Spotlight on “Ill Be Home For Christmas”

   Guest blogger: Author Lisa Mercado Fernandez

As a thirtysomething aficionado, even after thirty years, when given the opportunity to share my thoughts about one of the 85 episodes, my mind frantically begins to flip through mental photographs. I can see images and moments like stills in an old box and once I have the photos in focus the story quickly comes to mind. So the very concept of picking one over another to share my thoughts has become a rather arduous task. The question is not which one do I do but rather which one should I do first?

I settled my inner turmoil with my favorite episode. As impossible as it is for me to pick favorites from a series that continually delivered excellence in writing, acting and directing in just about every episode, I am forced to select one to start with.

I’ll be Home for Christmas.

No shocker here, this one has been a favorite for many fans for years. This is the first episode to give insight into Michael Steadman and who he really is. thirtysomething revolves around a magnificent ensemble of fine tuned characters whose intertwined lives are so beautifully written and portrayed. Like all of us, I have a favorite character and we could all sit down at a Starbucks and argue for hours about why we feel our character is our favorite, but one thing we can all agree on is that thirtysomething is truly a series about Michael Steadman and the world according to him.

Through the first few episodes we have seen Michael the doting husband, the new father, the loyal friend, the business partner and entrepreneur, but in this episode we peel back a few layers to see a more intimate side. Michael the insecure and conflicted man with jealous and creative urges that have been quietly stifled deep within.

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We are introduced to a driven and ambitious side with a thirst to succeed even if it means using others along the way. At the same time, we are shown a humble man who eventually can admit his failures and will part with his will for the ones he loves, in this case Hope and Melissa.

Richard Kramer so meticulously created some of the most eloquently written and memorable scenes of the entire series just in this episode alone. We get to see Melanie Mayron at her finest.

Since this is probably being read by fellow aficionados I will forgo doing any kind of recap and rather clarify my picks for the pivotal moments that make this episode so unforgettable.

I’ve always felt that it was a nice touch to have a pregnant aerobics campaign as the current account for Michael and Elliot especially for a Christmas episode. With pregnancy being a time of great waiting, it befits this episode perfectly since both Michael and Melissa seem to be waiting for acceptance and affirmation.

Michael’s disregard for Melissa’s schedule and failure to give her notice for the necessary photo shoot indicate his lack of respect for her talent and a general disbelief in her ability to be a successful photographer.

Although Melissa and Michael are cousins there is a slight discrepancy towards their faith and acceptance of Christmas.

While Melissa welcomes Christmas as a holiday, comically using a Barbie doll at the top of her tree and introducing her to Gary as Lauren, Barbie’s Jewish friend, Michael looks within to examine his adolescence and Jewish heritage.

I love that Gary is extremely introspective in this episode. I’ve often said, when discussing the series, that Gary is the Linus of the group. He is Michael’s inner voice – out loud. While Elliot attempts to persuade Michael to use Melissa’s first shoot, Gary is the one who calls out Michael’s real issues for his apparent disregard to Melissa’s work and feelings. Michael’s hidden desire to be a writer is exposed for the first time, and we the audience have an immediate aha moment thanks to Gary’s incessant prodding.

When Melissa casually mentions to Michael and Hope about meeting Andy Aronson and his implied interest in her work, Michael scrutinizes her assuming that she is being naïve about his motives.

Thus begins the tension that later explodes magnificently in Michael’s office. Elliot and Gary have front row seats to the Melissa and Michael stand off. I don’t know how many takes that portion took to film or if the director Robert Lieberman allowed any creative freedom in the scene, but it is brilliant. There is almost a crescendo in the tension and delivery between the two characters. Their banter is uncomfortable and almost cruel and for a moment we forget that we are watching two very talented actors at work and not the cousins they portray.

Here is an excerpt from thirtysomething at thirty by Scott Ryan. This section is from the chapter about I'll Be Home For Christmas:

Ken Olin (Michael): Everything shifted in that episode. Rob Lieberman came from a very different film background. They wanted the director to bring their own sensibility to the episodes. He was a hip, contemporary commercial director. He brought this vibe to the episode. It was really liberating for me. The struggle for me was how do I bring this character to life when I am not in synch with what Ed and Marshall wanted? They wanted a quirky type of performance. Rob really helped, we had a great relationship.

Richard Kramer: We really blew the lights out with that. When I was writing the fight scene for Melissa and Michael Ed said, “Take it as far as you can.” I remember Ken and Melanie shaking on the set after doing it because they were so overwhelmed by finding this in their characters.

Melanie Mayron: Rob had two cameras and they had the longest lens he could find which meant the cameras were really far away. It felt like it was just Ken and I on the set. The crew was back where the cameras were. When he said action we just went for it. It was like being on stage. We could play it as big as we wanted to the balcony because the people were sitting far away on the other side of the orchestra pit. It was the only time we shot the show that way.

from - thirtysomething at thirty: an oral history published by Bear Manor Media and Scott Ryan Productions.

As Michael’s conflict increases so does his guilt. As Christmas nears, we see Michael battle within himself and questions what is right. Ashamed with his behavior and embarrassed by his actions he reveals his greatest side. The side we shall see throughout all the episodes to come. Michael, in the end, will always do what he feels is right. We tend to always see the fight within us all. He brings Melissa’s photographs to the gallery owner, and he surprises Hope with a Christmas tree with once again, Gary’s help. And as good prevails, after trying to correct his mistakes and an attempt at making things right, Michael is rewarded in the end. As he enters his home he finds Hope and Janie waiting to light a menorah and Melissa, his loving and forgiving cousin waiting to embrace him and welcome him home.

Lisa Mercado Fernandez is the author of The Shoebox and The Eighth Summer. You can check out Her website for more blogs and books. She has been a thirtysomething fan since the beginning. Her photo collection is used in thirtysomething at thirty.

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Spotlight on “Strangers”

“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.


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