The date is 1984. The location is San Diego, just one hour outside of the big dream we call Los Angeles. Corey and Katie live with their Dad RT and Corey's friend Roger. Corey is a creative soul who is trying to make it in the music world in a decade that only appreciates financial success. Although his father, RT, is a successful professional who is about to strike gold with his Gut Whacker and ride the '80s fitness marketing craze wave, Corey finds it difficult to get in the game. On the other hand, Corey's friend Roger idolizes Ronald Reagan and listens to motivation tapes while trying to find his way into corporate America. The household is rounded out by Corey's younger sister Katie, a chip off the old block whose sweetness and naiveté make her the perfect go between for her father and brother. At Club Piranha, a local gathering place, Sophia is in control. Sophia, Corey's ex, is a beautiful, "grab all that I can" kind of girl who doesn't like to limit her choices. Sophia breaks ... Written by
'That 80s Show' is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. A copy of a copy, faded slightly from the original where creators Bonnie and Terri Turner take another trip back in time in the clearly network mandated vein of roping in the young crowd that currently watches their hit 'That 70s Show'. It's an odd line of logic: do networks think just setting a show in a different time period is enough of a gimmick for people to flock to it with nostalgic interest? The show plays out like a 'SNL' skit about the 80s. The characters in this live action comic strip work in a vinyl record store, have spiked punk or 'Flock of Seagulls' hair, serve in the military against the Ruskies, watch Dynasty religiously (taking a drink every time someone gets slapped) and, in a throwback to Alex Keaton, are go-go Reaganaut business tycoons. Its a TV time capsule broadly playing off, and laughing at, only the most easily and instantly recognizable fads, attitudes and events of the decade so that the younger crowd (which this is geared toward) can watch the show and not be left in the dark by a lot of nuance and in-jokes before their time. If you want nuance and a show speaking directly to you, best stick with Paul Fieg's 'Freaks and Geeks'.
Ah, but wait, almost the exact same thing can be said about the fast and loose way the 70s are treated in 'That 70s Show'. But '70s' rises above it. With the talent preoccupied with working on '70s' everything in this show is taken down a peg. It lacks the comic timing and imaginative direction of '70s' helm David Trainer so the series is only marginally as funny. It lacks the veteran acting, instead of Kurtwood Smith we have Geoff Pierson ('Unhappily Ever After', one of the very best bad shows ever). Pierson is quite good, one of the highlights of the show actually, but it's an noticeable down step from a veteran like Smith. Most notably is that '70s' quickly transcended it's time period jokes and has become something with a genuine heart. That show, and this is rarely reported, is the semi-autobiographical story of creator Mark Brazill. '80s' lacks that feeling of experience and honesty. Do we really care if opposites attract and Corey (Glenn Howerton) and Tuesday (Chyler Leigh) get together?
What keeps the show's head above water it is quite watchable is once again an excellent casting department. In addition to the usually reliable Pierson (cornering the market in his dead-beat-father role, in a time when networks would TV fathers be harmless, overgrown children), the kids form a likable ensemble. While there aren't quite any Topher Graces in this lot of kids, there aren't any Ashton Kutchers either (if you know what I mean and I think you do). Tinsley Grimes (as the adorable Katie), Chyler Leigh (deserving every second of screen time she gets) and Eddie Shin (honestly, getting almost all of the show's laughs) stand out as the show's breakout stars. The banter between Roger (Shin) and R.T. (Pierson) is the highlight of the series.
Based on the potential strength of the cast is have a sneaky suspicious this show would have gotten better as it went along. But, either way, audiences flocked away from it like a swarm of bees, which probably has more to do with sending a message that we don't want this kind of franchise series than anything the show could have done - despite the best efforts of the cast. I suspect, Brazill and co. thought that the acceptance of 'The Wedding Singer' and other related products opened the door and declared it was now acceptable to treat like a cartoon this period in people's childhood. But by 2002, the 80s are still to recent and people's minds. It was a doomed concept from the start and people don't want to start down a slippery slope that will one day lead to a show, that solely stands out because it's set in "the 00s".
* * / 4
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