Tag Archives: pop culture

Talking the 1980s Top Ten

This is a fun one: I’ll be one of several cultural historians providing commentary for the Nat Geo docuseries, The ’80s: Top Ten, which is now available to stream in all six parts on Disney+. It was a genuine thrill to be asked to participate in this series, and I’m humbled to appear alongside folks like Rob Lowe, Kevin Smith, Ridley Scott, Tony Hawk, and tons of others.

While I’m not sure exactly what you’ll get to hear me talk about — I spent several hours on camera last December talking about a lot of stuff — I’ve had a peek at the first episode and I was beyond delighted to see that I got the final word on the last episode of M*A*S*H, one of my favorite television shows pretty much ever.

Uncommon Culture

So, Ricardo Montalban died. And — likely to his dismay – despite a huge body of work, his obituaries all seem to remember him for three things: (1) the vaguely dangerous Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island; (2) the Chrysler Cordoba commercials, where he arched an eyebrow over “fine Corinthian leather;” and (3) Star Trek II: The Wrath of KHAAAAAAANNNN!!!

And that got me thinking: if you’re a Gen Xer over the age of, say, 33, you probably knew all three of those references. Maybe you couldn’t remember Montalban’s name, or anything else he did, but if I told you he was Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island, you’d say, “Oh, THAT guy?” Lame as Fantasy Island was – and believe me, it was lame – it was a show we all watched, mainly because there wasn’t much else on to watch.  We had only three networks to choose from — so despite our varying tastes in entertainment, chances are good we were still all watching Fantasy Island, Diff’rent Strokes, and The Incredible Hulk. Our entertainment options – our sources for popular culture – were limited.  But because our options were so limited, we have a common frame of reference, a common culture.

Today we’ve got cable television with a gajillion channels, many catering to different tastes and different genres.  There are channels that show only science fiction, others that show only cartoons.  There are hundreds of networks out there vying for your attention, all developing their own sitcoms, police dramas, and family shows.   

Don’t get me wrong. As a pop culture junkie, I love having channels that cater to very specific interests (where’s the Comic Book Channel when you really need it, though?).  My own daughter can pick and choose what channels she wants to watch, based largely on the kinds of shows she likes.  So can her friends.  So, while she’s watching Disney, another friend is watching Cartoon Network, while another is watching SciFi, and so on. Variety is what makes things interesting, and choice is something we take for granted.

But – at the risk of sounding like a old fogey — it also makes me wonder:  given the sheer volume of choices kids have, will today’s kids grow up to have a common frame of reference?  Will they have a truly common culture?  If not, is that a good or a bad thing?  I really don’t know.

Yes, I know I’m talking about television – and some might question whether not having a common frame of reference involving television is really the end of the world.  It’s not.  But be honest:  if you’ve ever started a discussion about [INSERT YOUR FAVORITE DUMB 1970s-1980s TV SHOW HERE] and someone says, “I never watched that,” it’s a good bet your first reaction was along the lines of, “I can’t BELIEVE you never watched that!”

We like having a common popular culture, even if, at times, it embarrasses us.

“Smiles, everyone . . . smiles!”