From the perspective of 2021, 1980 now looks like a golden age.
For a start, it featured much better music, far more career opportunities, no violent red hat insurrections, and no coronavirus keeping people isolated at home.
So you might think Ed Burns's nostalgic coming-of-age series "Bridge and Tunnel" would take off like a rocket on the Fourth of July from its opening scene - but that's not what happens.
Starting in the spring of 1980 when six young friends (three young men, three young women) return from college to tidy up their romantic attachments before they start off on the rest of their lives, we meet young Jimmy Farrell (the talented Queens-born actor Sam Vartholomeos) who's still mooning over his old flame Jill (Caitlin Stasey), although the admiration doesn't appear to be quite so requited.
Jill has dreams of a high fashion career in Manhattan but to the snooty prep school types who run the show there she's known as "Bridge and Tunnel", or just B and T, a put down that suggests she's going to have a mountain to climb in her chosen career.
Jimmy meanwhile is seeking his start as a wildlife photographer for National Geographic, a post that will soon take him all the way to Alaska, so the question becomes can these two crazy kids who clearly adore each other find some way to make long-distance work, or is their high school sweethearts story coming to a close?
How much you care about this depends on the writing, directing, and acting. The acting is first-rate and the chemistry between the two leads is considerable. It's the writing and directing that lets them down. "Bridge and Tunnel" doesn't have much in the way of a compelling story to tell right from the outset.
Is there anything more to these kids than their dating troubles, you'll start to ask yourself? Are they ever going to do something truly surprising? Is Jimmy's sister going to find more to do than mock him for his devotion to Jill? Is this just going to be pretty people having problems?
I mean, sure, romantic decisions are consequential and life-changing at some level, it's just hard to decide what that level is for these about to be adults as their lives are rapidly changing. If you get hitched at 22 doesn't that mean you're going to be tied down for the rest of your life? And isn't 22 a bit young to make that decision?
Four episodes in, the main characters' lives start to come into better focus. Along for the ride is Stacey (Isabella Farrell), the knockout blond who can't decide between her own suitors but will rip the face off anyone else who dares to approach them.
Stacey's on-again-off-again squeeze is Mikey (Jan Luis Castellanos), who looks like Michelangelo's David come to life, so you can see what the attraction is. Stacey has the hots for Mikey but despite herself, she's also catching feelings for him, and to her surprise, that means increasingly conflicted about which beau to choose.
Playing second string is the lovely Tammy (Gigi Zumbado), who has made her way through Columbia University by waitressing (you could still do this, to some degree, in the '80s). Tammy has had a long-term crush on Mikey but she knows if she ever acts on it that Stacey will erupt and break off their friendship. Stacey may not want him, but she doesn't want anyone else to have him. It's complicated.
What a show leaves out often says as much as what makes it in. There are no gay people in this world. Not in bars, not in shops, not anywhere. It's like a bomb dropped that vaporized them. Black people seem to meet the same fate.
The only conflicts the characters we see onscreen have are about who's dating who at the bar tonight and who's off-limits. The relationships between parents and children are sometimes awkward but always loving and respectful. Booze and pot are enjoyed in copious amounts in every episode but no one ever gets stopped by the police. It's a world within a world and if you don't belong there you are very quickly going to feel it.
Leaning heavily into the nostalgic music of the period is a way to instantly conjure the atmosphere of the times, but for some reason, "Bridge and Tunnel" often feels like a reenactment rather than a period piece. Music that uplifts from the era is underutilized, and without much context or relevance it often just becomes wallpaper.
Playing Jimmy's hardbitten dad, Burns creates a character who paints houses but has the soul of a poet. Being Irish, this isn't a complete stretch for him, but it's a clunky way to smuggle in the exposition. Jimmy and Dad bond through their mutual love of baseball, but Dad's suggestion to run and never look back has Jimmy wondering if it's the great advice he thinks it is (his mom and dad have a happy marriage and make a decent living, so is married life really the prison he suggests?).
Jordache and Vanderbilt jeans and French curls fill the screen with period detail, as do the boys' short shorts, but somehow the fact that they never rise beyond their romantic travails makes this time machine feel altogether less magical than it could.
Another thing that makes "Bridge and Tunnel" feel oddly inert is its lack of specificity. We know this is Long Island, but scene after scene is played against anonymous backgrounds: someone's backyard, a spot near the sea, a bar without any other customers, or even a visible bartender. It could really be anywhere in America if it wasn't for the dese, dem, dose accents.
There is so much potential story to choose from in the era. It's a time of punk, new wave, the new romantics and so much more. There are major political and social changes happening to the nation, the AIDS epidemic and the way it will change all relationships is around the corner, so to focus this narrowly on who's dating who feels so anachronistic and conservative.
Burns, 52, was raised in Woodside and his own rise as a successful independent filmmaker would make a much more remarkable subject than this modest and meandering story. For a start, it would also inject some much-needed momentum into what is an affectionate (but maybe too affectionate) time capsule.
The actors are the show's real standouts and they work very well as an ensemble, but you may just wish they had more of a story to work with. If a six-episode series that asks will they or won't they (and nothing much else) sounds like your bag then "Bridge and Tunnel" is the show for you. But if you'd like to learn a little about the time and place you may need to keep walking.
"Bridge and Tunnel" parts one and two are now available to view on Epix.