Scott D. Pierce: The 1980s come to life in all their weirdness

By Scott D. Pierce

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: April 13, 2013 02:04PM
Updated: April 15, 2013 09:20AM
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Crowds at the Brandenburg Gate bear witness to the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 10, 1989. Photo by Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

Only the National Geographic Channel could make a case that the TV series “Dallas” became such a worldwide phenomenon in the 1980s that it helped bring down an East European dictator.

“The ’80s: The Decade that Made Us” is “not about nostalgia,” said Michael Cascio, NGC’s executive vice president of programming. “It is about a decade of people, decisions, and inventions that changed our future.”

What Cascio should have said is “The ’80s” isn’t just about nostalgia. That’s certainly a major part of the six-part, six-hour documentary that features bad hair, VCRs, MTV and all sorts of pop culture phenomena.

But this is not VH1’s “I Love the ’80s.” It’s about how all that created the world we live in now.

“It’s almost a moment where we are officially saying the ’80s are history now,” said executive producer Jane Root. “There’s a sense of excitement and creativity and originality that ran throughout that decade.

“We are telling you real stuff. The real story of how things happened.”

It’s ’80s history told for the new millennium. It’s a fast-paced collection of short stories — some a few minutes, some a few seconds — that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Jane Fonda pretty much accidentally became the biggest thing in workout videos beginning when only 2 percent of American homes had VCRs and video was a novelty— helping to launch revolutions in both fitness and entertainment technology.

A look at the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan leads into the launch of CNN, which leads into the launch of Ben and Jerry’s.

It sounds more than a little bit crazy, but somehow it works.

Episodes premiere at 6 and 7 p.m. on Sunday and 7 and 8 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday, with multiple repeats. There’s so much material the six hours are bulging at the seams.

“We had no shortage,” Root said. “We had a pretty high bar. Can we say something different? Can we say something surprising? Can we make a connection back?

“And if it didn’t hit that bar, it didn’t make it into the show.”

As for that the “Dallas”-Romania connection, narrator Rob Lowe tells us that dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, “allows ‘Dallas’ to be aired because he believes it will show his people money has corrupted the West.”

Instead, viewers saw a lifestyle they wanted and were denied.

“If ever there was a case study in the laws of unintended consequences, this might be it,” Lowe says. Ceausescu was overthrown and summarily executed.

“Dallas” star Larry Hagman recalls that, on a trip to Romania, he was approached by a man who said, “J.R., you have saved our country.”

Only in “The ’80s.”

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.