Remember when nostalgia died?

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"The '80s: The Decade that Made Us" gets this across with narration by Rob Lowe and a passel of experts, from Warner to author and editor Kurt Andersen to Larry King and Jane Fonda.

Its strategy, which gives the narrative punch, is to find defining moments. So the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's game-winning goal against the Soviet Union is the moment the country's malaise of the 1970s begins to lift. The recording session that brought Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. together to re-cut "Walk This Way" is the moment that took hip-hop music off the street corner and put it into the mainstream.

Root demonstrates that the antidote to nostalgia is fact. "You wouldn't have Beyonce or Lady Gaga if you hadn't have had Madonna in a wedding dress at the MTV Awards," she said. "It's hard to re-create the level of shock and astonishment that people had about that."

Or, more seriously, you can say you can remember the 1983 airing of the nuclear apocalypse film "The Day After," but the documentary uses it to try to convey how genuinely terrified people were of nuclear war.

"That's a different kind of nostalgia," Root said, "because it's not like nostalgia for shoulder pads. It's like, 'Wow, it really did feel like the world was about to end at any time.'"

One of the more entertaining things about making the show, she said, was when junior researchers would come scurrying up to her to announce their discovery that people didn't even have email in the 1980s or "that the news used to only be on at certain times of the day."

And this was where she came to realize that your feelings about the past have a lot to do with your place in the present.

"If you're in your 50s, the '80s is not that long ago," Root said. "If you're like some of my junior researchers and you're 23, it's a really long time ago."

This notion of relativity explains, perhaps, why some of us are stunned to hear nostalgia for recent eras and others revel in it. As a child of the '70s, for instance, I remember feeling how distant the 1950s were and how weird it seemed that the time was so present with my parents. The 1940s, meanwhile, might as well have been ancient Rome.

I pointed this out in my chat with Warner, that just in math terms the '80s and '90s are to the current decade what the '40s and '50s were to the '70s.

"Yeah, dig that," he said. And then he paused for a moment. "Wow. Oh, wow."

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

'The '80s: The Decade That Made Us'

7 p.m. Sunday, continuing Monday and Tuesday; National Geographic Channel

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