The Making of The '80s: The Decade that Made Us

National Geographic Channel
National Geographic Channel / National Geographic Channel

If you look at the world we live in—from the fitness fads to the gadgets we carry in our pockets and use in our homes to the music we listen to—nearly all roads lead back to one era: The 1980s. And that was why Jane Root wanted to make a series about the decade. “Loads of people have done shows on the 60s,” she says, “but, really, all the things that are so much a part of our world today started in the ‘80s. It was this [time] of incredible inventiveness. Our world was born in the ‘80s.” The result is The '80s: The Decade that Made Us, a six-part miniseries that airs tonight, tomorrow, and Tuesday starting at 8 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel.

To bring the series to screen—a process that took about a year and a half—Root and her team began by doing research. Lots and lots of research, in fact; “gazillions,” in Root’s estimation. Not just into what happened in the 1980s, but what occurred immediately before and after the decade, so they could provide the proper context to viewers. “We really wanted to do deep dives into things that happened,” Root says. “We talked to hundreds and hundreds of academics. We read books, we went back in archives, we took loads of old [advertisements], we did a ton of stuff like that which was really fun.” Some interviews and advertisements that appear on the series haven’t been seen since they originally aired. Of course, there was also stuff that was hard to track down. “It’s quite hard to find the early home videos and stuff like that,” Root says. “People didn’t keep a lot of that, which is disappointing.”

The team decided that the series should look back at the cultural, political, and technological events of the decade with an eye to how those developments inform our lives today. This, it turns out, helped the producers to determine, from tons of information about what occurred during that decade, what they actually wanted to include in the show. “There were some things that were pretty big then, but didn’t really last,” Root says. Things that were discussed by didn’t make the cut included pet rocks and Cabbage Patch Kids. “We left all those things out that were purely nostalgia and tried to go for things that had an impact. That changed things. And that you can still see some of the things they changed then [today].”

The episodes, though roughly chronological, are organized by theme. “That’s often how I like to make shows, so that you feel like you’re on a journey, but you slot things in,” Root says. “We looked to themes that we could find a lot of things that connected on." Determining the balance of the episodes—how much weight should be given to political events like the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan versus more fun things, like the development of the Rubiks Cube, for example—was key, too. “That was a long discussion,” Root says. “We went through phases where ‘let’s make it all super fun,’ and then we went through phases where ‘oh, we’ve got to make some more serious stuff,’ and then we navigated backwards and forwards.” One of Root's favorite episodes, which deftly balances serious and fun events, is the second, called "Revolutionaries." "[It's] about the way that counterculture becomes business culture," Root says, and features Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and skateboarder Tony Hawk, among others.

Root’s team interviewed everyone from actress Jane Fonda to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Popular Mechanics editor in chief Jim Meigs to Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniels to shed light on the era. Academics who have written extensively about the ‘80s also participated, and the series is narrated by Brat Pack member Rob Lowe. Root was disappointed not to nab someone from one very prominent musical family, though. “We would have loved to have had someone like Janet Jackson, [or one of] the Jackson family members, [and] we didn’t get [them],” she says. “But in the end, we did pretty well. We were pretty amazed by the number of people that we [got].”

Root learned oodles of facts about the 80s in the process of researching and putting the show together, but one thing in particular was very surprising to the producer: that America's fitness craze started because Jane Fonda broke her ankle while filming a movie. The actress had to find a new, less intensive way to stay fit; the resulting workout would later become a wildly popular VHS tape series. “I read somewhere that in 1980 there was something like 13 gyms in the whole of Manhattan,” Root says. “Young boys went to them. Women didn’t go to gyms at all. Today, virtually every three blocks, there’s a gym. And I was just like, ‘Wow, you mean it all started from [Jane breaking her ankle]?’ That was just astounding to me.”