Published on April 23rd, 2013 | by Clint Davis
The ’80s: The Decade That Made Us 
Summary: Give them credit for a new approach to the worn-out retrospective miniseries, but NatGeo's salute to the 1980's leaves far too many cultural milestones untouched.
UR | 252 min.
Featuring: Rob Lowe, Matt Groening, Michael J. Fox, David Hasselhoff, Steve Wozniak
Network: National Geographic Channel | Original Air Date: April 14-16, 2013
Since VH1 popularized nostalgic retrospective documentaries just over a decade ago with their I Love The… series, many networks have rolled out similar miniseries that feature semi-celebrities commenting on popular culture from bygone eras. Due to the target demographic’s age group being twenty & thirty-somethings, the 1980s have often been a period focus for these programs. National Geographic Channel recently aired their six-part miniseries on the decade of decadence–and they took a slightly different approach that their predecessors.
You need only to look at the show’s title to understand their aim: The ’80s: The Decade That Made Us. Nat Geo’s own website for the documentary tells you, “[This show] isn’t about nostalgia,” rather, they wanted to focus on the lasting legacy of the 1980’s. The agenda of this show is to remind its viewers how pivotal that decade was in terms of where the world is today. One episode titled “The Revolutionaries” is a look at innovators like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Ted Turner, and even Tony Hawk with the argument being that rugged individualism was one key element of the 80’s. Another episode titled “Masters of the Universe” examines cocaine culture, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and the boom of televangelists in the cable television age.
If you’re looking for a show that neatly navigates through the 1980’s year-by-year in ten episodes, you’ll be disappointed. The ’80s runs somewhat chronologically but viewers who catch the show sporadically in reruns won’t feel lost by jumping into a random episode. People looking for a fun look back at the decade in pop culture will also feel frustrated because this show is much more about historical significance than fond memories of fashion fads and movie clips. The episode “Shop ‘Til You Drop” is most-focused on clothing and advertising, but instead of featuring D-list celebrities laughing about crimped hair and leg warmers, the show focuses on how bonehead moves like “New Coke” shifted power from corporations to their consumers.
The star of this miniseries is unquestionably Ronald Reagan, which makes sense because he was President for most of the decade–but a 70-year old white guy doesn’t exactly embody the 80’s in my mind. The producers of this show certainly make Reagan look like the best leader we’ve had since George Washington, though. Aside from a short mention of the Iran Contra controversy, Reagan is celebrated as a perfect President who guided our country through the greatest party in history. Which leads me to my biggest issue with The ’80s, the lack of color present in the show’s nearly six-hours of running time.
My count may not be totally accurate, but I tallied a total of four non-white interviewees in the entire program. Positive figures like Jesse Jackson and Malcolm-Jamal Warner were featured but the black “expert” who got the most screen time was a former drug dealer who talked about making/selling crack…I wish I were kidding.
This show was clearly aimed solely at white audiences, as Michael Jackson is only mentioned during a look at “We Are The World”, Michael Jordan’s name or his game-changing sneaker aren’t brought up at all, and hip hop music is only celebrated for combining with rock in Run-DMC & Aerosmith’s “Walk this Way” (produced by Rick Rubin, a white guy). I felt like the priorities of this show were really off sometimes, the only times sports came up were the 1980 miracle on ice and Len Bias’s cocaine overdose–no talk about Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bo Jackson, or even the rise of ESPN (which launched in September 1979). I would argue that today’s sports culture was completely born in the 1980’s, but according to this documentary, there was nothing worth mentioning–meanwhile, the Rubik’s cube had an entire 10-minute segment.
The ’80s: The Decade That Made Us is an informative, entertaining watch that points out some of the incredible innovations made in those ten years that still ripple today. I’m puzzled as to why the producers capped themselves at six episodes, as they left a ton of material out by doing so. As a person who was born in the late-80’s, I can’t fully appreciate the experience of the decade, but I would be interested to watch this with someone who was born in the 1950’s or early-60’s to see if the program really summed up the bigger picture. The show could have been titled What Rich White People Were Doing in the 1980’s but I have a feeling that would have gone over about as well as “New Coke”.