The development life of “That ’80s Show” was apparently far shorter than Fox’s winner from the decade previous. Judging from the goings on and visuals of the pilot, the show was seemingly knocked out after the executive producers pulled an all-nighter listening to the last vinyl albums they bought — “Purple Rain,” “Remain in Light,” “She’s So Unusual” — and watching VH1 Classic and “Miami Vice” reruns. Show attempts to play off the decade’s superficialities — the teased hair, unstructured men’s jackets, cocaine, sexual freedom’s waning hours, Reagan’s voodoo economics — and the result is as conceptually thin as a new waver’s tie.
Music and its related fashions drive “That ’80s Show” far more than “That ’70s Show,” a series built around goofball friendships and the generation gap. In “’80s,” a son and divorced father believe that they have a chance sexually with the same woman. Maybe it’s not that far off the mark — parental conflict in the 1980s was completely different from that of the ’70s. But maybe it’s too early for this show; foggy memories are fine for drawing the mid-’70s, but in some minds the 1980s seem like yesterday.
Set in San Diego in 1984, a breakthrough year for Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and Prince, the directionless life of Corey (Glenn Howerton) is at the show’s center. He has just broken up with Sophia (Brittany Daniel), has a bizarrely loving relationship with his sister Katie (Tinsley Grimes) and works in a record store under the tutelage of former ’60s-era groupie Margaret (Margaret Smith). New hire Tuesday (Chyler Leigh) sports wildly spiked hair and punk attire, and she and Corey snipe at each other relentlessly: It’s obvious they’re on their way to becoming boyfriend and girlfriend. Sophia, meanwhile, has moved her amorous attentions to a confused Katie. Neighbor Roger (Eddie Shin) is a Reaganomics-believing, self-help-subscribing go-getter — the most cartoonish of all the characters.
Cecily Adams and Brian Myers have cast a good-looking lot to slog through this unfunny pilot, made even more annoying by the steady stream of a laugh track. Grimes plays Katie as a bubbly throwback, content to make candles and sip wine coolers while praising MTV-created priestess Pat Benatar. “’80s Show’s” success could well hinge on the gangly Howerton, but his ambition-free lifestyle could grow old if the series makes it all the way to fall. Leigh has watched a little too much TV — her Tuesday comes off as an amalgam of the two teen femmes on “That ’70s Show.” Smith, a wonderful standup comic who has circled the sitcom world for more than a decade, gets some zingers in the debut seg — she is by far the best thing about this show.
Direction by David Trainer is perfunctory. Ben Vaughn’s music plays off ’80s cliches with aplomb, displaying a subtlety from which the rest of the show could learn.
Seemingly because the writing team of Mark Brazill, Terry Turner and Linda Waller had some jokes left over after introducing the main players, background characters get a few one-liners. The best is one from Smith. A kid in a San Diego sweatshirt decorated with painted sailboats asks, “You have any Miles Davis?” Smith looks him up and down, lowers her voice and disses him with “You’re not ready.” Humor that hip won’t click with the desired audience; the folks who would find that funny won’t be watching.