I 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.