The Boob Tube #18: Period Television Series

Other than Freaks and Geeks, I can't think of television show (or movie, for that matter) that more accurately captures the look and feel of the time better than Look Around You.   The BBC program ran from 2002 to 2005, and it's basically a homage to educational films and programs from this time period.  What makes it so fantastic? If fulfills the two requirements you need to have when doing a "period piece" centering on decades of the mid to late 20th century:

1. Do not beat the audience over the head with the time period.  If it's the 70s, don't have every actor in gigantic platform shoes and bell bottoms.  If it's set in the 60s, don't have everyone dressed like hippies, etc.  It's a matter of being subtle, but at the same time, all encompassing (if that makes sense).  It's not an easy thing to achieve.

2. Attention to detail. Look Around You has the hair, the film quality, and the color schemes down perfectly.  Simply put - it looks authentic.


As I mentioned, Freaks and Geeks is another example of a late twentieth century period piece done right.  The only other TV shows that I can think of that successfully pulled it off are Mad Men and The Wonder Years.  Ones that did not get it done include: Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Wonder Woman, That 70s Show, Everybody Hates Chris, Oliver Bean (2003), and (choke) That 80's Show.

What movies are the best and worst examples of late twentieth century period pieces? Sounds like an idea for another post.  Spoiler alert: Dazed and Confused will be topping the best list.


  1. And actually, I have a couple of serious nitpicks with Freaks and Geeks. Primarily, I feel that setting it in the fall of 1980 is too late for the look of things and the kids. 1978-79 schoolyear, maybe. Perhaps even 1979-1980. But in 1980, the greaseball look was well on its way out, Lindsay Weir. She also dresses too schlumpy. She looks like she stinks. No way for an 80s girl, even in 1980. This was the decade of good grooming from the get-go. Remember, the 1980s SMILED. It was as if everyone decided on January 1, 1980, that they were going to lose the dumpy clothes, make Ronald Reagan president, and take a collective national shower with a strong clarifying shampoo. F&G is just a shade off for me, and it really interferes with my liking the show.

    I lived it...I know firsthand.

    Remind me to do a weeklong tribute to Happy Days on my blog...the show that went from the 50s to the 80s in one manic season. Nice perm, Joannie Cunnigham.

    The first season of That 70s Show was very well done. Then it got stupid.

  2. I remember thinking how amazing the set dressing and wardrobe were in Casino. American Graffiti and More American Graffiti also look/feel exactly like their periods. Actually, Porkies does too. Oh, and Catch Me If You Can, which even has the incredible Saul Bass-like opening credits.

  3. Laura, I think if you go back and look at your old photos from '80-82 you'll see the transition wasn't as drastic as you're remembering.

    If you go to e-yearbook.com (you have to pay BTW)and take a tour through their collection you'll find it's actually hard to distinguish a 1979 yearbook from a 1981 yearbook.

  4. I disagree, Laura. The entire country didn't suddenly switch to parachute pants and moussed hair in 1980. The '70s lasted well into 1982 at least. As for Lindsay's look, as a girl (Lindsay, not me:) who's very bright AND hangs around with the burnouts, I doubt she's going to start listening to Depeche Mode, wear shiny clothes, and do her hair up like a character in Liquid Sky. The army coat fits her perfectly. Plus, it's Michigan. Michigan!

  5. There was a short lived tv show a few years ago called Reunion where it starts in 1986 and then each episode depicts an incident the following year. I only saw the first few episodes, but I have to say the art direction and wardrobe were great. They were subtle and felt authentic. The show also starred the lead girl from That 80s Show, which I also enjoyed. There, I said it!

    I also agree that the 70s spread into the early 80s and then it became neon awesomeness. I like both decades a lot!

  6. Didn't Forrest Gump feel accurate? It sure did to me.

  7. Got to agree with the idea that stylistically, the look of the late 70s crested over into the early 80s. The Preppy Handbook didn't appear until '83, and my HS yearbook from '83 still has a lot of bad plaids and wide collars (funny, the plaids are back.)

    That said, Laura, I loved your line about how "Happy Days went from the 50s to the 80s in one manic season"
    Lord knows, they weren't alone - stylistically, the later seasons of M.A.S.H. are painful to watch (and for many other reasons).

    I'd add Life on Mars to the mix of shows that did a good job of capturing their period - in look and feel, it holds up well against the original "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3", for example. And From the Earth to the Moon, which did a great and subtle job of shifting hairstyles and wardrobe as the episodes moved through the 60s and early 70s.

    Lastly, I hope you plan to include Thirteen Days and Apollo 13 to your period movies list.

  8. One more nominee for the movie list - Without Limits, an under-rated biopic about Steve Prefontaine.

  9. Freaks and Geeks is one of my favorite shows of all time. I think it was very honest from style, mood, sentiment, e.c.t.

    One movie that really made me feel as if I was brought back in a time machine was The Ice Storm (which was set in 1973).

  10. Freaks and Geeks was an amazing show. Even though it was 1980, there were still some leftover 70s fashions...many girls still had the feathered hair back then, and many of the guys in my high school wore jeans and flannel shirts (although the jeans were straight legs which were incredibly popular in my school. I can even recall that I also wore big flannel shirts with jeans or cords to school. I don't recall fashion being a major deal in high school until designer jeans caught on. Initially people scoffed them when they first came out in the late 70s and the people who wore them at school were ridiculed...but by 1981, all the girls in my school were wearing them.