When I was sixteen I hated Jane Austen. I read Pride and Prejudice, but couldn’t get beyond the anachronism. Every plot point rested on the impossibility of speaking directly and honestly:
Mr. Darcy, if you could simply explain yourself to Miss Bennet, I’m sure she will have a different opinion of you.
Take away the 19th century hang-ups, and you’d have no story.
When I was sixteen I loved thirtysomething. Now that the TV series is out on DVD, I’ve been working my way through the first season, this time from the perspective of someone who is just a little older than the characters rather than a lot younger. It’s eerie to realize how many of my precepts about dating, marriage and family life came from this show: Avoid dating younger guys, since it will only end in tears. Interfaith couples need to embrace one another’s family traditions. Expect that your life as a working mother will be a constant struggle. Never leave the house without shoulder pads.
But now I’ve got a Jane Austen problem. So many of the plot points in thirtysomething would vanish in today’s technological context:
Gary, if you would just use voicemail instead of an answering machine, your new girlfriend wouldn’t overhear the message your last lover is leaving you.
Hope, if you’d just get a damn cellphone, you could leave the house without worrying about the baby every minute.
Melissa, if you could just shoot digitally instead of on film, you wouldn’t have to schedule so many re-shoots.
It only took a few episodes for me to wonder: was I well-served by using a pre-Internet era TV show as a relationship roadmap? True, there are some elements of thirtysomething that feel as current as ever — will there ever be a time when couples don’t argue over who left the laundry on the floor? — but the tech changes that have unfolded in the past 20 years make much of the show feel dated.
If Pride and Prejudice felt a little dated after 150 years, fair enough. But these days it only takes a decade or two for a cultural icon to become a charming artifact rather than a salient worldview.
And there’s much more at stake than whether we can enjoy reruns of our favorite childhood shows. Childhood is the time when we get roadmaps to the world ahead: not only through media but through our interactions with friends and family and through our own lived experiences. In Jane Austen’s time, that childhood roadmap would serve you pretty well, since Mr. Darcy’s world was not much different from his father’s.
In our time, the roadmap comes with an expiry date: best before next game-changing tech revolution. The world we live in today is nothing that thirtysomething could prepare us for…even if we’re willing to go without shoulder pads.