LAST TUESDAY when Nancy Weston was diagnosed as having ovarian cancer, many fans watching "thirtysomething" were nearly as shocked as if it had happened to a member of their own family.
"Isn't that the point?" the show's co-creator Edward Zwick said in an interview. "That is the point. That is what happens when illness strikes."
Zwick said he and his partner, Marshall Herskovitz, were thinking since the first season about having a character confront death.
"I would just say that a number of us in the last couple of years have been confronted with the conflicts seen during illness," Zwick said. "Patty Wettig (who plays Nancy) and I -- through the oddest sort of coincidence -- share someone in common who died.
"From the beginning, Marshall and I felt we had to have the characters consider the possibility of death so that they may truly be alive. We wanted to deal with the suddenness as it happens in life."
Zwick and Herskovitz asked critics last week not to reveal the cancer story line, which continues at 10 tonight on Channel 7. All but one major newspaper followed their wishes.
"If you know what is coming, one is able to psychologically guard oneself," Zwick said. "I prefer to keep the plot out of promotion, often at our own expense."
Many programs, including NBC's "Midnight Caller" -- which airs opposite "thirtysomething" -- trumpet their upcoming story lines, but "thirtysomething" avoids such hype.
"The general rule of thumb is to exploit various twists of plot," Zwick said. "This is the way TV is promoted. We've always been very careful about what is made known. But we deeply want people to follow this strand of the plot."
Ironically, Nancy's husband, Elliot Weston (Timothy Busfield), and Michael Steadman (Ken Olin) live in a world -- advertising -- where hype often is everything.
Tonight's episode, directed by cast member Peter Horton (Gary), is less emotional than last Tuesday's powerful script. Last week's show had some "Terms of Endearment" elements to it that in some ways were more powerful than the tear-jerker movie. After all, "thirtysomething" viewers have grown to like Nancy over several seasons; they knew Debra Winger's character only over the course of one movie.
There is a fair share of humor tonight, even some of the gallows variety. The episode starts with several vignettes that show the ways Nancy's family and friends deal with her cancer operation. Tess Harper plays Nancy's sister in this episode, a testament to the quality of "thirtysomething" that it can attract an accomplished actress like her for a cameo role.
Zwick said doctors, cancer patients and the American Cancer Society reacted positively to last week's episode. "They believed the way it was emotionally handled was appropriate," he said.
He hopes the continued story line makes clear that "life does go on and takes on a certain quality and recognition of mortality. This also will be an opportunity to talk about what is life as opposed to what is death."
But why did the writers have to pick Nancy, who just was reunited with her husband and has suffered enough, to explore this theme? I thought the producers might have chosen her because the Emmy-winning Wettig is the show's strongest female actor.
Zwick agreed that Wettig is a marvelous actress but said she was picked randomly, the same way other story lines were developed.
"When we started the series, we didn't know their marriage would have trouble," Zwick said.
Tonight's plot involves the entire cast, which should be a relief from many of this year's episodes that focused on one or two characters.
"I guess that is true," Zwick said of the past shows. "By no means was it a plan. It is hard to explain why certain things happen in a show."
The big question is: What will happen to Nancy? Her possible death hovers over the series, a potential turnoff to TV viewers who are accustomed to happy endings. Zwick, understandably, won't reveal how the dark plot line is resolved. No matter what happens, he and Herskovitz will be left open to criticism.
But Zwick, who also directed the critically acclaimed Civil War movie "Glory," is accustomed to hearing criticism of "thirtysomething." Before the show premiered three years ago, the cast and writers met the nation's television critics at a lively press conference in Los Angeles.
What did Zwick think his show's chances were after that hostile meeting, at which many critics complained about the characters' whining?
"I was convinced we had a very short run," Zwick said.
"It was like a group of blind people all trying to describe an elephant by holding different parts of its body. I thought, 'Oh, my God, no one will understand what we're going to do.' "