“Strangers,” the 44th episode of thirtysomething, aired back in 1989, or was that 1889? The world went crazy for a moment because two men had the nerve to sit side by side, shirtless in bed and have a conversation. Last week the Entertainment Weekly did a 5 minute oral history about the episode (Will it be ungracious of me if I scoff? I wrote a 370 page oral history about thirtysomething. 5 minutes??!!) Advertisers pulled out of the episode, ABC threatened the producers and the Christian right protested. The episode played and the world went on. But what were the true lasting effects of this episode? If you watch “Strangers” in 2017 it is pretty tame. No one would bat an eye. I don’t think even VP Pence would try to pray the gay out of it.
So how controversial is this episode, written by Richard Kramer and directed by Peter O’Fallon? Not at all. Two men meet, have an affair and then are too afraid to call each other the morning after. So, is that why it is called “Strangers?” No. The stranger in this episode is someone who is very familiar to thirtysomething viewers. The stranger is Melissa Steadman, the wonderful Melanie Mayron. Melanie won the best supporting actress Emmy the previous season for another episode written by Richard Kramer, “Be A Good Girl.” Richard claimed Melanie was his muse on thirtysomething. He wrote some of her greatest scenes in the series. With all due respect to Melanie’s performance in “Second Look,” which is the single most heartbreaking moment in a heartbreaking episode, I submit “Strangers” is Melanie’s best work in the series. Work that is not given a mention today whenever television historians talk about the episode.
Melissa is dating Lee Owens (Corey Parker.) Lee is younger than Melissa and she is embarrassed by that. She doesn’t want her friends to meet him, she doesn’t want to be judged. So she does what we all do when we are scared, she tries to ruin everything. The end of the episode has a fantasy sequence where Melanie plays 3 different roles. She boxes herself as she watches from the crowd. The reason “Strangers” resonates with thirtysomething fans thirty years later, isn’t because two men sat in bed next to each other. It is because Richard Kramer looked into our deepest hidden fears where we all know that the only obstacle in our way is ourselves. That human moment of facing who the stranger is, ourselves.
Here is an excerpt from thirtysomething at thirty: an oral history where Richard talks about the episode.
Richard Kramer: I feel incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity to write that episode. I was supported by Ed and Marshall at a period when not everybody would have been supported. One of the principles of the show was that we couldn’t do an “important” episode. I wasn’t trying to write the gay scene. It was very much about something else. It was about the burden of self consciousness and absorbing what other people think of you. Melissa was letting that be an obstacle in her life. Melanie Mayron: The theme of the episode was how we sabotage relationships. Russell sabotaged his and Melissa sabotaged hers. We get something good and then we stand in the way of it. - from thirtysomething at thirty - Bear Manor Media and Scott Ryan Productions
The reason this episodes sticks with me all these years later is a small scene between Melissa and Lee. Melissa is fretting over her friends meeting Lee. Corey Parker does some of his best acting when he responds with, “No one is watching, No one cares.” I wish I would have taken these words to heart sooner in life, I bet we all do. These little gems are peppered through all of Richard Kramer’s scripts, as well as all episodes of thirtysomething.
Even though I have talked to Richard many times, he was a huge help on the book and always made himself available to assist, I have never asked him this question. Did he listen to Billy Joel’s The Stranger when he wrote this episode and picked the title? Billy Joel sings in his 1977 song, “Well we all have a face that we hide away forever and we take it out and show ourselves when everyone is gone.” They could have used that song and it would have fit, but it probably would have been a little too Mad Men end credits-like. thirtysomething was a great show because it never hit the nail right on the head, it just set up the nail and laid the hammer on the table and let you finish the work yourself.
Read the top 10 episodes picked by fans. Click here.
SCOTT RYAN IS THE AUTHOR OF THIRTYSOMETHING AT THIRTY:AN ORAL HISTORY and THE MANAGING EDITOR OF THE BLUE ROSE MAGAZINE. FOR MORE INFORMATION from Scott Ryan Productions CLICK HERE.
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