But That '70s Show and That '80s Show are different. Suddenly, you no longer have to remember an era in order to enjoy its revival.-- Adam Sternbergh, March 9, 2002, Saturday Post, emphasis mine
It's ironic that we've chosen our own culture's most fleeting and disposable elements as the touchstones by which we memorialize past eras. For those who actually came of age in one of those decades, these elements endure because they're rooted in a deeper understanding of the time. For example, Wall Street's Gordon Gekko persists as an Eighties-era icon because the character's oversized greed seems emblematic of the decade's Zeitgeist.
On That '70s Show and That '80s Show, however, trends, hairstyles and catchphrases don't represent anything -- they are an end unto themselves. When someone drinks a Fresca on That '70s Show, it's meant to be funny not because Fresca symbolizes something, or even because the viewer might remember drinking Fresca himself. It's funny because, well, people drank Fresca in the Seventies. Get it? The reference alone is the set-up to the joke and the punchline, all rolled into one.
If you happen to agree with Adam, as I do, then every time you see something like this Virgin Air 25th Anniversary commercial you have a tidy explanation for why you feel so emotionally disinvested. The huge cellphone and the weird hair and the classic videogames in the Virgin ad aren’t even tired jokes – they’re not jokes at all. They’re establishing shots, setting the historical era, but little else. Maybe the ad isn’t supposed to be funny – maybe I’m misunderstanding the commercial. Maybe the brilliance is in its ability to flawlessly evoke the recent past, in the same pornographic exactitude that Mad Men trafficks in.
But if it is meant to be funny, it reminds me of the painfully endless number of advertisements each Christmas that use the inedible nature of fruitcake as a punchline. How many times can we be reasonably expected to laugh at a joke that is premised on the equation:
fruitcake = sucks
Three times in an entire lifespan? Tops?
What was so appealing about the British version of Life on Mars was how it tried to do something clever with the clash between present and the past. My favourite being this little exchange in Season 1, Episode 3:
"Why would anyone turn a factory into a block of flats?"
“It's supposed to look nice.”
"Factories should be factories. Houses should be houses. I mean things are built for a purpose. It's ridiculous."