All week on Vulture, we’re examining ‘80s pop culture, and how it lives on today.
From Stranger Things to Carly Rae Jepsen, it’s not hard to find a piece of current pop culture influenced by the Reagan era. But when it comes to stuff that was actually made in the ‘80s, there’s a whole decade out there waiting to be explored — the only question is where to begin.
Why not start by viewing the entertainment of yesterdecade through a modern lens? We assembled a list of modern shows, movies, and video games that share DNA with classic hits and underappreciated gems from the ‘80s. If you like the newer fare, there’s a good chance you’ll like its predecessors, too.
If you like: 30 Rock
You should try: Murphy Brown
The bulk of Murphy Brown was a ‘90s phenomenon, but it began and was heavily influenced by the burgeoning working-woman political wave of the ‘80s. It’s a sitcom, it’s got a heavy dose of that show-within-a-show metafictional flair, and most importantly, it’s about a woman balancing zany co-workers and her own ambition with competence and wry humor.
If you like: Police procedurals like Law & Order
You should try: Hill Street Blues
This is a bit of an under-credit to Hill Street Blues, which is often considered the forerunner to more highfalutin shows like The Wire and The Shield. It’s true — Hill Street Blues was revolutionary in its use of more serialized storytelling and in telling broader stories about police officers’ lives. But its preoccupations and rhythms (and politics) will be most recognizable to today’s viewers as part of the long line of police procedurals that came after, especially a show like TNT’s underrated Southland.
If you like: Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries
You should try: Murder, She Wrote
Single woman takes on unlikely feats of detectively derring-do, aided by the fact that everyone around her takes her powerful intellect and perspicacity for granted. It’s a different era of costuming, of course, but no less inspirational in its own way.
If you like: Twin Peaks
You should try: The Singing Detective
It’s hard to find a good modern analogue for The Singing Detective, a BBC mini-series that’s part noir detective drama, part metafictional fever dream, part musical. But the closest you may be able to find is something like the surreality and genre-warping freedom of Twin Peaks, except instead of Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper, you get Michael Gambon’s Philip Marlow.
If you like: Parenthood
You should try: thirtysomething
The current recommendation for Parenthood fans is to move on to the similarly tear-inducing This Is Us, but you could also take a step backward. In the late ‘80s, turning 30 had all the “wait, who am I?” implications it does today, but thirtysomething is set inside a cultural paradigm where that ennui was not yet seen as universal. Thirtysomething explores all the issues of early adulthood, of marriage, parenthood, shifting friendships, and career uncertainty you miss from Parenthood, and the sweaters are guaranteed to be 60 percent larger.
If you like: Black Mirror
You should try: Amazing Stories
The anthology series dates back to TV’s earliest days, but the genre had a bit of a comeback during the Reagan years. There were reboots of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but the Steven Spielberg–produced Stories holds up best. While not nearly as dark and nuanced as Mirror, the series (particularly in season two) often managed to be provocative even as it tried to deliver small-screen-size doses of Spielberg’s ‘80s-era trademark chills and thrills.
If you like: Empire
You should try: Dynasty
Empire has not discouraged comparisons between the Fox hit and Aaron Spelling’s spectacularly over-the-top soap opera about the Carrington family of Denver, and their many adversaries. The key to enjoying the show is to skip the relatively bland first 13 episodes and hop onboard with season two, which saw the arrival of Joan Collins as Alexis.
If you like: Timeless
You should try: Voyagers!
So Quantum Leap is the bigger hit, and the most obvious (and well-known) ancestor of NBC’s new Monday-night time-travel adventure. But if you like your time-jumping served up with a heavy dose of cheesy comedy and ham-fisted attempts at imparting moral lessons, try the short-lived Voyagers!, in which a grizzled Jon-Erik Hexum barrels across the ages accompanied by pesky pip-squeak Meeno Peluce. Only 20 episodes were produced, so it’s an easy binge.
If you like: Mr. Robot
You should try: Max Headroom
That weird stuttering talking head wasn’t just the star of a Coke commercial or a voice in an Art of Noise song, he also had his own TV show. This semi-dystopian series set “20 minutes into the future” imagined a world controlled by TV networks (read: corporations) and where an investigative journalist main character named Edison Carter (Max Frewer), has an electronically generated pseudo alter ego called … Max Headroom. Yes, this show is more dated than that fake sitcom from Mr. Robot’s second season, but thematically, these two fit like a thumb drive into a USB port. (Added bonus: Jeffrey Tambor is in it!)
If you like: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
You should try: Moonlighting
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is an hour-long comedy with romance, plenty of shenanigans, rapid-fire dialogue, and a brazen interest in blowing up traditional TV forms. Moonlighting, starring Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, is the more sophisticated, hour-long mystery rom-com that has all of that and more, and therefore made shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend possible.
If you like: The Americans
You should try: Miami Vice
This is not exactly an apples and oranges comparison, but these two have more in common than you might think, including kick-ass ‘80s soundtracks, intense and brilliantly directed action sequences, and a focus on the two key wars America was fighting during the skinny-tie decade: the Cold War and the war on drugs. Plus, the clothes and hair in Miami Vice often look almost as ridiculous as Philip and Elizabeth’s many spy disguises.
If you like: Stranger Things
You should try: E.T., The Goonies, Poltergeist, Stand by Me, John Carpenter movies, Stephen King novels, and a whole bunch of other ‘80s stuff that you can stream or read right now
But you knew this.
If you like: La La Land
You should try: Earth Girls Are Easy
One’s a likely Best Picture winner and the other is a 1980s space-alien satire, but both La La Land and Earth Girls Are Easy offer modern musicals set in Los Angeles that are replete with original songs. Consider Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum your OG version of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, though La La Land will have a tough time mustering up a song half as good as Julie Brown’s infectious beachside number, “Cause I’m a Blonde.”
If you like: Guardians of the Galaxy
You should try: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
Since Star-Lord was taken from Earth as a grade-schooler in 1988, is it fair to say his favorite movie might have been 1984’s Buckaroo Banzai? Certainly, it presages Guardians in that it mixes aliens, sci-fi, an eclectic ensemble cast, and a dollop of hipness into one wild stew, though Guardians was the megahit that Buckaroo Banzai never got to be. But put the cult hit on your radar and give it a spin before Kevin Smith revamps it for a series sometime next year.
If you like: The Lord of the Rings
You should try: Krull
Look at this battle! Not everything is better with CGI.
If you like: The Heat
You should try: Feds
Decades before Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, moviegoers in need of a female-buddy-cop comedy had to console themselves with Feds, a 1988 caper starring Rebecca De Mornay and Mary Gross as two FBI trainees contending with institutional sexism. Thirty years later, it’s a fascinating time capsule for female representation: The film, which was written by two men, was originally conceived with male characters. As the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley put it at the time, Feds’ animating struggle is “penis envy masquerading as feminism.”
If you like: Into the Woods
You should try: In the Company of Wolves
Any movie worth recommending once is worth recommending again. Like Rob Marshall’s film and the Sondheim musical it’s adapted from, this Neil Jordan film is a revisionist fairy tale — in this case, a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood myth, told in a series of short sketches shot through with sexual menace. Unlike Sondheim, Jordan isn’t out to undercut the power of fairy tales. He’s trying to reinvigorate them, adding a dose of strange erotic subtext to dig up what makes these stories so attractive in the first place.
If you like: Birdman
You should try: Clean and Sober
While we celebrate the Keaton comeback, let us also remember the original Keatonaissance. Twenty-five years before Birdman, Michael Keaton gave another live-wire performance as an addict trying to turn his life around. This time, he’s a a glitzy real-estate agent addicted to (what else) cocaine. After embezzling money from his employer and waking up next to a dead woman, he hides out at a tough-love treatment center run by Morgan Freeman. In his first big dramatic role, Keaton shows off the talent that got overlooked once he stepped into that Batsuit.
If you like: In Bruges
You should try: The Hit
Two hit men — one old, one young — soak up the scenery in a European country, killing time with philosophical banter about life and death and maybe falling in love with one of the locals. That’s Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, but it’s also Stephen Frears’s The Hit, in which John Hurt and a young Tim Roth escort their laconic target (Terence Stamp) through the picturesque Spanish countryside. Both films are hyperstylized in their own ways: Where McDonagh prefers dark comedy, Frears employs a sun-drenched moodiness — a holiday where excitement has long given way to irritability.
All of the games below can be played on MAME (the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) if you’re willing to download the completely free game ROMs from one of the many sources that make them easily available online. But most can also be accessed in more legit ways, and we’ll point those out below.
If you like: Gears of War 4
You should try: Contra
The original dude-bro shooter is still the best, even if its giant alien foes don’t explode into clouds of anatomically accurate gore when you kill them. Konami’s 1987 arcade game is like a two-dimensional version of James Cameron’s Aliens, with a dash of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Predator thrown in for good measure. The plot is some nonsense about taking out an army of bad guys in order to foil a plot by aliens to conquer the planet. All that matters is blasting foes, dodging their return salvos, and deciding which ridiculously powerful weapon to use. (And always remember: up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-start.)
Available on MAME, and for downloadable purchase on the Xbox 360.
If you like: Fallout 4
You should try: Wasteland
This 1988 Electronic Arts title created the template for all future games that let players roam freely across a postapocalyptic hellscape. You guide a group of soldiers through a treacherous radioactive world overrun with mutants, gradually leveling up the team’s skills and helping them figure out how to conquer an evil artificial intelligence and its robot army. Wasteland was one of the first games to feature a persistent world, in which you could see the results of your previous actions when you returned to an area. It’s a model of open-world RPG design.
It can be purchased for PCs on Steam or GOG, or you can play it free via MAME or in browser at the Internet Archive. A sequel that hews closely to the spirit of the original was released a couple of years ago for PCs, PS4, and Xbox One.
If you like: Forza Horizon 3
You should try: Out Run
Every year, racing games get more photorealistic, their physics systems get more accurate, and their game worlds become more vast and detailed. But these are all just curlicues and decoration, because the perfect driving experience was released to arcades by Sega, in 1986. Who needs realistic weather systems and day/night cycles when you can climb into a Ferrari Testarossa Spider, toggle between radio stations to hear different tunes from the timeless soundtrack by Hiroshi Kawaguchi, and whiz through the streets of a vaguely European city? Out Run was an instant sensation, partly because it adopted a camera angle that was lower to the ground, which increased immersion as well as tension — you had less time to see turns and obstacles coming.
Available for downloadable purchase on the Nintendo 3DS. You can also find it at arcades that you encounter inside of other Sega games, like Shenmue II and Yakuza 0.
If you like: Minecraft
You should try: Lode Runner
Sandbox-style games that let players create their own environments and adventures are not new. This 1983 title proves it. The core game is an enjoyable platformer that places an emphasis on strategy and puzzle-solving rather than the quick reflexes that a Super Mario game demands. But the killer feature is a level editor that allows players to create their own challenges. You could position walls and floors and ladders and foes to create a treacherous obstacle course, and then share it with friends on a floppy disk. Granted, kids often used Lode Runner’s creation tools the way kids today often use Minecraft now — to pile up mountains of bricks so that they spell out the word “FART” in giant letters. But it still feels empowering to experiment and test the limits of this game world.
Available on MAME, or play it free in browser at the Internet Archive. Available for downloadable purchase on iPhones, Android, and the WiiU. A revamped and updated version is available on the Xbox One.
If you like: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
You should try: The Legend of Zelda
It’s enjoyable enough to navigate this game’s two-dimensional open world, uncovering secrets and accessing new tools to aid you in your quest. But step back a bit, and you can also appreciate how many of its innovations that seemed so breathtaking in 1986 have since become common tropes. The Legend of Zelda’s mixture of action and adventure and role-playing in a fantasy setting didn’t simply lay the groundwork for games like Skyrim. It is an Ur-text for the entire industry.
Available on MAME, and for downloadable purchase on all of Nintendo’s consoles and handhelds. It will also be available on November 11 on the NES Classic Edition, a miniaturized version of Nintendo’s original console that has 30 classic games preinstalled on it.
If you like: Clash of Clans
You should try: Gauntlet
Many grumble that “free to play” mobile games should actually be called “pay to win.” If you want to make sure that your soldiers and wizards are constantly stocked with potions in Clash of Clans, you have to be willing to shell out real cash. It was the same way when this quarter-hungry game hit arcades in 1985. The four-player fantasy adventure allowed a team (wizard, warrior, elf, and valkyrie) to venture ever deeper into a dungeon, gradually depleting their health as they took out armies of sorcerers and ghosts and demons. It was such a compelling experience that it was impossible to resist the urge to shovel more money into the machine whenever you heard the words “Wizard is about to die!” It almost feels sinful to play the game on a modern console or PC, where you can save all of your laundry money and award yourself extra life with a simple button-press.
If you like: No Man’s Sky
You should try: Elite
Many had their minds blown by the vast, procedurally generated universe of the recent No Man’s Sky. But Elite pulled off a similar feat over three decades earlier. The game plops you down in a vast star system with hundreds of planets that are unique to every play session. You are free to trade and gain status and tangle with aliens in any way you see fit. The simple wire-frame 3-D graphics are dated, but they’re still charming and easy to parse.