I was predisposed to like this show for one main reason: I graduated from high school in 1987. Although that's a year off from the characters in the show, it's close enough that in some way, this show should be about my generation. I was hoping to see my cultural touchstones projected onto the screen. I was also hoping perhaps to see the lives of me and my friends projected onto the screen as well, even though I knew better.
Well, the show doesn't quite work.
Before I had a chance to watch the first episode, "1986 (Pilot)," I read Bob Greenberger's review. Bob's focus was mostly on the way the premise was "Hollywooded" up, with cliches, uninteresting characters, bad dialogue, and soap opera plot lines that just don't fit.
I also had difficulty with some of this. In particular, I found it unbelievable that Will would agree to take the fall for Craig on a drunk driving vehicular homicide charge. And then, after Will makes a plea bargain, the judge vacates the plea bargain and sentences Will to jail time based on his guilty plea. I'm not a lawyer, but I don't think a judge is allowed to do that. If she wishes to vacate the plea bargain, she has to give Will the right to change his plea to not guilty so he can go to trial. She can't just say that since he admitted his guilt, she can give him whatever sentence she wants.
My own problem with the show, however, has less to do with the hackneyed story and characters, and more to do with the lack of understanding of the culture of the times. Here's one example to illustrate what I mean.
One of the friends, Jenna, is an aspiring actress who is considered promiscuous by her friends. She invites a young English teacher to their post-graduation party, because she's obviously interested in him. When he arrives at the party, she quickly removes her jacket so she can approach him wearing an ensemble that consists of a transparent black shirt over a white bra.
Both of these things are unbelievable for a high school graduate in 1986. A senior getting involved with a teacher is much more something that would have happened in 1976, not 1986. And the outfit she wears is unbelievable, even for someone like her. I was friends with a few girls in high school who were considered promiscuous, and who attempted to present themselves that way by their choice of dress. In 1986 girls like that would wear things like skin-tight leopard print clothes, or low-cut blouses with high-cut skirts. The visible bra look, although a nod to Madonna's contemporary videos, didn't get adopted by high school students until closer to 1996 than 1986. (And I know this, from having taught high school students in the 1990s.) The senior girls from 1986 wouldn't have been caught dead in Jenna's ensemble. The ones from 1996 wouldn't have blinked twice.
In short, the scene felt to me almost as if the writers said, "Hey, we want this to look like 1986 high school culture. Let's mix 1976 with 1996; on average we'll be okay!"
There are other issues like this. For example, one of the friends, Samantha, has gotten pregnant, so sex is clearly a factor on the show, and yet not once is AIDS mentioned. When I was in high school, AIDS loomed on everyone's mind, and it was the beginning of frank talk about contraception and safe sex.
In conclusion, the writers seem to feel that the way to evoke the year 1986 is to play tunes from the 1980s in the background, and to avoid showing modern technology like cell phones and PDAs. If you're going to create a show where each episode is set in a different year, you'd better do a lot more research than that.