The ad man was clearly on to something, because the television landscape is flooded with nostalgia. From the drug-soaked rock scene of the ’70s, to Marcia Clark’s perm and the Fuller House gang, we are awash in cultural artifacts both beloved and infamous.
Shows that traffic in nostalgia tend to lean heavily on camp and knowing winks to the audience (even the excellent The People v. O.J. Simpson couldn’t resist an obvious scene of Robert Kardashian warning his offspring about the hollowness of fame). Hearing the opening bars of the Full House theme song or watching the family sitcom The Goldbergs pay homage to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off hits a particularly warm and fuzzy spot in our memory nerve centers. The current wave of retro reboots, including The X-Files and the upcoming MacGyver and Twin Peaks, is a no-brainer for networks and streaming services. They arrive with built-in fan bases of Gen X-ers and adult millennials and instant marketing hooks. But some of the best television of the moment is mining the fairly recent past in a more meaningful way — walking a fine line between the bubbly, undemanding pleasures of pure nostalgia and the earnest intentions of a period drama — and exploring the connections to our present.
No show better exemplifies this than The Americans (arguably the best drama on television), which set its recently concluded fourth season in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech. The spy drama stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Russian agents who have spent most of their adult lives posing as suburban couple Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. The Americans takes great care with its period details — the hair, the music, the home décor — while valiantly resisting the urge to indulge in kitsch (no easy feat when tackling the decade that gave us feathered hair and acid wash jeans). The show also gets tremendous mileage out of Elizabeth and Philip’s panoply of oversized glasses and shag wigs, but the goofy disguises never undercut the show’s palpable, ever-building sense of dread.
The show is particularly deft with music of the era. In the second episode of the past season, Philip brutally chokes a man to death at the back of a nearly deserted bus as a passenger blasting Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” through her headphones is oblivious to the violence unfolding behind her. It’s a mordantly funny scene, but the visceral slowness with which the murder unfolds keeps it from descending into silliness. Likewise, a scene from the previous season in which a young female mark hands Philip her Walkman headphones and plays an audio cassette of Yaz would likely have been played with a smirk by a lesser show — a winking reminder to viewers of a certain age that they once greeted this clunky hunk of machinery as a technological marvel. But espionage is serious and often ugly business, lest we forget as Philip grimly seduces the teenager.
The Americans very purposely juxtaposes its light and dark elements — spycraft with the domestic duties of a lived-in relationship; danger with the mundane. After unceremoniously folding a corpse into a suitcase, Elizabeth and Philip come home to the suburban banality of a taciturn teenager playing video games in the den. At its heart, it’s a show about a marriage — with the everyday negotiations of power and intimacy ratcheted up to extremes. But on a larger scale it also captures the anxiety of living in a country consumed with fear of outside forces, the unease about the potential “otherness” of those living right next door.
Fellow ’80s-set drama, Halt and Catch Fire, focuses on another moment of major cultural upheaval: the dawn of the personal computing era. The low-rated AMC show eked out an upcoming third season likely on the critical strength of its second. When it launched, the show was about four renegades — enigmatic antihero-type Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), aggrieved engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and his brilliant wife Donna (Kerry Bishé), and volatile Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), who writes the future in code while blasting Minor Threat — racing to build a portable computer that could rival IBM.
Halt has always been impressive in dramatizing the competitive fervor and thrill of creation — as well as how commercial concerns have a way of pushing innovation toward mediocrity. (In order to get their machine to the marketplace, the team ends up stripping its most ingenious components.) But Cameron, who glimpses the internet on the horizon, is the true visionary, and the second season improved by shifting focus to the partnership between its two female leads. As it turned out, the show had more to say than what the chaotic early days of the digital revolution looked like, or how Pace pulls off a Miami Vice suit (the answer: well). It evolved into a complex portrait of women in the workplace, with Cameron trying to mold her rebelliousness into a leadership role at her gaming company, Mutiny, and Donna stepping out of the shadows to embrace her own ambitions, even as her family life becomes increasingly turbulent.
As I remember the actual ’80s, women moving into the workforce was translated to the screen through female empowerment comedies like 9 to 5 and Working Girl — films where women with brains and chutzpah battled sexual harassment and conniving bosses to triumph in the boardroom. But we’re a little older and wiser now than when Carly Simon triumphantly belted an anthem for a new age from the deck of the Staten Island Ferry. When Donna hides her pregnancy and subsequent abortion — choosing instead to focus on nurturing her fledgling company — we know that this is just one salvo in a war seemingly without end.
Other recent series have sought to revisit pivotal events with fresh eyes. Despite the occasional misstep, The People v. O.J. Simpson walked a masterful line between social commentary and pure spectacle. The Simpson trial was a defining event of the ’90s, and of a city that was just a couple of years removed from the Rodney King beating and the 1992 riots. The Ryan Murphy et al.–helmed anthology series had a tremendous amount of fun with its casting (the whole thing is worthwhile for Connie Britton’s coked-up portrayal of Faye Resnick alone). But it’s also impossible to divorce the complex racial tensions and distrust of the justice system that drove the case from current events unfolding across the country.
The series also allowed a redemptive arc for the long-maligned Marcia Clark. As Rebecca Traister outlined in a New York magazine article, the series provides a contemporary feminist reexamination of Clark, and the brutalizing treatment she received from the media, public, and defense team. Sarah Paulson is both steely and vulnerable in the role as Clark, who is pilloried for her hairdo and courtroom style, and mocked for having to leave court one evening to care for her children. (A scene where she buys tampons in a grocery store and the clerk cracks, “Uh-oh, I guess the defense is in for one hell of a week, huh?” is apparently drawn from real life.)
Meanwhile, David Simon’s expansive HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero dissected a less remembered but equally sprawling human drama — a legal battle over the building of low-income housing in a white, middle-class section of Yonkers, New York. The miniseries — which spans the late ’80s and early ’90s — features a Bruce Springsteen–heavy soundtrack and Oscar Isaac sporting a lush Magnum, P.I.–style mustache. But beyond these superficial pleasures, the series is breathtaking in its scope, using overlapping story lines to show how the machinations of city politicians and bureaucrats impacts both the public housing residents, as well as the white opponents who viciously fight the court mandate. The case brought down a mayor and consumed the city for the better part of two decades (text at the end of the series tells us that it was finally settled in 2007). But Show Me a Hero is really a timeless exploration of broken systems, and of the quiet fortitude of ordinary citizens who find themselves stuck in the cogs.
The cultural epochs these series depict — the Cold War; the Trial of the Century; the dawn of the internet; a civil rights battle over housing and desegregation — still resonate. But the benefits of time and distance allow the series creators to dramatize with a clarity and thoughtfulness impossible to apply to events as they are unfolding. These series demonstrate that there can be a deeper purpose to nostalgia. Despite the fact that they are meticulously staged and dressed to reflect their time, all of these shows are just as concerned with who we are now, and allow us to see ourselves more clearly.
Meghan Lewit is a writer and editor in Chicago. Her essays and writing on pop culture have appeared in TheAtlantic.com, the Washington Post, USA Today, The A.V. Club, and other publications.