TV Preview: The 80s

By Nick Grant

Nick Grant steels himself to travel down memory lane

National Geographic's 'The 80s'. Photo / Supplied
National Geographic's 'The 80s'. Photo / Supplied

The 1980s were the decade in which I entered and (in a numerical sense at least) exited adolescence. I remember it as a time, to borrow a phrase from huge-in-the-80s comedian Rowan Atkinson, both "finger-lickin' good and arse-wiping bad" - and that was just the hormonal roller coaster, never mind the trends and events of the period.

As a result, it was with more than a little trepidation that I watched the first two episodes of The 80s, the National Geographic Channel "10-part global television event" that screens nightly from this evening in two-episode blocks. The mere prospect of taking this trip down memory lane had prompted ghastly visions of the grey plastic-soled shoes and the skinny, bright-blue, faux-leather tie I wore back then, so goodness knows what long-buried recollections of other sartorial atrocities and unfortunate incidents might resurface after watching the thing.

Episode one is called Lift Off and covers the 80s advent, outlines the decade's general shape and gives a sense of what the series' central thesis is.

The first thing that struck me was the terrible muddiness of the video footage from the time, particularly in contrast to the crystal clarity of recent interviews with such famous 80s figures as Jane Fonda, Steve Wozniak and Larry Hagman.

The second thing was that, despite it being touted in global terms and featuring narration by a Brit, the series is extremely US-centric. Everything is filtered through the American experience. For example, the event that kicked off the 80s was apparently the victory of the US Olympic ice hockey team against the Soviet Union on February 22, 1980. Yeah, I know, news to me, too. Swiftly followed by the election of feel-good president Ronald Reagan, it seems this is what made it okay to feel good about being American.

The wedding between Charles and Diana is also credited with contributing to a sense of optimism, as is the rise of personal technology (computers, video games, VCRs, Walkmans) which ultimately gave rise to the 80s there's-no-success-like-excess ethos that, okay, fair enough, was no better exemplified than in America.

Episode two, Visionaries takes a look at individuals symbolic of 80s innovations, good and bad. Among them: Reagan and his right-wing economic revolution; Ted Turner and the rise of the 24-hour news cycle; Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the PC; and Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream as an example of hippie capitalism and how "the counter-culture was now over-the-counter culture".

The topics covered by other episodes are pretty self-evident from their titles: Shop 'Til You Drop, Gadgets, Sporting Icons, Tragedies, and so on. Soccer has been judged the sport of the decade, getting its own hour, and so of course does America's ascendance to sole superpower status following the collapse of the USSR.

Based on the two eps I've seen, some of the series' claims are a bit of a stretch - did Dallas really cause the overthrow of Nicolae Ceaucescu's Romanian regime? - but The 80s is excellent at picking events and individuals emblematic of the epoch's eventual accent on self-fulfillment and greed.

It's already clear where all this is leading: to our current sorry state. But even though that final destination is depressing, I am going to enjoy watching the journey there.


The 80s, begins tonight, National Geographic, 7.30pm.

- Herald on Sunday

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