was the epicenter of a late 80s cultural revolution. Billed as a ‘sex scene,’ it was talked about for weeks in advance and became a sweeps month phenomenon. It also cost ABC – which actually had the balls to put it on the air despite an uproar from the right – over $1 million in ad revenue.

So, of course, there was nowhere I was going to be at 10pm on November 7 except in front of my TV.

And once it was over, I remember thinking: That was it?!

A ‘sex scene’ it was not.

In fact, it was just a few brief minutes of Russell and Peter having a sweet kiss and some pillow talk before rolling over and going to bed. I had already had much more scandalous 13-year-old pubescent dreams of me & Keanu Reeves. This, in comparison, seemed like a half-assed after-school special that failed to live up to even an 8th grader's modest expectations.

But I was only 13. Little did I know – then – just how truly significant that pillow talk would be.

It was the first time that a non-offensive or flamingly stereotypical gay couple had been brought into most American living rooms. It was the first time we were seen alongside our neighbors and friends as being just like them. The gay guys weren't, for once, dying of AIDS (a popular gay storyline in 1989) . . . . dressing in drag . . . . or hanging out a bathhouse. They were just living their lives and talking about yuppie things in bed.

There was no stereotype in ‘Strangers,’ and that, for most Americans in 1989, was very strange to see.

It’s almost unimaginable that such a scene would cause such a stir today, but that first date with network TV destiny was necessary to get us to where we are right now. Without “Strangers,” there would have been no Will & Grace banter, Brothers & Sisters drama or a ‘complicated but intense’ same-sex relationship Six Feet Under. It was the courage – and conviction – of Zwick, Herskovitz and ABC that blew the bedroom door open and showed the world the most shocking thing of all: That gay people do nothing more daring between the sheets than the straight couple across the street.

That revelation was earth shattering . . . less than two decades ago.

Which just goes to show you how much can change in 18 years. Television has largely warmed up to the idea of telling the stories of our lives, and we’re no longer ‘strangers’ to America’s TV viewers. And, in my own 18 years between that Tuesday night and this one (when I am thirty-plus-one), my perspective has changed as well. While I didn’t see it or appreciate it in 1989, it’s become clear just how momentous that November 7 really was . . . now that I’m thirtysomething, too.

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That gay people do nothing more daring between the sheets than the straight couple across the street.

Well, except for that one thing I love that Ray was kind enough to indulge me in that involved a sheep, a bottle of olive oil, and a bungee cord.

Oh, no, wait, you're right - we got the idea from the straight couple across the street. We're even!

But seriously, yeah, that seems like another world, and it was just 18 years ago. Too bad everything gay had/has to be seen as extra steamy.

I remember being let down by the scene too, Steve. I don't know what we expected - soft porn?

Don't you love how we still get "view discretion" labels quite often as if seeing two men laying beside each other with a piece of cloth across them is scandalous...

I guess you had to be there.

When I was 15, the big prime-time soap here in Australia was Number 96.

Lawyer Don Finlayson (Joe Hasham) was revealed as gay in an early episode and had several boyfriends over the course of the series; his most enduring relationship was with film buff Dudley Butterfield (Chard Hayward).
Number 96 was Australia's highest rating program for 1973 and 1974, and was the first English-language soap opera to be broadcast each weeknight.
In 1980 a short-lived US remake of the same name on NBC retained the comedy but toned-down the sexual elements of the series. The series was launched over three consecutive nights. US television and TV Guide promotions for the series utilised advertising hyperbole, suggesting that the series had been "banned in Australia". The nudity and racy content of the original series was not present in the remake; it would likely not have been allowed in the US due to censorship standards there, so the US version only hinted at the sexual content that had been on display in the original. The US version of Number 96 was quickly cancelled due to low ratings.
There are times when the innate conservatism of Australia is obvious. Both Government and Opposition here are dead-set against same-sex marriage, and here marriage law is a Federal responsibility under the constitution.

But in some ways the US is so uptight we can't really understand you. I don't mean the MidWest or Bible Belt, I mean the mainstream.

Yes, there were gasps of "Shock Horror" in 1973 from the Usual Suspects when Don entered his bedroom to find a nude Dudley lying on it, saying "Don't you want me?" or words to that effect. But it was only a TV program, for goodness sake, and the shot was taken from an angle that didn't show the "Naughty bits".

Gosh it was a really terrible show though. "Days of Our Lives" mixed with "Seinfeld" and full-frontal nudity.

There's a scene from 1972 on YouTube. In Glorious Black and White, as Australia didn't have colour TV then. Rather quaint, from this distance.

Colour came in soon after, and there's a later scene too. 1974 I think.