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In The Mix
May 13, 2016

Those Crazy 80s

The decade of Cabbage Patch Dolls and Princess Di is having a moment in primetime.

Paula Hendrickson
  • The Americans

    Michael Parmalee/FX
  • The Americans

    Michael Parmalee/FX
  • The Goldbergs

    Adam Taylor/ABC
  • Red Oaks

    Nicole Rivelli/Amazon
  • Red Oaks

    Nicole Rivelli/Amazon
  • Red Oaks

    Nicole Rivelli/Amazon
  • Red Oaks

    Nicole Rivelli/Amazon
  • Red Oaks

    Nicole Rivelli/Amazon
  • Red Oaks

    Nicole Rivelli/Amazon
  • The Americans

    Michael Parmalee/FX

In the 1970s, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Grease transported audiences to the 1950s. Today, the '80s are back.

"It was the last time the world was simple," says Adam F. Goldberg, creator-executive producer of the ABC retro comedy, The Goldbergs. "There wasn't any internet, there were no cell phones. The only computer was an Apple II Plus, which took up your entire desk." Without access to social media, the world was smaller. "The people at school and your family — that was your world."

In the semi-autobiographical series, Goldberg mixes touchstones from the entire decade. "Some of the things I get most excited about happened in the late '80s, when I was becoming a teenager," he says. "But we do dive into the early '80s — we did the [1981] royal wedding and Hands Across America [1986]. Every episode is a melting pot of memories."

On two other '80s series — FX's The Americans and Amazon Studios' Red Oaks — time is not so fluid. Each season of Red Oaks spans one summer at a New Jersey country club. And in the writers' room of The Americans — set in Reagan-era Washington, D.C., the writing team tracks dates covered on the show with a wall calendar.

"If a character is watching television, we pull the TV Guide for Virginia and Washington, D.C., for that actual date and have the characters watch what would have been on that night," says executive producer Joel Fields.

Research is key for the drama, about Russian spies passing as Americans. "You can find out the exact year the Cabbage Patch Kids came out," says creator-showrunner Joe Weisberg, "but what types of political issues were people canvassing about in 1983? It can be incredibly hard to find an accurate answer. You end up having to find  the one professor at the one university who's a specialist in 1980s suburbia."

But an aspect of the '80s that the writers appreciate is that lack of technology.

"Writing a spy thriller when no one can text or use a cell phone — boy, it's a relief!" Fields says. “[The Americans] is a marriage story, a family story, but the story engine is that of a spy thriller. It really helps create tension when you can't reach people."

Joe Gangemi, who co-created Red Oaks with Gregory Jacobs, says communication — or lack thereof — is pivotal to his show, too. "Taking it back to a time when it wasn't as easy to communicate with all these devices ups the challenge for writers. Anytime you add challenges, it makes you a better writer. I'm not saying everyone should set their shows in the '80s, but I certainly feel like a stronger writer because of it."

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