Strangest thing: Resurgence of TV programs set in '80s shows no sign of halting

Bill Keveney
Netflix viewers will be able to travel back to 1984 Indiana when Joyce (Winona Ryder) & Co. return for Season 2 of 'Stranger Things.'

Television is partying like it’s 1989. Or 1983. Or pretty much any time during the '80s.

More than a dozen current and upcoming series are set in the decade of Ronald Reagan and shoulder pads, a time when actual music videos played on MTV. 

There are plenty of reasons, with nostalgia topping the list. Many writers and producers came of age in that decade, as did many fortysomethings still in the prized young-adult demographic. 

"Every generation looks back at another era nostalgically," says Jason Mittell, a professor of film and media at Middlebury College in Vermont. "There are so many moments in Stranger Things, GLOW, Halt and Catch Fire where it's just a sense of seeing an outfit, like legwarmers, or hearing a Pat Benatar song that creates a connection." 

It's easier to comment on contentious current issues from a show set in another era, as M*A*S*H did, but it's not as necessary now as fewer shows have to please broad-based audiences with divergent opinions.

Some shows, such as Netflix's Stranger Things and Amazon's Red Oaks, reflect entertainment of the time, too, Mittell says.  

"For Stranger Things, one of the big appeals is that it's evocative of '80s film. It's more likely the Millennial audience would have seen E.T. and The Goonies rather than necessarily remembering the '80s," he says. 

Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), left, and Joe (Lee Pace) have traveled from 1983 Texas to 1993 California over four seasons of AMC's 'Halt and Catch Fire.'

'80s shows appear to fit into categories, including:

Meta lode

Stranger Things luxuriates in '80s film references, including classics Firestarter and Stand By Me. The buzzy hit, which focused on a boy's disappearance in Indiana in 1983, advances to 1984 when Season 2 is released Oct. 27. 

Real people and events

Netflix's Narcos, which tracked drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in its first two seasons, opened in 1979 and spanned the ‘80s. Its third season (Sept. 1) moves into the early 1990s, focusing on the Cali cartel.

NBC's Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders (Sept. 26, 10 ET/PT) explores the trials of Lyle and Erik Menendez, who were ultimately convicted of the 1989 murders of their parents.

Culture-shifting developments

Halt and Catch Fire (AMC, Saturday, 9 ET/PT), which follows computer pioneers who helped create today's wired world, opened its first season in 1983 focusing on the PC business in Texas. The final season jumps to 1993 Silicon Valley, where its digital dreamers contemplate cataloging  the Internet. Think Google.

Snowfall (FX, Wednesday, 10 ET/PT) opens in 1983 and looks at the birth of the crack cocaine epidemic, detailing the social, political and economic fallout still felt today. 

Franklin Saint (Damson Idris) is a rising drug baron in 1983 Los Angeles in FX's 'Snowfall.'

Netflix’s GLOW (Season 1 available now) takes a comedic look at a mid-1980s women’s wrestling league, examining issues of race and gender that remain relevant.   

Story with alternate timelines

NBC's This Is Us (Sept. 26, 9 ET/PT), opened Season 1 with the Pearson siblings turning 36 in the present day. Episodes jumped around in time to chronicle their births in 1980 and childhood events later in the decade. 

Warm nostalgia

The Goldbergs (ABC, Sept. 27, 8 ET/PT) a family comedy, mixes trends and events across the decade under the umbrella of “1980-something.”  

Netflix's two Wet Hot American Summer seasons, First Day of Camp (set in 1981) and Ten Years Later (set in 1991), reboot the 2001 film that took its own nostalgic look at summer camp in the '80s.

Red Oaks, set at a New Jersey country club in 1985, evokes such memorable '80s films as Caddyshack and Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) cradle son Randall in a 1980 flashback scene on 'This Is Us.'

Cold War chill

FX's The Americans, back in 2018 for its final season, charts 1980s superpower tensions from the perspective of covert Soviet spies living in Reagan's America.

Germany's Deutschland 83, which followed an East German operative in West Germany, returns next year on SundanceTV as Deutschland 86.     

Channing Tatum and his producing partners created their own 1980s Romanian cop series, Amazon's Comrade Detective (available now), with Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and other actors dubbing the propaganda-heavy show in English.