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That 80s GraphicThat '80s Show
Fox
Wednesdays 8 p.m. / 7 p.m. Central

As Jim "Where are they now" Breuer's one-note "Saturday Night Live" character Goat Boy asked late in the last century, "Do you remember the '80s?"

If you're reading this, your answer is probably yes. And Wednesday, Jan. 23 at 8 p.m. on Fox, it all came back to you with the premiere of "That '80s Show." It takes place in 1984, and centers around twenty-something Corey (whose name is probably meant to remind you of Haim, Feldman or Hart), the sensitive bomber-jacket-wearing songwriter at odds with the money-grubbing corruption that surrounds him, and his pal Roger, a wacky Reaganite (why couldn't more of the real Reaganites have been wacky?)

Unlike its prequel, "That '70s Show," which uses the '70s as a contextual backdrop to its characters lives (and also manages to be funny), "That '80s Show" uses its characters merely as vehicles to display what we now remember as "'80s things." Big hair, shoulder pads, leg warmers, skinny ties, parachute pants, mullets, "Dynasty," wine coolers, rolled-up jacket sleeves, runny cocaine noses — it's all here. The characters talk about and wear pop culture artifacts almost exclusively, all so you can say to yourself, "Oh yeah, I remember 'Where's the Beef!'" It's quick and easy to remind us of a bygone hamburger slogan. It gets tougher when you have to reduce an entire musical movement (that started in the '70s) into a girl with spiked hair and black eyeliner uttering the sneering phrase, "So I'm punk. Deal with it," something that no one alive in any decade has ever said.

The pilot had some nice musical touches. For every well-known song, like Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime," it served up a chestnut like Heaven 17's "Let Me Go" or Violent Femmes' "Add it Up." But ultimately, "That '80s Show" is more a pointless communal remembrance than an actual creation. And it was inevitable, because Hollywood seems to observe this very simple pop culture formula: In order to be able to sell TV Retro safely, a full generation must pass.

To wit: "Happy Days," a show about growing up in the '50s, was a huge success in the '70s. "The Wonder Years," a show about growing up in the '60s, was a big hit in the '80s. In the '90s, 70s retro stuff showed up everywhere, culminating in "That 70s Show," a show about growing up in the '70s. In the minds of Hollywood producers, people who came of age in a particular decade have to be given enough time to grow up, have kids, yearn for their "glory days" when they were free and unencumbered, and enter that phase of life when they turn to TV as their only source of entertainment.

Only then can advertisers cash in on the nostalgia factor. According to the formula, the '80s are just about ripe for the selling.

Looking back, the '80s seem almost as innocent as the '50s did 20 years ago. And to grown-ups with responsibilities, innocence is mighty attractive. But this instant nostalgia, this "pop will eat itself" mentality, this mining of the past to keep us facing backwards — do we really long for it, or is it being foisted upon us? Do we need to watch a shrill, superficial sitcom that takes pot shots at the past from the ironic and knowing perch of the present with easy-to-write jokes about fashion foibles? Or can't we just watch "Cheers" on Nick at Nite and "The Love Boat" on TVLand, use our working brains to remember those heady times and draw our own conclusions?

Karen Lurie (karen@flakmag.com)

RELATED LINKS

The Onion: US Dept. of Retro Warns: 'We May Be Running Out of Past'

 
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