CNN’s ‘The Eighties’ Examines TV’s Most Influential Decade

CNN’s decennial trips down memory lane continue with “The Eighties,” which kicks off its seven-part run March 31 with a two-hour installment devoted to television. Absorbing the flood of nostalgia associated with that, the great takeaway from this entertaining two hours is just how much the foundation for the current TV renaissance was built during those years, which, content-wise, just might be TV’s most influential decade.

Following “The Sixties” and “The Seventies,” “The Eighties” opens with two grand events from the period when TV could still be viewed as a water-cooler experience, simultaneously shared by a huge percentage of the population: the “Who Shot JR?” episode of “Dallas,” and the “MASH” finale in 1983. In hindsight, those were huge blips on an EKG that, in terms of such attractions, has been steadily weakening ever since, with the annual exception of the Super Bowl.

What really stands out, though, are the signature series of the ’80s that largely redefined the relationship between television and its audience. That began with Steven Bochco’s groundbreaking drama “Hill Street Blues” and continued with fare like “St. Elsewhere” and “thirtysomething,” which challenged conventions of serialized storytelling and dramatically raised the bar of the medium’s ambitions.

As Bochco notes in an interview conducted for the program: “We began to turn television into an art form. For the first time, people were proud to say, ‘I write for television.’ ” Or, as Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales observes, “Predictability lost its cachet,” as producers seemed to delight in their freedom to turn long-existing conventions on their heads.

The changes to dramas, however, were matched by comedies, with the rise of a form that came to be known as the “dramedy” – basically, single-camera half-hours, such as “The Wonder Years” and “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,” which were often as melancholy and bittersweet as they were funny. Of course, the late ’80s still produced huge sitcom hits – “Roseanne,” “Full House,” and what eventually became “Seinfeld” – but the template of those early programs has now swept across television, and not incidentally, streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.

David Letterman also made his late-night debut (after a short-lived morning show) in 1982, significantly influencing the generation of comics that followed, including the current occupants of those seats. To “The Eighties’” credit, the producers also single out “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” which further contributed to a sense that the rules governing TV comedy were changing; and shows like “Cheers” and “Moonlighting,” which perfected the well-worn “Will they or won’t they?” formula for TV couples.

Nor are the seismic developments limited to entertainment content. As “The Eighties” notes, Walter Cronkite ended his historic run at CBS News in 1981, ushering in an era of the three signature anchors – Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings – who defined the role of anchorman for the next 20-plus years, albeit without the same level of grandfatherly admiration that Cronkite enjoyed. Indeed, given the current antipathy in many quarters toward the news media, it’s hard to imagine now that a journalist once held the de facto title “the most trusted man in America.”

Finally, the ’80s saw the development of networks like CNN, ESPN and MTV (and since some technically launched in the ’70s, their maturation), which, as the premiere notes, gradually altered the way people consumed news, sports and music – certainly in regard to sheer volume and availability – while helping provide tremendous marketing platforms for stars in those spheres, from Michael Jordan to Madonna.

Admittedly, part of the current nostalgia wave for the ’80s and ’90s (such as Netflix’s “Fuller House” revival) is strictly pragmatic, seeking to stand apart from the crowd with known commodities that straddle the line between aging baby boomers and their kids, and resonate with both. But one can also argue that those years keep being recycled precisely because they’re so relevant to our media consumption today.

By that measure, watching “The Eighties,” at least for those affiliated with the entertainment industry, isn’t just rose-colored reverie. It’s homework, too.

(Series; CNN, Thurs. March 31, 9 p.m.)

Executive producers, Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, Mark Herzog.

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