It's been almost exactly one year since Stranger Things swept us all off our feet with its Dungeons & Dragons and voluminous Joe Keery hair brand of '80s nostalgia.
The show, which paid tribute to major sci-fi films from the decade, wasn't the first series to throw back to the era of big hair and Reagan. But it does seem to mark the cusp of a wave of 1980s-themed programming that's currently sweeping the TV & movie landscape, the most recent example being Snowfall, FX's deep dive into the beginning of crack in 1983 Los Angeles.
Also at FX, The Americans has been portraying the ins and outs of the Cold War scaries for five seasons now. And believe me, nothing says 1984 like Phillip Jennings' mullet wig. Earlier this summer, Netflix's GLOW showed us badass women tackling 1980s sexism one wrestling move at a time. And though the newest iteration of Wet Hot American Summer is '90s-themed, the original First Day of Camp reboot was set in 1981.
And it's not just TV. Rumor has it that the Wonder Woman sequel will have Diana Prince battling the Soviets. Guardians of the Galaxy, your favorite summer soundtrack, runs on 1980s-hits. As I sat down to write this story, I saw a headline about an upcoming movie called Summer of '84.
So, where does this 1980s obsession come from? Maybe it's as simple as the latest generation of filmmakers and showrunners recreating their formative years, or an era they didn't personally experience, but long for — just like how American Hustle ushered in a wave of 1970s-themed shows and movies. (A trend brought to an untimely end by HBO's Vinyl.)
As President of Original Programming at FX, it's Eric Schrier's job to greenlight projects for the network. "I look at the best stories that come in and the writers that have the ideas. If it takes place in a time-period, it's about why they want to tell the story in that time period, rather than is that a time period we want to do," he said. "You take someone like Jon Singleton and Snowfall, that's about his experience as a kid, going to school in the 80s, and growing up in South Central in the 80s. People tell the stories that are personal to them, and that's what I think makes the best television shows."
Ironically, a surprising number of top movies from the 1980s were also nostalgia films — for the '50s and '60s. Take movies like Back to the Future, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Dirty Dancing, for example. Schrier talks about a "30-year gap," which refers to the amount of time it takes for an era to be far enough removed from the present for it to be revered.
It could be pure nostalgia, but I think there's another element at play here. In some ways, we're living in a precarious socio-political moment that echoes many issues that were relevant in the 1980s. Humans take comfort in repetition. Maybe this is just our way of showing ourselves that it can all turn out okay.
"There’s two things that appeal to people from the eighties," Alison Brie told me when I interviewed her about GLOW in June. "The excess, which is certainly what our show is triggering. That excess from the hair and makeup to certain women’s clothes in the show, and certainly when we’re in our wrestling outfits. And then, the nostalgia, which is what people like about Stranger Things. It feels like you’re watching E.T."
Betty Gilpin, Brie's co-star in GLOW, had another take: "Well, sexism is back in a great way. America versus Russia is back."
Think about it: We currently have a highly unconventional and controversial president who once pursued a career in entertainment, much like Ronald Reagan; the country is facing a drug crisis, with opioids replacing crack as the primary offender; gender equality and reproductive freedom are national issues; Russia is in the news every other day; '; and the Department of Energy is still making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
But don't worry 90s kids — your turn is coming. 2016 gave us FX's American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson, which took us back to the iconic 1994 trial. An upcoming season of the same show will focus on the Monica Lewinsky scandal of 1998, as will another series, this one at Amazon. Gillian Robespierre's Landline takes place in a social media-less New York. Another FX anthology, Feud, will take on the fraught marriage between Princess Diana and Prince Charles. I may be too young to remember the OJ car chase, but I can recall my parents crying when Princess Di had her fatal car accident.
And I can definitely tell you where I was when Marissa Cooper died in Ryan Atwood's arms. Girlboss may have given us the first throwback to the early aughts with its tribute to The O.C., but if this trend holds, it certainly won't be the last.
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