VH1’s ’80s nostalgia

’80s relics like Roth: Not for the faint of heart

Certain nostalgic observations about pop culture over the past 15 years have themselves become pop artifacts. Consider “David Hasselhoff was huge in Germany,” “MacGyver could kill you with a paper clip,” and “Tearing down the wall was a huge, huge event.” If you remember having any of these insights, or even if all you remember is Hasselhoff, MacGyver, and the Berlin Wall, you might find pleasure re-remembering them and other ‘80s stuff with a cast of lively television personalities on VH1’s I Love the 80s. (Disclosure: I sometimes write for VH1.)

I Love the 80s does effectively bring back memories, though many of those memories are from the 1990s, when people who liked movies, music, and television commonly staged spasms of recall during which they named fleeting pop phenomena (Tetris, Martha Quinn, A Flock of Seagulls) and led discussion groups about what had been the deal with each one of them. I Love the 80s revives this ‘90s practice, covering in each episode a year of the decade. Inspired by a British program, the series has no host and little voice-over; instead, it uses period images and merchandise, along with bites from actors and comics, to rekindle varieties of lost fandom. This will not please anyone who’s fainthearted about pop culture—people who read or played outside as children. Rather, it’s for an audience that, for better or worse, understands Mark McGrath when he says, “There were 55 Spicolis in my high school.” An audience, moreover, who knows who Mark McGrath is.

Tapping out these codes—creating the Berlitz version of America’s purported pop lingua franca—is the show’s highest function. Still, in the show’s fanciful jump-cuts (many of which use graphics based on the Rubik’s cube) there are surprises, semi-iconic moments I’d entirely forgotten. After a montage of terrifying Mike Tyson KOs, for example, Tyson offers a universally applicable explanation for violence: “He was trying to scrutinize with my brain.” In another clip, Rob Lowe, his private sex video freshly discovered, tells an interviewer, “I’m a human being and I hurt.”

There are also quasi-famous clips that deserve review. Take Milli Vanilli’s ignominious 1989 concert, the one where the LP to which they were lip-synching skipped: “Girl you know it’s—girl you know it’s—girl you know it’s—girl you know it’s … ” It’s hard to think of a more potent scene of duplicity laid bare, live.

Some of the minor stars who show up to comment on the past are unexpectedly sharp. Michael Ian Black, of Ed, provides masterful off-the-cuff comic analysis; the show is saturated with him. Aisha Tyler, as usual, is brilliantly acute, charismatic, and nonchalant. She ought to be a big movie star by now.

Finally, Mo Rocca, of The Daily Show, plays the geek to perfection. He says, in the 1989 show, ” ‘Touch of Grey’a really amazing debut single.” When I heard that, the voice of righteous Deadheads for whom the Top-40 success of “Touch of Grey”once represented a small apocalypse flooded back to me. I remembered a hippie friend from high school I’d been wanting to see. I hadn’t even realized she was on my mind.