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James Carville, left, Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson trade arguments on CNN’s Crossfire in 2002.
James Carville, left, Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson trade arguments on CNN’s Crossfire in 2002.

John Doyle

Run for your lives: The eighties are back on TV Add to ...

Deliver us, oh Lord who controls the popular culture, the winds of change in the fashion racket and the TV trends, deliver us from the 1980s. I’m begging you here.

It is a fact that in the upcoming new U.S. TV season, the eighties theme is both under the surface and right there on the surface. There’s a sitcom called The Goldbergs, which is set during the 1980s and that’s the main point – jokes about REO Speedwagon and such.

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And then there’s what happens tonight. Brace yourself for feelings of loopy retro-nostalgia, or revulsion. You’ve been warned.

First thing to note is that Arsenio Hall is back. Yes, Arsenio freakin’ Hall. Think back, if you care, to the mid-eighties when Hall, then known as an actor and comic, was sidekick to Alan Thicke on the mind-boggling, short-lived talk show Thicke of the Night. Then in 1989 came the syndicated late night talk show, The Arsenio Hall Show. All sass, shoulder pads and an “I’m not Johnny Carson” attitude, Hall’s show was hot for a while – then-candidate Bill Clinton playing the saxophone and Magic Johnson revealing he was HIV-positive on the show.

Things changed. Hall went off to do something or other, and now he’s back, promising more of what made the original show appealing – music, laughs, stand-up comics and the usual type of guests promoting movies and TV shows. Tonight on The Arsenio Hall Show (in Canada on Omni, 10 p.m.), it’s Chris Tucker from the Rush Hour movies, Tuesday it’s Ice Cube, Lisa Kudrow and rapper Mac Miller and on Wednesday, it’s Magic Johnson.

Even more notable is the return to CNN of the most irritating of political chat shows, Crossfire (CNN, 6:30 p.m.).

Some genius (that would be new CNN boss Jeff Zucker) decided it was time to revive the old thing. Oh sure, it comes with new hosts and pundits, but CNN has been promoting it like mad, online, with this headline: “’80s throwback: What life looked like when Crossfire first aired.” See, the show first aired in 1982 and CNN is offering photos of the staff dressed in haute-’80s gladrags, with related stories about, “the clothes. The hair. The music.” It’s a darn peculiar way to promote what is supposed to be a serious political discussion program. The new hosts, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, conservative commentator S.E. Cupp, former Obama administration official Van Jones and Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, will chat up the news of the day, deliver inside-Washington insight and, CNN claims, the show will have “a serious tone.” That would be Newt Gingrich-style serious, we assume.

“Tone” is what made Crossfire notorious, then terrible and, finally, a hideous parody of itself. The years when Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak and John Sununu were the conservative-side hosts of the show made it infamous and wickedly irritating. It amounted to a bunch of stuffed shirts shouting at each other and it paved the way for the absurdly, nastily partisan Fox News channel.

Hosts and pundits came and went, but the show was in its death throes when the bow-tied, blithering nitwit Tucker Carlson was one of the hosts.

In the Bush-era, post-9/11 culture wars, Carlson epitomized the blithe poisonousness of the show and a lot of cable news. On it, everything was reduced to “left versus right.” Vitriol was the oxygen of Crossfire.

Then in late 2004, along came Jon Stewart. The Daily Show was making an impact, mocking American politics and cable news. He was invited to appear on Crossfire. On the show, he was accused of being “soft” on John Kerry when Kerry ran for president. Stewart pointed out that he was a comedian. He oozed contempt for the show and he said, “I made a special effort to come on the show today because I have privately, amongst my friends and also in occasional newspapers and television shows, mentioned this show as being bad. And I wanted to, well, I felt that that wasn’t fair, and I should come here and tell you it’s not so much that it’s bad, as it’s hurting America.”

Carlson replied, “Oh, Jon, Jon, I’m sorry. I think you’re a good comedian. I think your lectures are boring.”

The damage was done. CNN cancelled Crossfire a few months later. It was the comedian who killed it.

Why it is revived now is bothersome. There’s a difference between the first age of Crossfire and now. There’s a difference between the 1980s and now. You see, there’s Jon Stewart. This is his age and Colbert’s. The eighties are long over and should stay over. Spare us the nostalgia.

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