Television: From Sweet Memories To A Bonfire Of Inanities

Fox tries to cash in on an '80s update of That '70s Show's nostalgia. But sometimes greed isn't good

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Once upon a time, nostalgia was for people who had whole lives to look back on. Today, young Americans do so much reminiscing, they will have little left to pine for once they're actually old. The 1994 movie Reality Bites noted Gen X's penchant for instant nostalgia with its recent college grads singing Schoolhouse Rock ditties. This premature sentimentality might explain why That '70s Show, Fox's sweetly frothy sitcom about small-town teens, is a hit among viewers who, in the Carter era, were wearing pj's with footies. (Its median audience age is 31; its characters would be in their early 40s now.) That in turn explains why, last summer, Fox asked the '70s creative team to do the same for the greed decade.

That '80s Show (Wednesdays, 8 p.m. E.T.) is less a spin-off than a brand extension. Its characters never appeared on '70s, but it promises the same kind of pop-reference-intensive humor, this time with Miami Vice jackets, wine coolers and Rubik's Cubes. "The timing just fell together," says co-creator Linda Wallem. "All the radio stations were doing '80s at Noon. MTV had just celebrated its big [20th] anniversary." She and her '70s colleagues Mark Brazill and Terry Turner decided to build '80s around struggling musician and record-store clerk Corey (Glenn Howerton), just out of college and out of place in the success-oriented America of 1984.

Like '70s, '80s' pilot is heavy on the kind of cringe-worthy details (two words: animal prints) that characterize Gen X and Y nostalgia in general. Whereas baby-boomer touchstones like Brooklyn Bridge and The Big Chill recalled the '50s as more innocent and the '60s as more meaningful than the present, their successors tend to subscribe to the bad-yearbook-photo school of history. Instead of seeing the past as a lost Eden, they see history as an eternal march upward from dorkiness. The more memorable moments in the '80s pilot--already beaten to death in Fox's ads--include characters dancing to Pat Benatar's Love Is a Battlefield video and talking into cell phones the size of cinder blocks.

But you can't build a comedy out of shoulder pads alone. '70s also began life as a gimmick looking for a sitcom; what kept it fresh were its characters, especially Topher Grace's naive, deadpan Eric Forman and his tough love, frequently laid-off dad Red (Kurtwood Smith). '80s is full of unlikable stereotypes who were already well-parodied cliches two decades ago. There's Roger, the materialistic go-getter (Eddie Shin); there's Tuesday, a snarly punk with a spiked hairdo (Chyler Leigh) who delivers lines--"So I'm punk. Deal with it"--that an actual punk would sooner safety pin her brain than utter. Occasionally, '80s hints that it wants to be subtler and smarter than it is; it acknowledges, for instance, that by 1984 Tuesday's look is years out of date, as if the writers couldn't resist the predictable hair joke but felt a little embarrassed about it.

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