Behind the ’80s TV Comeback: From ‘Stranger Things’ to ‘GLOW’

September 11, 2019, 6:00 PM UTC

From REO Speedwagon, Bryan Adams, and Corey Hart tunes to acid washed jeans, big permed hair, and parachute pants, the ‘80s are back big time. And the retro trend shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon… on TV at least.

Over the summer, viewers time-traveled back to the Reagan era with new seasons of Netflix series Stranger Things and GLOW, the debut of HBO’s historical series Chernobyl, the third season of Snowfall, FX’s crime drama set during the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the second season of Pose, which depicts New York City’s underground ball culture in the late ‘80s.

“There has been a peak in ‘80s nostalgia, says Emmy-nominated GLOW costume designer Beth Morgan. “We can always tell what time periods are in style because when we go to the costume houses and vintage stores, you can see what sections are more picked over than others.”

This fall, a number of new and returning TV shows are also set during the time period, including American Horror Story: 1984 and Black-ish spinoff Mixed-ish.

Why does ‘80s nostalgia on TV stand out?

“It’s past the usual formula for nostalgia,” says Robert Thompson, trustee professor of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School.

“The general rule of thumb was that nostalgia tended to go in 20-year cycles. In the 1970s, three of our biggest hits were set in the 1950s, M*A*S*H, Happy Days, and Laverne & Shirley. As we got into the 1980s we saw ‘60s nostalgia with The Wonder Years and then in the 1990s, That ‘70s Show came out. Generally, we expect that 20-year cycle…When we reach 2020, the last year of the 1980s will be 30 years old, so the ‘80s trend has held.”

Of course, there’s no exact science to nostalgia, and other pop culture observers have posited that nostalgia cycles can last anywhere from 12 to 15 years to 40 to 50 years. 

But TV’s fascination with the 1980s has outlived most nostalgia trends. You could say it kicked off a little too soon in 1999 with the beloved one-season wonder Freaks and Geeks, which critics loved, but viewers largely ignored. Launched in 2002, That ‘80s Show also failed to take off. Everybody Hates Chris, inspired by Chris Rock’s experience growing up in Brooklyn in the ‘80s, ran for four seasons on what’s now the CW from 2005 to 2009.

It wasn’t until the 2010s that the 1980s came into focus in all its complexity with original series such as FX’s Emmy-winning Cold War spy drama The Americans, AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, which chronicled the early days of the PC, and Amazon Prime Video’s Red Oaks, a coming-of-age comedy set at an ‘80s suburban country club. Those three series have wrapped their runs, passing the baton to a new crop of ‘80s-set shows.

Fall TV set in the 1980s

The new Black-ish spinoff Mixed-ish is a prequel, set during the 1980s childhood of Black-ish mom Dr. Rainbow “Bow” Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) growing up in a mixed race family in the suburbs. Created by Kenya Barris and Peter Saji, the show is set to debut on ABC on Sept. 24.

Ellis Ross will narrate as the adult Bow and Mark-Paul Gosselaar will play Bow’s father. Seems like perfect casting—especially given Gosselaar launched his career as in the late ‘80s as Zack Morris on Saved by the Bell (which started off as Good Morning, Miss Bliss).

American Horror Story: 1984, the ninth season of the hit anthology series from creator Ryan Murphy, takes inspiration from classic 1980s slasher films like Friday the 13th. It will premiere on FX on Sept. 18.

The Goldbergs, based on the real suburban ‘80s childhood of creator Adam Goldberg, will soon return for its seventh season on Sept. 25 on ABC.

And though they’re not set in the ‘80s, some of the most popular shows of that era have been rebooted for a new generation, although not all of the reboots have survived (The Murphy Brown revival was canceled after one disappointing season on CBS).

Dynasty, a reboot of the quintessential ‘80s series, will return for its third season on the CW on Oct. 11. Meanwhile, the fifth and final season of Fuller House—the reboot of family sitcom Full House, sitcom which premiered in 1987, is coming fall 2019, but Netflix hasn’t released the specific date yet.

So why do we love the ‘80s? 

The go-go ‘80s seems to be the decade that never goes out of style. What’s behind the everlasting appeal? 

Perhaps we recognize something of our current times in the ‘80s. As GLOW star Betty Gilpin (who plays Debbie), told Refinery29 when the series debuted: “Well, sexism is back in a great way. America versus Russia is back.”

Of course, there’s also a practical reason that ‘80s content is popular.

“A lot of the decision makers in Hollywood now grew up in the ‘80s so for the showrunners, writers, executives, and especially the Gen X folks who are in charge of programming at a lot of networks, it’s about nostalgia,” says Michael Schneider, Variety senior editor. 

Thompson has another theory. “The biggest reason the ‘80s continues to be interesting is because it was one of the final cries of the old-fashioned mass media, the last breadth of a popular culture, singular. Now we’ve got many popular cultures, plural.”

Recreating that 1980s look

When you think 1980s fashion, mom jeans, neon, and shoulder pads come to mind, but there’s a lot more nuance to it, especially when you’re trying to capture the specific details of the decade.

For her work on GLOW, Morgan relies on a mix of custom-made and carefully curated vintage pieces to create the right look for each character. Turning to old family photos, JCPenney catalogs and ‘80s movies such as Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (now streaming on Hulu) for inspiration, Morgan and her team hunted down original ‘80s fashion at Los Angeles vintage stores, eBay, and Etsy.

For season one, “we were all about the mainstream ‘80s look,” says Morgan. But for season three, which shifted the action to Las Vegas, Morgan says, “I watched a lot of Dynasty and anything that had a lot of glitz and glamour.”

Glow Season 1 and 3
Alison Brie in seasons one and three of “GLOW.”
Courtesy of Netflix (2)

Morgan strives for authenticity on GLOW, rather than relying on gimmicky styles or sight gags. “What I’m really proud of about my work on GLOW is that I made it the real ‘80s, not the memory ‘80s,” she says. She also thinks “shoulder pads get a bad rap. They’re so beautiful for the silhouette of a woman.”

One element of ‘80s fashion that Morgan hopes will return? Belts as accessories. “They added an element to the look that was elevated and helped with the individual style. Belts are the lost art of the ‘80s. I can’t wait for them to make a comeback.”

With a remake of the 1985 Brat Pack film St. Elmo’s Fire in the works as a TV series at NBC, it’s likely we’ll see more ‘80s nostalgia—and creative uses of belts—for some time to come.

Bring on the ‘90s

But at least one other decade is also making a comeback on TV. In August, Fox rebooted ‘90s favorite Beverly Hills 90210 as the post-modern BH90210. The decade will be well-represented in primetime this fall:

Schooled, The Goldbergs spinoff set in the ‘90s, returns for a second season on ABC on Sept. 25.

Fresh Off the Boat, a sitcom based on the real-life Eddie Huang’s experiences growing up as part of a Taiwanese-American family in ‘90s Orlando, returns to ABC for its sixth season on Sept. 27.

Mad About You, the popular ‘90s sitcom featuring Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser as a married couple in Manhattan, is being revived as a limited series on Charter Spectrum’s Originals on Nov. 20.

“We’ve been seeing some ‘90s nostalgia, but I think we’re going to see more of that,” says Thompson. “If Stranger Things continue to do as well as it’s been doing, they could get to the ‘90s.”

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