On the question-and-answer website Stack Exchange, a recent post made an entire generation of internet users feel very, very old. “What is the purpose of this ‘red room’ in Stranger Things?” a user wrote, referring to the darkroom. “We frequently see Jonathan go inside this to “refine” his photos or something. Is this an old film technique?” The internet content machine reliably set itself into motion as the post was viewed 25,000 times and memed accordingly. But the question brought to light something unexpected about modern day television habits. A surprising amount of our favorite shows, from Stranger Things to Pose to GLOW to The Goldbergs to The Americans, are set in the not-so-distant past of the ’80s, in the decade of neon, mixtapes and Saturday morning cartoons.
Nostalgia researcher Dr. Krystine Batcho says this ’80s television renaissance owes a debt to the nostalgia that’s fueling it. The term nostalgia, coined by a 17th century Swiss army medic while tending homesick troops, stems from the root word of nostos, Greek for homecoming, and algos, meaning pain. Long considered to be a psychological disorder, only recently have scientists turned their research towards the benefits of this universal feeling.
Per Batcho, there are two kinds of nostalgia that come into play when we talk about how much we love Steve Harrington’s fabulously dated hairstyle on season three of Stranger Things. “There’s historical nostalgia, which is a preference for a prior time period, sometimes even one that predates a person’s birth,” Batcho wrote in an email. This kind of nostalgia can affect people who were children in the ’80s and people born long after scrunchies had fallen out of style. Research shows that this kind of nostalgia is associated with a discontent for one’s current life, or even the current state of the world. For people experiencing a profound dissatisfaction with the Trump administration, watching a show like GLOW, set in a sparkly, Spandex-covered era, can function as a respite from the present.
The other type of nostalgia is personal nostalgia, which Batcho has spent years researching. It isn’t related to dissatisfaction with the present; it’s about yearning for aspects of people’s own lived pasts. “The 1980s was the time before tech took over our lives,” wrote Batcho. It was a time when people had more control over privacy, their relationship and their leisure time. Watching shows set then serves as a vacation from the relentless here-and-now, in a world where technological change is increasingly rapid.
Richard Lachmann, a professor of Sociology at Albany University, told The Daily Beast part of the appeal is the gap from the present. The ’80s are recent enough that people remember them, but far away enough that they can be idealized. “The people who lived through the ’80s and remember it are now middle-aged television watchers,” he said. And they’re also creators, like the Duffer brothers of Stranger Things, and actors, like Keri Russell of The Americans. But though our media creators may have grown up during that era of questionable fashion, their memories are often cloudy, which makes for a perfect television-creation opportunity. Writers can craft a cleaned up version of the ’80s, stripping it of its historically accurate homophobia and racism and readying it for a 2019 audience.
But the biggest appeal of setting shows in the ’80s is that technology wasn’t a plot-ruiner yet. “I watch The Americans and I just think, if they had been carrying phones then much of the plot wouldn’t have happened,” said Lachmann. “It was a different time. The internet didn’t exist. Cellphones didn’t exist. There was a sense the U.S. was powerful.” The ’80s are close enough to now that they don’t seem foreign, with microwaves and Saturday morning cartoons, but far enough from now that our nostalgia for a pre-internet time allows us to idealize them. The lack of technology allows for plotlines that would have been squashed in minutes if our intrepid characters had access to cellphones.
For Professor Thomas Leitch, of the University of Delaware, television catering to nostalgia succeeds where movies have failed “because so many TV viewers are looking specifically to find self-contained worlds they can comfortably settle into over a period of weeks, months, or years,” he wrote in an email. On the less expensive medium of television, people can be as niche as they please. Want to relive the ’80s as a member of a raucous Jewish family? Watch The Goldbergs. Want to remember what it was like as a kid to stay out until the street lamps came on? Watch Stranger Things. Want to imagine you found your queer family in New York’s ballroom scene? Watch Pose.
Then there’s collective nostalgia linked to particular historical events entire generations of people lived through. Examples include HBO’s Chernobyl, about the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, or Netflix's When They See Us, about the grisly case of the Central Park Five. Like the proverbial worm eating its own tail, our culture has begun to recreate its recent past as closely as it can.
Nostalgia is human nature, says TV historian Walter Podrazik. “You get through a decade, you’re nostalgic for that decade,” he said. “The hair! The clothes! Everything seems OK in retrospect because we know how things turned out. It seems soft and fuzzy, in contrast to today.”
But that soft fuzziness didn’t even last a full decade. By March of 1989, Tim Berners-Lee had created the worldwide web. The beginning of the end had begun.