Hollywood loves a period piece. It’s one thing to be transported back to the Madison Avenue of the 1960s by “Mad Men” if you were born after that tumultuous and much-chronicled decade, or to travel beyond the memories of anyone living to the reign of Edward I in FX’s forthcoming “The Bastard Executioner.” But it’s a different, and somewhat disconcerting experience to watch years and events you were alive to remember get fed into the fiction machine and emerge as a glossy, stylized product that defines what from a given decade is worth remembering.
Or, in the case of “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” as a shaggy, slightly grubby one. There’s enough character work and plot happening in the four episodes of the show I saw before writing this that the show is more than a list of ’80s references. But in the show’s goofy way, “First Day of Camp” does give us a sense of what signifies the ’80s.
If the first movie was replete with high-waisted pants, pot smoke, Skylab and ’80s hair, “First Day of Camp” has a broader view of the era. There’s a plot involving toxic waste. The addition of a rival institution, Camp Tiger Claw, brings in a dose of ’80s-class politics: The campers there are pop-collared preppies who row crew and can’t understand the appeal of Camp Firewood. “We have jet skis! We have veal scallopini!” protests Graham (“Mad Men” vet Rich Sommer). Elizabeth Banks’s character Lindsay turns out to be an undercover journalist for a music magazine, the site of a hilarious and extremely white conversation about the rise of hip-hop. Sample dialogue: “There’s a whole movement happening up in the South Bronx!” (The genre is also getting its due in the feature film “Straight Outta Compton,” which chronicles the rise of N.W.A., due out in August. Gene (Christopher Meloni) what might well be the most ’80s sentence of all time when he declares that “Gail and I met at a Singles Disco Mixer at the Portsmouth Marriott.” And a tuxedo-wearing President Reagan employs a private assassin.
Reagan doesn’t appear in anything other than news clips on “The Americans,” but he’s still one of the dominant figures on FX’s period piece about deep-cover KGB spies, which lies on the far end of the emotional spectrum from “First Day of Camp.” While “Wet Hot American Summer” leans heavily into ’80s stereotypes — the Camp Tiger Claw denizens wear multiple layers of popped-collar pastels — “The Americans” tends to undermine them. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) may not have the most natural-looking wigs, but they dress with better taste than the decade generally gets credit for, in attractive jewel tones and neutrals.
Both “First Day of Camp” and the most recent season of “The Americans” spend time on the main subject of “Halt and Catch Fire”: the computing revolution, also getting its due in a documentary and feature film about Steve Jobs out this fall. One of the plots of “First Day of Camp” involves an attempt to hack a government computer system that the camp directors hope will reveal more about the provenance of toxic waste being dumped on camp property. In “The Americans,” Philip and Elizabeth try to sabotage the FBI’s Mail Robot. And “Halt and Catch Fire” has followed its characters from their work on a PC to their advances in early online gaming and community-building. Both personal computer ownership and Internet access really took off in the 1990s, but it’s fascinating to see pop culture draw attention to the origins of both developments a decade earlier.
There are comparatively few 1990s period pieces, which makes sense: Even measuring by the dizzying pace of cultural turnover, that decade is close enough that we’re still trying to gain perspective on it. “Definitely, Maybe,” which may be the first movie to look back on the era from a distance, gave President Bill Clinton the prominence Reagan has assumed in 1980s stories. But Clinton isn’t an icon in “Definitely, Maybe,” which follows Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds, in one of his best performances) as he comes to New York to work for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, and then after he stays on to found his own political consultancy; instead, Clinton’s a barometer of Will’s disillusionment.
“Fresh Off the Boat,” ABC’s sharp family comedy about Chinese immigrants in Florida, has a broader lens, taking in everything from young Eddie Huang’s (Hudson Yang) love of hip-hop to Jessica Huang’s (Constance Wu) obsession with scare-mongering cable news segments. And it captures the iconic crime of the era, the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, which is also the subject of the first season of Ryan Murphy’s forthcoming anthology series, “American Crime Story.”
The stereotypes of the 1990s may not be as settled as the ones that define the 1980s as a tacky, frivolous decade. But as Hollywood begins to plumb both eras, we can only hope that these periods continue to be the subjects of witty, sophisticated storytelling, rather than calcifying into the cliches that, until the interventions of “Mad Men,” defined the pop-culture picture of the 1960s.