We’re Loving the 80s to Death

A Gen-Xer’s Plea to stop talking about his generation

It’s January, and a weary nation struggles to climb out of the pain, wreckage, and ruin still so fresh in our memories.

But enough about Wonder Woman 1984.

Critics and audience have dunked on the movie’s manifold cinematic weaknesses. Pretty much the only thing all agree it got right was the 1980s period details. The only honor that WW84 will ever win is an entry ticket into the current, endless re-churning of 80siana.

These days, you can’t sling a Rubik’s Snake without hitting a high-profile Hollywood project that hitches its Radio Shack remote-controlled Camaro to that pop-cultural stratum. Ready Player One made such an 8-bit buzz, Ernest Cline wrote a much-reviled sequel, and they’re making a Ready Player Two. And on the small screen, a wide range of 80s-set shows take us from The Goldbergs to Stranger Things to The Americans, all the way to the literal Valley Girl homeworld of Cobra Kai.

But not all 80s-laden properties are recreated equal, and how the creators deploy the decade makes a huge difference in the creative success of the project. As a child of that time, I’m willing to bank my Member’s Only membership on this.

Are my constant 80s reference-checks starting to irk you yet? Well, strap into your lap belt. That’s where I’m headed.

But first, a little taxonomy. I’ve divided 80s-centered properties into the different ways they use 1980s lore as part of their storytelling. I’ve come up with three main divisions:

Leg-Warmers–When people use pop songs, toys, ad jingles, and movies  as window-dressing to camouflage the weaknesses or unimaginativeness of the story.

Dropping down one circle of 80s hell is what I term…

Tab–When a nonstop torrent of 80s proper nouns and phrases is the only bubbly, fizzy substance that content pours into your bloodstream–and leaves just as little of a trace behind.

But on the other high-top, there are also a few more thoughtful 80s-based works, which I elevate into…

Aquanet–When the (non-pop, societal/historical) cultural milieu of the 80s is narratively and structurally key to a unique creative vision. You can tell these because the 80s name-checks are relatively low-frequency, and are just the seasoning on a meatier narrative that stands on its own, like a towering bouffant.

Wonder Woman, Leg Warmer

80s

To get down to (non-Risky) business, Wonder Woman 1984 used its decade as a leg-warmer. Its only moment of non-cringey humor is the throwback rom-com “trying-on-clothes montage” where Diana Prince’s body-possessing flame Steve Trevor evidently survived mustard gassing and trench foot just so Diana could torture him with Michael Jackson zipper-jackets. Weirdly, for all the period care put into the faux-80-store mall sequence (and the beloved Commander Salamander wannabe-punk retailer), this occupies shockingly little camera time. Even the film’s climax didn’t need Cold War nuclear war to be a doomsday scenario. Nuclear war is threatening in any era. Just ask Dr. Evil.

The Tab that Refreshes

Racing into the Tab category in an all-too-familiar DeLorean is Ready Player One, or as I think the movie poster should have more truthfully read, “$175 million. Zero stakes.”

Steven Spielberg aimed this movie (like the bestselling book it was based on) squarely at me. I lived–joyfully and intensely–through all of its new-wave and video-game geekiness. I personally found the “Warren Robinette” Easter egg from the Atari 2600 game Adventure that wins the final battle. They engineered this property  to tap directly into my nostalgia-dopamine complex.

And yet, from dialogue to plot points, Ready Player One relentlessly and shamelessly contains nothing but these names and references. I found no joy. Outside of these “memba berries,” there was as little life in this film as I actually had in the 1980s.

Then there’s ABC’s sitcom The Goldbergs. Through its eight seasons (and counting), it has dutifully marched through full-episode recreations of at least nine canonical 80s films, from The Goonies to Top Gun. It’s had countless “Adam discovers breakdancing!”-centered storylines.

But it’s also stood the test of time and stayed on the air by striving for something more: entertaining characters, snappy dialogue, and engaging plotting that hits emotionally.

Two examples from the most recent season highlight this tightrope act: One episode features POV character Adam getting “woke” by seeing Do the Right Thing and trying to fight racism in his endearingly misguided way. But the 80s litany is nonstop–he only learns about the world through harrowing 80s movie references like Platoon, for example, and its post-BLM ‘systematic racism’ sensibility is jarringly (and ironically) anachronistic. By contrast, another episode about the family taking a cruise finds inspiration, but doesn’t lose itself in, the then-middle-class-attainable craze of Carnival Cruises and their ilk. The script uses that only as a springboard to tell a handful of funny and lovely stories about its characters just struggling with what it means to be a family. In any era.

The Aquanets

And this points us to my category of 80s Done Right: the Aquanets. Here you’ll find incredibly well-made shows like The Americans. The Americans’ warp is the Cold War and the pure tribalism of USA-vs-Soviet Union identity-shifting and secrecy. But its woof weaves that into indelible and often mind-blowing explorations of the secrecies and treacheries of community, workplace, and marriage itself. While, by the way, getting the hairstyles, cars, and clothes right. Mad Men was similarly meticulous in detail, but Don Draper wasn’t (often) grooving to Jefferson Airplane and rocking bell-bottoms, as he was drowning in the rich malaise of post-1950s male existential dread.

Next up is Stranger Things. Here again the shadow of the Cold War, and its attendant fear of shady high-tech government doom sets the tone. But it plays in the uncertain realm of 1980s kids’ freedom. This was the last period when kids could roam free, unsupervised, after dark. But at the same time it was the period of Atlanta’s “missing and murdered children” serial killer chase, and those ominous TV bulletins: “It’s 10:00–Do you know where your children are?” And as a corollary, it was the last truly Internet/cellphone-free era, preventing kids investigating a mystery from turning to 1000 other sources, or for that matter being able to contact each other most of the time. It’s perfect horror gruel.

Stranger Things, in the mall.

Stranger Things’ outliers from this prove the rule. Its evocative debut season barely skated over a D&D reference. By contrast, Season 2’s premiere jarred the ear with an onslaught of 80s one-hit wonders, letting us know exactly how much Netflix had upped the music-licensing budget. Likewise, in the most recent season’s finale–taking Cold War paranoia to a new dramatic and creative level–there’s one tangent where baseball-capped series sweetheart Dustin can only get an obscure mathematical fact (again, no Internet!) to break a code by singing the theme song from The Neverending Story with his girlfriend. It’s a sweet moment, but the other characters look around, bewildered, and their feelings mirror the audience’s (or as least this cranky old Gen-Xer’s).

The last Aquanet I’d submit is Cobra Kai, the ingenious “reboot” of The Karate Kid from the point of view (initially) of its villain, Johnny Lawrence. They set the series in modern times, with Johnny grown up (kinda) and Daniel no longer a “san.” There’s an old tune or car or poster here and there, but tossed out very sparingly. And most critically, the 80s attachment is a negative character quality–a potent and story-driving metaphor for Johnny’s struggles to grow up and leave his past behind.

And like Stranger Things and Wonder Woman 1984, Cobra Kai features an epic battle between Good and Evil that takes place in a Waldenbooks-and-Orange-Julius laden mall. Why the mall is such a key locus for 80s epochal warfare is beyond the scope of this rant. But at a glance, it feels like the shopping mall of the 1980s was the last truly public place where we Americans left our bubbles and participated in the melting pot, before the suburbs finally divided us for good. The similarly violent use of it in all three properties gives the impression of nostalgia merging with dystopia.

Why the 80s–SO MUCH the 80s?

The 80s was the last decade free from constant self-documenting and instantaneous pop-culture-product access. In other words, it’s the last big cultural milieu filmmakers need to reconstruct and reenact for audiences to experience it properly. The 80s are a fun creative challenge to film. For audiences of any age, the era is a bit of candy dangled just slightly out of our reach, which only makes it sweeter.

The 90s, meanwhile, saw the Internet, vlogging, and cell-phone prevalence take over its latter half. It seems content to leave its entire essence encapsulated in Clueless, Reality Bites, and Smells Like Teen Spirit.

And, of course, the 1980s dominate because we GenXers are the cultural content-creators with power and budgets now, while our peers are the ones with disposable income, increasing time to watch, and the dread of our onrushing mortality and midlife crises driving us back to the nostalgia-teat.

In other words, we’ve become the Boomers whom we reviled so much for dominating our youthful cultural landscape. And to me, that’s a prospect as horrifying as a Hot Dog on a Stick.

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Rob Kutner

Rob Kutner has written for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Conan, and is also the author of Apocalypse How: Turn the End Times into the Best of Times, and the graphic novel Shrinkage.

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