Bill Cosby, 'Roseanne' and the complications of '80s nostalgia

Posted April 27, 2018 1:50 p.m. EDT

— The success of ABC's "Roseanne" revival has networks looking back to the future when it comes to the 1980s. Yet after the controversy stirred by that show and the guilty verdict this week against the decade's biggest star, Bill Cosby, there are reminders that the comfort associated with nostalgia obscures the baggage that can go with it.

Cosby's conviction is obviously an extreme example. But the climate that allowed the star of TV's biggest sitcom, "The Cosby Show," to serially prey on women was very much a feature of those years -- which, it's worth noting, are chronologically closer to the "Mad Men" era than today. Culturally speaking, it was a time when networks like CNN and MTV were still in their infancy, and Fox News didn't exist.

In the case of "Roseanne," star Roseanne Barr's status as a blue-collar icon has morphed into something pricklier, given her outspoken support of President Trump and embrace of conspiracy theories via social media. The tension was highlighted by what appeared to be an off-hand joke about characters in other ABC sitcoms featuring people of color being "just like us," which many took as a rebuke to the diversity that networks -- not so long ago accused of whitewashing -- have sought to foster.

As recent testimonials to the late producer Steven Bochco made clear, television began coming of age in the 1980s, as Bochco's early signature dramas, like "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law," paved the way for the ambitious peak-TV programming that we presently enjoy.

Not all the programs of that era, however, hold up particularly well, prone as they are to casual jokes about homosexuals, women or race that would be deemed insensitive or offensive by current standards.

In an interview timed to its 30th anniversary, "Married ... With Children" star Katey Sagal discussed the Fox comedy's misogynistic aspects. Stand-up comics regularly indulged in gay jokes and racial humor that would cause an uproar now. Even "Seinfeld's" famous episode from 25 years ago where Jerry and George fret about people thinking they're gay -- constantly repeating "Not that there's anything wrong with that!" -- is rooted in their underlying fear that someone might think they are.

Producers have consistently sought to update their reboots, bringing them into the modern age. The wrinkles range from Netflix's Hispanic version of "One Day at a Time" to more multicultural casting in the CW's "Dynasty."

The lure of such name recognition remains a powerful draw, with "Murphy Brown" among the other '80s artifacts destined to return next season, and various others being considered, among them "Cagney & Lacey" and "Magnum P.I."

Invariably, there are those who pine for the "good old days," especially the Reagan era that overlapped with shows like "Cosby," "Family Ties" and (if only briefly) "Roseanne" and "Murphy Brown." That was a part of the appeal in President Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan.

But it shouldn't come as a news flash that rosy views of the past aren't universally shared. The genius of "Mad Men," in fact, was that it allowed us to consider the present-day culture wars through another prism into the 1960s, and a family that wouldn't have looked out of place on "Leave It To Beaver."

Under the surface, life with the Drapers was considerably more complicated. As we've seen three decades later, the same can go for revisiting the '80s, which, from an entertainment standpoint, has far more hues to it than simply black and white.