'V,' Jackson usher in return of an era
With Michael Jackson back atop the music charts and “V” signaling primetime “victory,” it’s like we’ve been transported back to 1983, as TV producer Ned Nalle wryly noted in an email last week.
Indeed, the parallels suggesting we’re experiencing a kind of a cultural rerun — partying like it’s the mid-1980s — hardly end there.
Of course, the mood isn’t entirely festive. U.S. unemployment recently crept above 10% for the first time since ’83, while the stock market has been climbing, as it did then. Meanwhile, Jerry Brown is in the running to become California’s governor, a position he originally vacated — you guessed it — in 1983. Nationally, President Obama has spoken admiringly of the sort of transformational change brought about by Ronald Reagan — and like Reagan, the new commander-in-chief certainly has his political opposition bordering on apoplexy.
The precise nature of the relationship between economic trends or political moments and the cultural mood is anybody’s guess — especially in an entertainment climate that’s so fond of recycling (in this case not aluminum cans, but ideas). Yet there are other noteworthy similarities that jump out connecting right now to a quarter-century ago, albeit frequently with a 21st century twist.
Beyond “V” and Jacko-mania, we’re seeing renewed signs of life in a half-hour comedy genre that was largely written off as dead — just as it was before “The Cosby Show” premiered in 1984. Although the ratings for “Modern Family” or “The Big Bang Theory” obviously aren’t quite so stratospheric, the notion that sitcom self-starters are feasible does represent a welcome development — and perhaps a desire to take refuge from harsh reality in laughter.
Whereas the mid-’80s gave us “Ghostbusters,” today we have ghost hunters sprayed all over television. It’s just that they’ve morphed into nonscripted (using “reality” here would be going too far) cable programs that feature paranormal-seeking participants — usually illuminated by spooky infrared lenses — on channels like Syfy, Discovery, A&E and even Cartoon Network. Yes, that’s right: Let’s freak out the kids, too!
Just as “Fame” recently revisited theaters, a remake of another ’80s artifact, “Footloose,” is due next year. Singing and dancing teens, in fact, have mounted a rather dramatic comeback. (To his credit, John Lithgow has advanced from playing a family man/religious scold in the original “Footloose” to a family man/serial killer on “Dexter.”)
Then there’s “Precious,” the feature based on a novel about an abused African-American girl seeking to overcome her terrible circumstances. The movie, whose producers include Oprah Winfrey, should not be confused with “The Color Purple,” the 1985 adaptation of a novel about an abused African-American woman whose cast included Oprah Winfrey.
Additional ghosts of culture past can be seen in the latest version of “A Christmas Carol.” The 1984 edition was a classy made-for-TV affair starring George C. Scott, while in a sign of the times, the new incarnation is a 3-D motion-capture spectacle conspicuously burnished with the “Disney” brand.
Finally, any tribute to the mid-1980s would be remiss if it didn’t acknowledge another famous use of “1984” — namely, the George Orwell novel. In the book, Orwell introduced the concept of “doublethink,” which he described in part as follows: “To hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic.”
It’s hard to think of a more accurate description of Glenn Beck’s nightly revival meeting/therapy session on Fox News Channel.