THINK OF IT THIS WAY: IF THIRTY-SOMETHING had lived—if it had been a Top 10 hit instead of a cult favorite and a stranger this season even to the Nielsen Top 50—it might have churned along into fortysomething, dawdled into fiftysomething, dwindled into sixtysomething. Could its young professionals have become old professionals, continuing to search their souls, worry about their kids, agonize over careers and live out their happy-sad baby-boomer lives amid pine furniture?

No, declares cocreator and co-executive producer Marshall Herskovitz, about to turn fortysomething himself. "I think we always figured that there was a natural life to this show that would be about four or five years," he says. "After a time, you inevitably start repeating yourself."

Appropriately, then, the final episode, which aired May 28, came back around to the ABC series' central couple, the Steadmans. Michael came close to accepting another advertising job in Los Angeles, but wife Hope had other plans—she was ready to take a job in Washington, D.C. And so, after four years and 85 episodes, the show ended with a showdown. "We see a very bumpy road ahead," says Mel Harris, 34, who played Hope, "but we don't see the final destination."

Bumps, hard knocks, the occasional swipe of death's scythe—all to be expected on thirtysomething.

"We were just basically normal people," says Timothy Busfield, 33, who was Michael's buddy and advertising partner, Elliot. "What people latched onto is, they heard themselves in the characters, and they'd say, 'God, that's something I would say,' " In fact, life and art sometimes intersected painfully. "The one episode that affects me the most is the 'Whose Forest Is This?' show [1988], where Ethan [older child of Elliot and his then-estranged wife, Nancy] is really missing his dad and he's having nightmares," says Busfield. "At the time, I was living apart from my son [Willy, 9, from his first marriage to Radha Delamarter], and it just wiped me out."

Despite striking such chords, the show never quite got over the initial impression it conveyed that the basic behavioral mode for these characters was the whine. But if you didn't want to listen, you could always just look. "Even when the show indulged in nuclear-family narcissism," says David Clennon, 48, who played the smooth, grasping ad-exec villain, Miles Drentell, "it was still beautifully produced." He only wishes he had kept some of Miles's nifty suits. "I could have bought some at half price, but I think I'm too late," says Clennon, who's about to start filming Light Sleeper with Susan Sarandon. "Now they're in a warehouse."

The characters haven't necessarily been locked away forever, even though Herskovitz and partner Ed Zwick, 38, are already busy with separate movie projects. "The notion of perhaps looking at their lives five or 10 years from now is very tempting," says Zwick.

For instance, what about Elliot, now that he has relocated to the West Coast? Busfield, starring this summer in the Los Angeles production of A Few Good Men, hazards a guess. "If Elliot finds himself successful in L.A., he might be persuaded to toy with some of the distractions, the materialism, the women." Melanie Mayron, 38, sees a Left Bank phase for her character, photographer Melissa, rumored about to be spun off into her own series. "At some point," Mayron says, "she would have been in Paris. She would have gone off with some artistic bird."

As for her character, Ellyn, the executive who this season wed a cartoonist, Polly Draper says she would "like to think she would be able to stay in the marriage regardless of difficulties." For now Draper, 35, would like to concentrate on writing a children's book.

Of course, we may never know the characters' ultimate fate. And some of us will care. Thirtysomething writer-producer Richard Kramer expresses a sense of loss that many viewers will share. "I'm mourning," he says, "letting go of these friends of mine, who are just as real as my real friends."

TOM GLIATTO
ANDREW ABRAHAMS, NANCY MATSUMOTO and ROBIN MICHELI in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Andrew Abrahams,
  • Nancy Matsumoto,
  • Robin Micheli.