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Review: National Geographic's 'The '80s' gets the decade just right

The six-hour, three-part documentary 'The '80s: The Decade That Made Us' on National Geographic reveals just how significant those years turned out to be — leg warmers and all.

April 14, 2013|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • "The '80s" is narrated by Rob Lowe, former Brat Packer, videotape sex scandal survivor and something of an '80s poster boy.
"The '80s" is narrated by Rob Lowe, former Brat Packer,… (Amy Sussman / Associated…)

It's so easy to make fun of the 1980s.

Ray-Bans, glam-rock hair, acid-washed jeans, the yuppie and Reaganomics, and all those regrettable images of women in power suits and tennis shoes. It seemed even as it was occurring an age of Culture Lite, a consumer-driven wasteland after the socially and politically transformative '60s and '70s.

Even the title of National Geographic's new six-hour, three-part documentary "The '80s: The Decade That Made Us" seems, at first glance, a bit of a joke. Really? Made us what? Proud owners of multiple pairs of leg warmers? Permanently imprinted with the lyrics to "Goody Two Shoes?"

But I'm here to tell you, as one who came of age in the 1980s, the filmmakers have a very good point. And despite some mildly unfortunate transitional graphic choices, they absolutely make it stick.

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While everyone was wondering who shot J.R., the 1980s countered the counterculture with something just as significant — individualistic populism. The cellphone, the computer, the VCR and the cable news channel all came of age in the 1980s.

Not only did these new gadgets spawn all the marvels and meshugas we now lump under the term "digital technology," they ensured the mass production of American culture itself, creating an entirely new sort of entrepreneur — the zeitgeist wrangler. Jane Fonda discovered aerobics and soon the rest of us were crunching and shopping for ankle weights.

Tony Hawk re-imagined skateboarding and soon kids were slipping how-to tapes into their VCRs and irritating park officials across the country. Steve Jobs argued that computers were the future of communication and soon everybody had one. An assassination attempt not only cemented Ronald Reagan's reputation for wit and resilience — it also gave birth to CNN. The invention of the Walkman may have kick-started an ethos of individualism, but it only worked because everybody was doing it too.

Based in part on David Sirota's book "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now," "The '80s" is narrated by Rob Lowe, former Brat Packer, videotape sex scandal survivor and something of an '80s poster boy. It uses the U.S.A.'s surprising defeat of the U.S.S.R. in the men's hockey finals of the 1980 Olympics as a jumping-off point.

Mired in unemployment, inflation and unrelenting violence in the Mideast, the United States needed a shot in the arm and the defeat of a country still seen as our arch-nemesis in a sport it long-dominated provided just that. The election of Ronald Reagan, with his optimistic nationalism and belief in the restorative power of the free market, allowed some people to make a lot of money fast, which created a climate of swagger and possibility.

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"Greed is good," said "Wall Street's" Gordon Gekko, summing up for many the decade's inherent flaws, but that wasn't until 1987. The early years promised a more conjugal relationship between eras and ideologies — Ben & Jerry's mixed premium product with hippie idealism, "Family Ties" lovingly mocked both the activism of the parents and the conservatism of the son.

Michael J. Fox, who starred in "Family Ties," shows up a lot in the first two episodes of "The '80s" — his "Back to the Future" films are also icons of the time. He's also one of a panoply of "expert" interviews (and a welcome reminder that a sex/drugs/celebrity-fueled face-plant was not literally required for young performers of the time.) Other voices include David Brooks, Tom Brokaw, Barbara Ehrenreich and the late, great Larry Hagman (reason enough to watch) stitching us through time event by event.

Six hours is not enough to cover 10 years, especially if you're going to devote endless minutes to the creation of the first Calvin Klein male underwear ad (duly noted: it was hot), but "The '80s" manages to be great fun — forgive us, Lord, for wasting endless hours of human potential on the Rubik's Cube — and almost unbelievably thought-provoking.

So many hours of television have been devoted to deconstructing the significance of the '60s and '70s that at first it's just a relief to not have to relive Kent State. But as "The '80s" moves on, its premise becomes more convincing. A relief, too, for those of us who will still dance in public to A-Ha's "Take on Me" to finally put down our tools of cultural self-flagellation.

Flower power has come and gone, but the 24-hour news cycle, the workout ethic and the computer screen are here to stay. And heaven help us, leg warmers are back.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'The 80s: The Decade That Made Us'

Where: NGC

When: Premiered Sunday; 9 and 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday

Rating: TV-14-DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)

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