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TV takes viewers back to the 1980s

Hulk Hogan, INXS, Bobby Brown — is this 2005, or 1985?
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Hulk Hogan is acting tough and preaching his good-guy ways to all his fans. INXS is on the tube every day, it seems, and musical acts such as Bobby Brown and Wang Chung are in the spotlight.

Wait a minute. Are we in 2005, or the late 1980s? It's hard to tell these days.

Summertime television isn't exactly known for being innovative. Traditionally, it's a whole lot of reruns, three months of shows and personalities everyone's seen before. So it shouldn't be much of a surprise that many of the stars of the summer season aren't new faces. The twist, however, is how old they are. The stars have a lot of experience in the limelight; it's just that most of that experience came in the 1980s.

In fact, anyone who hasn't turned on a TV since 1989 would see a whole lot of familiar faces, including more musical acts than found on a typical MTV weekend.

The summer began with "Hit Me Baby One More Time" answering the "Whatever happened to Wang Chung and Cameo?" questions that viewers never even knew they had. Sure, the show offered glorified karaoke from acts who have gone from playing sold-out arenas to local Fourth of July celebrations, but it was a nice dose of fun to start off rerun season. (If you missed it, just wait until next year. With all the old-time rock-and-rollers looking for a payday, odds are good that it'll be back.)

Even before that was "The Contender," a cult boxing hit with Sylvester Stallone, Sugar Ray Leonard and boxers who were in grade school or diapers when the hosts made boxing cool in the 1980s. It's another show that may be back next year, though probably on a different network.

"Gastineau Girls" featured the ex-wife and daughter of Mark Gastineau, who starred in the NFL for the New York Jets in the 1980s and was clearly nutty enough that the antics of his family members didn't come as much of a shock.

As it turns out, those appetizers were just the tip of the iceberg, like the chips and salsa served before the hot dogs and hamburgers get burned to a crisp on the grill.

Headliners of the 1980s returnMonday, Tuesday and Wednesday — three nights a week! — CBS and dozens of interested voters help INXS pick out a new lead singer on 'Rock Star: INXS." The band needs a new one because Michael Hutchence died in 1997, in a story that would make a far more interesting show than this one. INXS could use a new singer, but it's questionable whether any of the finalists — or the hype generated by the show — will result in anything resembling the group's breakthrough 1987 album. "Kick" brought hits like "New Sensation," "Devil Inside" and "Need You Tonight" to the airwaves, but it's a tall order to expect any of the hopefuls to bring that kind of star power to a band that badly needs it.

Not leaving R&B fans in the lurch, Bravo is running "Being Bobby Brown" every Thursday night. In the 1980s, Brown was one of the stars of New Edition before releasing his solo album, "Don't Be Cruel," in 1988, and even had the designated pop single on the "Ghostbusters 2" soundtrack. And really, nothing says "1980s" like a "Ghostbusters" reference. Of course, nobody's tuning into that show to figure out the root causes of the Brown-Ralph Tresvant feud (that's what VH1's "Behind the Music" is for). It's to see if the relationship with Brown's wife Whitney Houston will work, or if he'll get arrested again for drunk driving or something else.

On Sunday night, VH1 broadcasts "Hogan Knows Best." Any old-school WWF fan of a certain age grew up with The Hulkster telling them to be good and do their homework, along with teaching that getting hit with a chair doesn't necessarily result in a hospital stay. Maybe that last bit wasn't such great advice, but Hogan's performance here is similar to his old-school WWF persona. Anyone who watched him back in the day could have guessed that dating his daughter would be a nerve-wracking experience.

And that's not all. "Tommy Lee Goes to College" debuts Aug. 18, because what male college student hasn't thought, "Damn, it would be great to have a class with someone from Mötley Crüe, especially if there's a chance that he might bring Pamela Anderson to the final exam."

Bronson Pinchot is one of the "stars" of the latest edition of VH1's "The Surreal Life," although that only proves the skeptics were right; Balki Bartokomous of "Perfect Strangers" didn't stand a chance without his cousin Larry reining him in.  And curly-haired comic Pauly Shore now has his own show, "Minding the Store," on TBS, though if you want to get technical, he really didn't hit the mainstream until the early 90s.

Save my career, one more timeThese shows have a lot in common besides their connection with the 1980s.

Not very many people go on reality shows at the height of their careers — usually it's more of a "Hey! We're INXS! Remember us? You can buy our tapes at garage sales everywhere, usually for two dollars or less!"

The musical acts in particular have to be envious of "American Idol" and its ability to launch singing careers. It was ironic when Tiffany sang Kelly Clarkson's "Breakaway" in her "Hit Me, Baby" performance; had Idol been around 20 years ago, she'd have almost certainly been one of the finalists listening to Simon Cowell's barbs.

Still, these bits of summer fluff are not really train-wreck shows (except maybe for "), so it has to be a little more than that. Indeed, it's all about nostalgia.

Most people are nostalgic by nature, and the '80s are now far enough away to have that rosy glow of "remember when" without the embarrassment of the disco '70s. If that wasn't apparent before, it should have been clear after the debut of "Hit Me Baby One More Time." The show surprised everyone, probably including the show's producers, by winning its debut week among 18-to-49 year-old viewers. A program featuring musical acts that many hadn't thought about in nearly two decades was popular enough to outdraw every other show.

But really, the high ratings shouldn't have been a shock (even if they were temporary). Who doesn't remember the 1980s fondly? Even the Russians seem like an innocuous enemy compared to the carnage that's shown on the news today, and those sugar-free Jello pudding pops that Bill Cosby used to pitch would be Atkins-friendly today.

Under the circumstances, given the choice between watching some old friends from 20 years ago or the latest political news, the '80s revival feels as comfy as one of Cosby's big old patterned sweaters.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.