The eighties and nostalgia on TV

TV editor Amy Brown writes about why we love nostalgia, and how TV caters to this passion

Amy K Brown
1st March 2020
Credit: IMDb
Our generation has a strange relationship with nostalgia. We’re living in a fast paced, ever growing society here in 2020. Things are changing every day. We’re always moving on to the next thing. So why, collectively, do we always look to the past for our entertainment?
Cody Fern and Billie Lourd in American Horror Story: 1984. Credit: IMDb

In terms of culture, our world works in cycles, as explored in the social cycle theory. It links to the phenomenon called the ‘thirty year cycle’, in which trends of pop culture circle round and we see a resurgence of things from thirty or more years ago. These cycles become prominent when those who were consumers of such culture are then old enough to become creators of the culture. So basically, our parent’s generations consumed TV in the 70s/80s and went on to create now, using nostalgia as a way of connecting with their past. According to the thirty year cycle, the popularity of shows and films set in the 80s/into the 90s is more or less right on time. We have shows like Stranger Things (more on this later), Pose, Glow and even the most recent season of American Horror Story paying homage to the 80s in all of its garish glory. Then of course we have a bout of the 90s too, with shows such as Derry Girls, along with an ever present love for shows like Friends, Freaks and Geeks and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 

Psychologically, it is claimed that the feeling of nostalgia even helps with anxiety, particularly with watching shows you enjoyed as a child.

So we have these shows, and hey, they’re all mostly brilliant to watch. The feeling of nostalgia is a calming one, whether we experienced the time or not. Psychologically, it is claimed that the feeling of nostalgia even helps with anxiety, particularly with watching shows you enjoyed as a child. If you revisit something, it can show you how you’ve evolved as a person since last watching it. For anyone who has experienced trauma to any degree, this check on identity can be very helpful. 

So we can say that there is a safety in looking back at a time that has passed. It is escapism from the chaos we’re faced with everyday. That being said, the representation of the 80s (in shows produced now) is often a little skewed. It can capture the essence of nostalgia, but glaze over the bad parts. Casual racism, sexism and homophobia was much more prominent, compared to some of the progress we’ve made since then in Western society. These shows aren’t deconstructing and criticising the 80s. 

The show pays homage to classic 80s movies such as Stand By Me, E.T and Poltergeist just to name a few.

This brings us onto Stranger Things. The ever popular sci-fi horror show idolises the decade, the episodes overflowing with iconography and classic eighties aesthetics. Even down to the posters and the soundtrack/score, Stranger Things is perfect 80s bait. There is something to be said of Netflix here, too. They saw the success of nostalgia and knew they had to get involved, and boy did they go for it. The show pays homage to classic 80s movies such as Stand By Me, E.T and Poltergeist just to name a few. It gives us the cool fashion and questionable hairstyles. However, it is an idealised view of the decade. It’s how we want the 80s to have been. It is, though, the perfect kind of nostalgia that distracts us from what we face in the modern day. Stranger Things is much less deconstructionist and more paying tribute to a time that still lingers today in 2020. 

Indya Moore as Angel in Pose. Credit: IMDb, FX Networks.

An example of a show that arguably does deconstruct is Pose. It thrives with the 80s aesthetics but still highlights the problems that faced LGBTQ+ people, specifically those of colour. It tackles familial rejection and the AIDs crisis, while also delving into the community’s culture post-Stonewall riots. This show holds the utmost importance when it comes to learning how society worked in the 80s. 

A weird example of a show that also plays on nostalgia is Sex Education, a show that isn’t really set in any particular decade. It has the weird and wonderful aesthetics of the 80s (and even 70s) but still employs the latest technologies and seemingly the social/political climate. Sex Education has the aspects of the 80s that we love, without the casual discrimination. It would lead us to believe that the aesthetic choices are the main reason for our love of nostalgia; but it goes further than this. Anything reminiscent of the past tends to appeal to viewers, whether they lived through it or not. Sex Education becomes a celebration of what came before, mashed up together with what is great about the modern day. 

Nostalgia is something that just works, and it will continue to work. One day, we’ll be remembering the new shows that we’re watching now as young adults and the cycle will start again. It’s hard to imagine how the 2020s will look on television 30 years from now, but I’m sure we’ll all be watching intently to recapture our youth, that’s if climate change hasn’t got us by then. Until then, let’s just continue to live in the past. That’s what I’m going to do.

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AUTHOR: Amy K Brown
Head of Culture. @akathrynbrwn on Twitter.

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