Preview: National Geographic taps into '80s


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I cannot be the only one who gets a little jolt anytime he encounters someone waxing nostalgic over the 1980s or even the 1990s.

We just lived the '80s and '90s, like, a moment ago, didn't we? They seem so recent that many of us are working harder at forgetting things than remembering them.

I, for instance, will probably never live down, even in my own mind, that I used Summer Blonde one beach season, and my parents still hold a photograph of me in parachute pants -- paired with a sweater vest, if I recall -- poised to head into the city from my country-suburban hometown. Dude!

'The '80s: The Decade That Made Us'

When: airing throughout the day Saturday on National Geographic.

And yet people, in blogs, in books, in TV series and in conversations, are avidly digging this stuff up. Like board games or Facebook, gettin' nostalgic is turning into another way to pass the time and will probably soon enough become one more thing to pine for: "Remember when we used to get all wistful about the '70s? I miss that."

Too few, it seems, will take a cue from Theo Huxtable of the quintessential 1980s sitcom "The Cosby Show": "I don't necessarily think I miss anything from the '80s," Theo's portrayer, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, told me recently. "I had an awesome time in the '80s. But I don't really know that there's anything I miss."

Here's a quick demonstration that the longing for recent eras has become a little too prevalent:

NPR's "Morning Edition" news program recently ran a piece on a 1990s reenactment group called Hootie and the Time Travelers. All the cultural markers made sense: the Zima, the Bugles snack food, the bad group singalong to Semisonic's "Closing Time."

But I didn't catch the announcer's line coming out of the piece: "On this first day of April, it's NPR News."

I had been fooled by NPR's news division, which normally works very hard to eliminate any acknowledgment that life includes laughter and irony.

But it made perfect sense that folks would get together to say, like, "like" all the time and lionize the date that "Friends" first aired. I had already seen that the National Geographic Channel was running a big, three-day miniseries about the '80s -- "The '80s: The Decade That Made Us" (airing all day Saturday) and features, in the fifth of six hours, Warner talking about the import of "The Cosby Show."

Jane Root knew that nostalgia was an ever-present force when she took on the 1980s in her new six-hour television documentary for National Geographic Channel. But one of the charms of the series is that, instead of simply giving a laundry list of 1980s artifacts, it uses them as a kind of eye candy to entice you into finding the deeper meaning that executive producer Root argues -- persuasively -- the decade held.

"The '80s was the moment when the world began to change," she told me, "when it became 24 hours, when it became global, when it became the time that people traveled the world, when countries stopped having their own music and started having the world's music. The world's the same now. It didn't used to be. The '80s was the time when that happened."

"The '80s: The Decade that Made Us" gets this across with narration by Rob Lowe and a passel of experts, from Mr. Warner to author and editor Kurt Andersen to Larry King and Jane Fonda.

Its strategy, which gives the narrative punch, is to find defining moments. So the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's game-winning goal against the Soviet Union is the moment the country's malaise of the 1970s begins to lift. The recording session that brought Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. together to re-cut "Walk This Way" is the moment that took hip-hop music off the street corner and put it into the mainstream.

Root demonstrates that the antidote to nostalgia is fact. "You wouldn't have Beyonce or Lady Gaga if you hadn't have had Madonna in a wedding dress at the MTV Awards," she said. "It's hard to re-create the level of shock and astonishment that people had about that."

Or, more seriously, you can say you can remember the 1983 airing of the nuclear apocalypse film "The Day After," but the documentary uses it to try to convey how genuinely terrified people were of nuclear war.

"That's a different kind of nostalgia," Root said, "because it's not like nostalgia for shoulder pads. It's like, 'Wow, it really did feel like the world was about to end at any time.'"

One of the more entertaining things about making the show, she said, was when junior researchers would come scurrying up to her to announce their discovery that people didn't even have email in the 1980s or "that the news used to only be on at certain times of the day."

And this was where she came to realize that your feelings about the past have a lot to do with your place in the present.

"If you're in your 50s, the '80s is not that long ago," Root said. "If you're like some of my junior researchers and you're 23, it's a really long time ago."

This notion of relativity explains, perhaps, why some of us are stunned to hear nostalgia for recent eras and others revel in it. As a child of the '70s, for instance, I remember feeling how distant the 1950s were and how weird it seemed that the time was so present with my parents. The 1940s, meanwhile, might as well have been ancient Rome.

I pointed this out in my chat with Mr. Warner, that just in math terms the '80s and '90s are to the current decade what the '40s and '50s were to the '70s.

"Yeah, dig that," he said. And then he paused for a moment. "Wow. Oh, wow."

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