Walkmans, rotary phones and jelly bracelets are the hottest accessories of summer – well, at least on TV.
Nostalgia for the 1980s has reached gnarly new heights since May, with “Top Gun: Maverick” (a sequel to Tom Cruise’s 1986 action drama) clobbering box-office records and Marvel’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” leaning into an ’80s aesthetic with its Metallica-inspired logo and Guns N’ Roses-heavy soundtrack.
Season 4 of Netflix megahit “Stranger Things” has sent Kate Bush’s 1985 song “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” back up the music charts, while three newer shows – HBO Max’s “Gordita Chronicles,” Amazon Prime Video’s “Paper Girls” and Epix’s “Bridge and Tunnel” – offer unique spins on the time through young people’s eyes.
Of course, 1980s-set TV is nothing new: Recent Emmy-winning FX dramas “Pose” and “The Americans” were set in that period, while networks and streamers have revived classic ’80s sitcoms such as “Full House” and “Saved by the Bell,” and dramas “Magnum, P.I.” and “MacGyver.” But given the endless onslaught of bad news, viewers may be hungrier than ever for the simple, innocent pleasures of that bygone era.
“It’s one part escapism, one part nostalgia,” says actor/writer Ed Burns, who created “Bridge and Tunnel.” “Every generation looks back at a previous time and finds what they think is cool. I’m a kid of the ’70s, and there was definitely big ’50s nostalgia back then with ‘Happy Days,’ ‘Laverne & Shirley’ and ‘Grease.’ And in the ’80s, you had a lot of ’60s nostalgia with shows like ‘The Wonder Years,'” revived last season by ABC.
“But we’re also coming out of a tough couple years,” Burns says. “Especially young people, their lives are so much bigger and more complicated now than our teen years. They’re being bombarded with information 24/7 in a way that we weren’t.”
Here’s how three shows are bringing authentic and resonant new perspectives to the ’80s:
Amazon’s “Paper Girls” (premiering July 29) takes a grounded approach to the 1980s, despite its high-concept premise. The time-travel drama follows four newspaper delivery girls trying to find a way home after being transported from 1988 to 2019. Adapted from Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s comic-book series, the show critiques the rose-colored ’80s nostalgia that’s saturated pop culture, giving tough looks at racism, homophobia and the looming threat of nuclear holocaust.
“As kids, you don’t think about a lot of the politics and grimmer things that are happening,” Vaughn says. “But as you get older, there’s a desire to dig back into your past and explore what might have been going over your head.”
Although the first “Paper Girls” comics were released nearly a year before Season 1 of “Stranger Things,” the two share DNA, including young protagonists and sci-fi adventure stories. But this new show is inspired by the likes of “Stand By Me” rather than “The Goonies,” and delves into “more adult subject matter,” says co-executive producer Christopher C. Rogers, who also produced AMC’s ’80s drama “Halt and Catch Fire.”
“The ’80s is often played as a punchline and you can choose to lean into the nostalgia of it, and ‘Stranger Things’ does that very well,” Rogers says. “But knowing that we’ll be compared to that show in the first paragraph of every review, I think we wanted to lean a little more into the realism and grit.”
“Gordita” (now streaming on HBO Max) has an aesthetic that creator Claudia Forestieri describes as John Hughes with a Latin twist. Based in part on her own childhood, the show follows a middle-school girl named Cucu (Olivia Goncalves) and her immigrant Dominican family as they move to Miami in the 1980s.
Forestieri looked to her school yearbooks for the series’ eye-popping fashion. Episodes are loosely inspired by her experiences learning about American traditions such as Halloween trick-or-treating, and are rife with ’80s pop-culture references. (“Everybody here looks like Madonna,” Cucu says, arriving at her new school.)
“I grew up on MTV,” Forestieri says. “My first concert ever was Madonna. When Michael Jackson got injured filming that Pepsi commercial, I remember my friend and I literally crying, we were so worried about him.”
After years of trying to break into TV writing while working as a news producer at Telemundo, Forestieri decided to tell her own story.
“I wrote about how traumatic it was coming to a new country, learning a new language and customs, and the beginnings of this seismic shift to Miami’s demographics,” she says. “Now everybody knows Miami as this cosmopolitan, sexy city with this Latino vibe. But in the ’80s, it wasn’t quite like that, so I thought it would be fun to look back on. It was important for me to capture the realness of that era.”
‘Bridge and Tunnel’
Set in 1981, the second season of “Bridge” (Sundays, 10 EDT/PDT) follows a group of 20-somethings on Long Island, New York, as they weather relationships and pursue their respective passions in the arts. Nick “Pags” Pagnetti (Brian Muller), for instance, has an encyclopedic knowledge of ’70s and ’80s rock, which he puts to good use as an aspiring manager for his older sister’s punk band.
The series is soundtracked by period-popular artists such as Toto, Kansas and Soft Cell. But unlike many new ’80s shows – which play up the big hair and bright neon of the decade’s latter half – “Bridge” offers a more authentic version of early ’80s suburban life, with characters sporting earthy colors and bell-bottom jeans carried over from the late ’70s.
“The show is less genre or heightened than something like ‘Stranger Things,’ which is almost this technicolor version of the ’80s,” Muller says. “This is a bit more subtle and slice of life. It reminds me of something like ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’ ” Cameron Crowe’s 1982 comedy.
Despite its hangout feel, the show taps into the angst of young people in the Reagan era, with similar anxieties about economic and social upheaval as today.
“The ’80s were a little more in your face and punk rock, like ‘Screw your peace and love and deal with my pain,'” Muller says. “I think that’s how people are feeling right now.”