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TV Party

That '80s Show gets some things right about the decadent decade, but not all

By Gina Arnold

THE OTHER NIGHT while cruising around the TV dial, I happened upon a showing of Rock 'n' Roll High School, the 1980 movie about a California teenaged girl (PJ Soles) who loves the Ramones, and it struck me how very misleading the film has become. At the time it was made, the Ramones were as far from being popular as, say, Death Cab for Cutie or Built to Spill are now. They had their fans, but their name was not exactly legion. But that point may escape people who viewed the film on TV the other night. The Ramones may not have become as big as the Rolling Stones, but they did play Lollapalooza, and their name is now synonymous with late-'70s punk rock. Thus, any kid who's heard of them probably takes Rock 'n' Roll High School at face value, i.e., that high schoolers of the '80s cut school to stand in line for Ramones tickets.

Well, I'm here to tell you, such things were not so--which leads me to wonder what else will be distorted and revised in Fox TV's new series That '80s Show. The show, which began two weeks ago, is set in San Diego, in 1984. Its main character is Corey, a record-store clerk and aspiring musician. He lives at home with his swinging single dad and goofy sister, Katie, who is a college dropout who makes candles and watches a lot of Dynasty. Corey's best friend, Roger, is an overachieving business major and lover of Ronald Reagan.

In short, according to That '80s Show, in the '80s--as during other eras--people in their 20s weren't sure what they wanted to do with their lives yet. The show tries to make a big deal out of Corey's confusion as to whether to follow his dream of being a musician or sell out and become a corporate type. The best line in the show was when Margaret, his boss at the record store, says, "I hear that's not so bad once you go dead inside."

Sitcoms are hardly the best way to view an entire decade, and That '80s Show is no exception. For one thing, it tries to squeeze an entire decade's worth of horrid fashions (and inventions, like ATM cards, cell phones and bottled water) into one short year. For another, it gets the music wrong. Far from being dominated by haircut bands like Duran Duran, the Thompson Twins and Flock of Seagulls, the decade suffered from three much more boring acts: Michael Jackson, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen. Those New Wave acts like the Smiths and Depeche Mode, though popular, were not exactly the dominant note at any time whatsoever--particularly not in San Diego. So talk about trivializing history! It was the decade that brought us Prince, R.E.M. and rap music, and yet on this show, the women characters parade around in outfits culled from popular MTV videos of the time.

In one scene, we see Corey and Roger singing along to the Talking Heads song "Life During Wartime." Later, Corey plays a Black Flag tape. Again, his boss, Margaret, gets off a good line: "Ah, the happy music of Black Flag! What's wrong?" In 1984, these two songs would not have been heard within miles of each other. And a guy like Corey--who claims to have "seen the Sex Pistols," although it's hard to understand how, since they only played four gigs in the United States, and none were in San Diego--wouldn't go to clubs and dance around to Duran Duran and the Smiths, either.

For all its flaws, however, That '80s Show does have a grain of truth to it, and that is the tension between the idea of "selling out"--i.e., making big money at a corporation and voting for Reagan--or working as a clerk in a record store and not voting at all. I hope in future episodes this angle will be explored more. Maybe Corey will get signed to a major label, or conversely, tour the country in a smelly van. Maybe Katie will get a job working as a publicist at MTV, with all the double standards that entails. And certainly Margaret will get in a few more good quips about rock & roll's ability--or inability--to assuage our fears and insecurities. After all, any decade that began with the Ramones and ended with Jane's Addiction definitely has potential.

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From the January 31-February 6, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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