Why Television Is Currently Obsessed with the 1970s
You may feel like you’re in a time loop these days watching television. From the porn world of HBO Max’s “Minx,” to the Paramount set of “The Offer,” and the Washington power struggles of “Gaslit,” it may be 2022 but onscreen, it is the 1970s. The three series above, alongside a section of Showtime’s upcoming anthology series “The First Lady,” all take place in the era of Gerald Ford, gas shortages, and snazzy fashions. If media reflects the culture, and vice versa, what is it about the 1970s that is speaking to right now?
There are two major elements at play: a desire to indulge in nostalgia and a response to current, perceived revolutionary changes in our society. David Greenberg, professor of journalism & media and history for Rutgers University, said there’s always a desire to present nostalgia in film and television. While he wouldn’t go so far as to say the era is trendy in media at the moment, he believes the key anniversaries of Watergate (portrayed in “Gaslit”) and the release of “The Godfather” (the subject of “The Offer”) are key reasons to look back. “You come back at the 50th [and] it’s time to really examine something with a lot more historical perspective,” he said. “So part of it is [hitting that] half century mark.”
Comparisons between the current era and the 1970s have been discussed as far as back as 2016 when Financial Times writer Simon Kuper noted the similarities regarding overseas violence and soaring oil prices. Of the various creatives spoken to, all felt there were numerous commonalities between the seventies and today. “I was reading all these old magazines and kind of researching the time period. So many of the issues that we were talking about today are things that were being talked about 50 years ago,” said “Minx” creator Ellen Rapoport. Rapoport and “Offer” showrunner Nikki Toscano both cited the struggles women have faced in the workplace, while Robbie Pickering (creator of “Gaslit”) emphasized the perceived similarities between then-President Richard Nixon and former President Donald Trump.
Video essayist Lindsay Ellis has talked about the “thirty-year cycle;” the time it takes for children of a certain era to become creators of culture themselves. In the 1980s, there was a heavy prevalence of films focused on the 1950s and 1960s, as many of the directors of that era perceived it as their good, old days. It’s similar to the 1980s boom that started with “Stranger Things” in 2016. As Ophelia Lovibond, star of HBO Max’s “Minx” said, though there is a desire to celebrate these eras, it’s often presented by a privileged group who could romanticize that time. “You’re just remembering it with rose tinted glasses because it’s easier than addressing, without saying the obvious, the horrific things happening around the world.”
That time around, the current nostalgic trend is an opportunity to center the conversation on women and minorities. “This is when you see the feminist movement, women’s lib, as it was called, then,” said Greenberg. “Women’s liberation kind of grew out of the Black liberation movements in a lot of ways.” Toscano and Rapoport showcase feminism differently in their works, but acknowledged that there is a certain element of both sad truth and wish fulfillment in their respective projects. Toscano said she was protective of the female characters in “The Offer” because “in the making of ‘The Godfather,’ which is based on Al Ruddy’s true story, there weren’t a lot of women in the mix.”
For Rapoport, she went in with open eyes to how the 1970s limited opportunities for minorities. “The extras companies have calculations and they’re like, ‘Do you want L.A. in the ’70s or do you want L.A. today?” And they have a breakdown by what L.A. actually would have looked like [in terms of racial/gender makeup] and what it looks like now. So we made the decision that [magazine company] Bottom Dollar [on ‘Minx’] should look much closer to what L.A. is now,” she said.
But one of the main parallels that most theorists can agree on is how Nixon’s Watergate feels akin to what the United States experienced with Donald Trump. Again, these comparisons aren’t new. Nixon and Trump comparisons have been written almost as soon as he took office. “Both are men who really wanted to wield power, absolutely, who had a lot of contempt for democratic ways of doing things,” Greenberg explained. “Nixon was about to be impeached when he resigned; Trump was impeached twice. The Republicans of the seventies were willing to own up to the facts when they saw what Nixon had done, whereas the Republican Party of today’s just stood loyally behind Trump even though many of them knew he had done a lot of serious wrongdoing.”
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle
Robbie Pickering, a Nixon researcher himself, looked at the romanticization of seventies cinema when embarking on “Gaslit.” For him, films like “All the President’s Men,” while good, presented clear heroes and villains. Journalists became superheroes with a shadowy individual, as opposed to a government, being the lone bad apple. “The kind of cultural polarization in America started with Nixon. That ‘us versus them’ mentality,” said Pickering.
As showcased in “The Offer,” the 1970s was also a time of creativity led by raconteurs who were interested in bucking the studio system. “That period of time in Hollywood, ‘The Godfather,’ ‘The conversation,’ ‘Marathon Man.’ It’s the last vestige of this independent filmmaking, so to speak, that we don’t see very often nowadays,” Toscano said. Though there are independent films today, Toscano’s points to a time of non-franchise films, where directors and producers were auteurs with the ability to sell a project on their name alone. Like “Gaslit” the romanticizing of the 1970s is both because of this cinematic output, but the belief that directors and producers could shape culture and make comments on the political world of the time. In a way, the creation of these shows acts in a similar fashion to those films.
Is the 30-year-cycle at play here? Are the creatives of today drawing on a fountain of creativity and political upheaval to create shows that both honor and deconstruct the messiness of the past? Or are we continuing to cite the 1970s as indicative of our times to explain away every bad thing? The answer may be all of the above. Regardless, it’s making for some good television.
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