Riding high on nostalgia: The dramatic rise of the 80s theme in modern-day television
What's the fascination and why is it so popular as opposed to any of the other decades that have gone by?
The 80s theme is something everyone goes back to because of the nostalgia that it adds to anything put on screen. It's not only the nostalgia factor that draws filmmakers to this particular era of human history, though. That decade is known the world over for neon lights used in every practical way possible, edgy synthwave music and high-concept plots in the film industry.
Film and TV show a huge boom during this time when it came to sci-fi themes. A list of the top-grossing films from that decade will tell you how creative the industry was back then and how hungry the audiences across the world were for some good quality action in cinema. The list starts off with Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial being the highest grossing from that time with $435 million in profit in 1982. Then came Return of the Jedi (1983) with $309 million, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Batman (1989), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Ghostbusters (1984), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Back to the Future (1985), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and finally Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) with $179 million. People paid a lot of money to watch these films and in a time like the 80s, making this much profit from your film was a big deal.
This line-up of films is impressive enough as it is and one can almost say that Spielberg and George Lucas had complete domination over the media for some time which is true. Many films that were made in this time were big-time blockbusters and modern-day directors and writers for TV shows have chosen to use this era for inspiration.
It is because of this whole theme of being nostalgic but unknown at the same time that brought forth gems in the television industry like Stranger Things, GLOW, The Americans, and Halt and Catch Fire. These shows have all been set in this time period and it's a good thing that they are. The charm of technology and the way people lived back in the 80s is fascinating as it is and when you add conspiracy theories like in Stranger Things or a serious tech-based drama about two women who try to start a tech company into the mix, you will have a lot of people who are very keen on watching them.
Let's use the biggest 80s revival show from the line-up that we have mentioned, Stranger Things, as an example to look at how this particular theme has made a huge comeback in television.
The show was created by the Duffer brothers, Matt and Ross, and premiered in July 2016 to wide acclaim from both critics and audiences alike. I mean, look at the material they have! The show has got family drama, conspiracy theories that may or may not be based on real life and it also has an incredible array of music and 80s pop culture references that will make any nerd giddy with excitement.
Everything about the show screams 80s fever. It's set in a fictional town called Hawkins in Indiana and the series takes place in the early 80s. The Hawkins National Laboratory is obviously performing scientific research for the United States Department of Energy but then does secret experiments into the paranormal and supernatural. They also have human test subjects because that's obviously what all labs in the 80s did (duh). Then in a beautifully portrayed manner, we see a test subject escaping and we find out that one of their experiments go horribly wrong and they have now created a portal to another dimension which is called "the Upside Down". None of the clueless residents in Hawkins know that these experiments are being conducted and they inadvertently end up facing the wrath of whatever got through the portal.
In the first season of the show, we see middle school student Will Byers being taken to the Upside Down by the creature in November 1983. The test subject who escaped the lab, a girl with mysterious psychokinetic powers only known as Eleven, meets Will's friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas who were all looking for Will. The series revolves around the children but there are also other storylines that involve Will's mother Joyce, played by Winona Ryder, and the town's sheriff Jim Hopper, played by David Harbour.
Season 2 was a huge hit as well, which is rare for both TV and film, and it is set just one year later in October 1984. This is the year of Ghostbusters and the first episode features the friends dressing up as the Ghostbusters to go trick or treating. Will is back but he's still being controlled in some way by the dark entity from the Upside Down that is the actual threat to the town and the world in general.
The third season is slated to take place one year later, in 1985, and is rumored to have a Back To The Future theme because that's when the film released. Production is underway and the show is set to premiere late 2018 or early 2019. Nothing more has been revealed of the plot but that's fine because otherwise there wouldn't be any fun in watching a show like this.
With Stranger Things, the 80s formula was put out there to an audience that became too used to watching a lot of shows that were set in medieval times or that were extremely futuristic in their outlook. This show was able to take the best of the 80s and put it out there, and you know what? People loved it for that. The child actors on the show were stellar in their performances and the story that the Duffer brothers wove around this tiny fictitious town of Hawkins would make even horror maestro Stephen King proud.
Although we're talking about how the 80s was a brilliant decade for film, there are many in Hollywood who disagree with this like Quentin Tarantino who thinks the 80s was the worst era for film in Hollywood. The major difference that can be seen between films and TV shows though is that TV can be expanded to a much greater deal than films can be.
Take the recent YouTube Red series, Cobra Kai, for example. The show is set in the modern time but has a lot of 80s references from the font to the music. This is because the 10-episode series serves as a continuation to the cult classic films in The Karate Kid franchise. The series has William Zabka and Ralph Macchio reprising their roles as Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso.
The entire appeal of setting a film in the 80s, at least to this lowly reporter, seems to be the fact that the Internet was not used by common folk. Kids were not sitting on their phones or laptops all day long and people had actual relationships with each other and not with their technology. There was also the appeal of problem-solving with the help of brainstorming instead of just "Googling" the answers. Any character that is set to live in this time in television or in film has to come up with creative solutions to sometimes challenging problems.
Will the 80s train continue for some time in the near future or will people switch over to another era to take inspiration? At the rate humanity has created audio/visual media, we have collectively used up practically every noteworthy era and have even used alternate dimensions to tell our stories.
Only time will tell if this brilliant decade will continue to fuel the flames of creativity and bring great content to the future generations.
It's nostalgic for some of us, yes, but for the ones that came after the bell rang for the new millennium, the 80s is just a time where children were eaten by killer clowns and wars were being fought in space. Star Wars is still going strong as a franchise and Stephen King's IT will always give everyone who watches it the creeps, whether they are young or old.
Here's hoping that the 80s continue to inspire more filmmakers to make great TV shows/films.