Getting Trapped in Nostalgia in ‘That 80s Show’

As the spiritual spin-off of That 70s Show, Mark Brazil, Terry Turner, and Linda Wallem’s nostalgia goldmine, That 80s Show wants nothing more than to recreate the success of its predecessor. Set in a new decade with a fresh batch of cultural stereotypes, 80s Show finds Brazil, Turner, and Wallem once again digging up overt and digestible references that can ring with older and younger audiences. And at a cursory glance, it’s hard to see their failings. Like, say, if you watch the show without dialogue and simply listen to the pretty excellent soundtrack, you’d probably be inclined to agree and say, “Yeah, that looks enough like That 70s Show to warrant 22 of the precious minutes I have on this planet.”

But you’d be wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

The creators of That 80s Show attempt to recycle their winning formula, making Corey, Kristin, and their curmugenly father look as much like the Formans as possible, both in tone and character. However, instead of letting those cumbersome things called stories get in the way, the creators simply let pop-culture references hang in the abyss. For example, here’s an actual joke from the pilot:

You can stop it at 16 seconds. I think you’ve seen enough.

This happens time after time. Hungry like a wolf to throw as many references as possible, the writers strike back against the idea letting the jokes grow from the characters. After all, who wouldn’t want to watch a show where the characters sit back and sing along to Pat Benatar music videos?

Characters in That 80s Show are obsessed with living in the 80s, making sure that every ounce of their being is immersed in Reaganomics, material girls, and Teddy Ruxpins, constantly reminding each other and, by proxy, the audience, that they are up-to-date with all the latest trends. Gags like the hilarious “I’m on a cellphone” bit send the viewer back in time to an age when that’s how people talked. This makes each line sound like punch up, and the impossibly thin plot doesn’t help.

The pilot pits struggling musician and record store clerk Corey (played by a young Glenn Howerton) against the excesses of 80s corporate culture. He stands against his father and best friend, who want Corey to join them in the member’s only club of Regan’s America. Corey’s reluctance gives him the chance to comment on every cultural trend Brazil, Turner, and Wallem can stuff into their script. But since the plot doesn’t really go anywhere, it gives Howerton the chance to deliver lines like this:

Now, no pilot is ever perfect, because a show needs time to grow. Actors must become acquainted with their characters and their co-stars, and the writers must do the same. So as a little experiment, I watched the pilot episode of That 70s Show to see if it had the same kind of problems. How did it hold up? Pretty remarkably. The show is quick-witted, finely acted, and its its mark as a parody and homage to 70s life and TV. The plot is formulaic, Eric gets his first car and takes it out of town against his father’s wishes, but instantly recognizable and relatable. Compared to the plot of That 80s Show, which focuses on one man’s alienation from everything, it’s a welcome return to normalcy. That 70 Show doesn’t break new ground, but it does give them the chance to parody 70s sitcoms and, yes, the culture at large. Instead of screaming, “I’m in the 70s” from the rooftops, the characters live comfortably in their time. More importantly, the cast has amazing chemistry and energy, bouncing jokes off each other and even laughing at them.

And there’s the rub. The cast and characters on That 70s Show like each other, acting as friends that feel comfortable hanging out. Conversely, everyone on That 80s Show exists in a constant state of confrontation, so much so that it’s hard to tell what defines any one relationship. Corey all but despises his father, is embarrassed by his best friend, passively bosses his younger sister around, mocks his co-workers, and, for some reason, must continue to hang around his ex-girlfriend. It’s exhausting how little enjoyment these characters derive from each other and it hurts the experience we have with them.

As the show pushed through the first season, it seemed to gain a little ground. Yet, the overall arcs seemed rushed. Corey and his punk co-worker, Tuesday, jump right into their own love affair, which only seems rushed because these characters show no connection to each other and spend most of their time attempting to publicly belittle each other. There’s no will they won’t they and, hence, no drama. This should be the pull of the show or, at least, one of them. But that’s the problem with That 80s Show: instead of giving these characters arcs, it just has them shout insults at each other.

It all adds up to one annoying season of brilliantly canceled television. Ill-conceived from the start, Brazil, Turner, and Wallem get lost in the 80s. Their own murky connection to the decade mires the show in forced references that just don’t work, but are simply there. That 70s Show puts a great understanding both of 70s TV and culture on display. That 80s Show, on the other hand, is the result of getting sucked into an I Love the 80s marathon on a boring Saturday afternoon.

Getting Trapped in Nostalgia in ‘That 80s Show’