TV Shows of the 1980s
This was the decade of the VCR, but you still didn’t make plans on Thursday nights. It was a golden age for sitcoms and for big, silly action-adventures where the good guys always won—plenty to distract us from the last vestiges of the Cold War and a pair of nuclear arsenals that could do a decent imitation of the Death Star. Nostalgia for bygone eras gave me a connection to the ’50s with Happy Days and the ’60s with Wonder Years, but mostly shows captured the 1980s in all of its neon glory. Big hair, loud colors and very special episodes ruled the day, as TV dared to talk about issues that had always been taboo. We’re celebrating the best of ’80s TV all week here at Paste.
We’ve dug back into the crazy decade, to find the 80 Best TV Shows of the 1980s. We were judging each series on its content between Jan. 1, 1980 and Dec. 31, 1989, so some great ’70s shows that lasted into the ’80s fell further down the list, while The Simpsons, which we named The Best TV Show of the 1990s, didn’t make the cut during the 1980s with only one Christmas special to its name. Let us know your favorite shows of the 1980s in the comments section below.
Original Run: 1983-85
Creator: Kenneth Johnson
Stars: Marc Singer, Faye Grant, Jane Badley, Michael Ironside, Robert Englund
V in the 1980s is a great example of a concept that worked well as a miniseries but couldn’t support itself as a full-on TV show. The story of Earth being invaded by friendly-looking “Visitors” who actually turn out to be man-eating reptile people was pure 1950s sci-fi claptrap, simply updated with ’80s fashion, but unfolding over the course of a two-night miniseries, it was cheesy good fun. Expanded into a full series, however, the show was more like a sci-fi soap opera with lizard people: The Post Dispatch in St. Louis called it “Dynasty with lizard makeup and laser guns.” It was also plagued by cast issues—Michael Ironside straight-up walked out on the program during its first and only season. Fun trivia bit: It also starred Robert Englund, better known as Freddy Krueger, the same year he appeared in the first A Nightmare on Elm Street and became a horror icon.
79. Sledge Hammer!
Original Run: 1986-88
Creator: Alan Spencer
Stars: David Rasche, Anne-Marie Martin, Harrison Page
Vigilante justice and a tough-nosed “us vs. them” mentality fueled by the Cold War was rampant in the ’80s. And, of course, our culture reflected this by the return of Dirty Harry, the Eastwood-inspired TV show Hunter, and three Death Wish sequels. It was a turn that was ripe for satire, which is just what creator Alan Spencer did with this short-lived series. Like the Dirty Harry series, the titular character (played by the great David Rasche) was a San Francisco cop who bucked protocol at every turn, loved resorting to violence, and reveled in his conservative worldview. It proved a fertile ground for sly humor and slapstick gags as well as some brilliant jabs at other ’80s TV series and films.
78. Growing Pains
Original Run: 1985-92
Creator: Neal Marlens
Stars: Alan Thicke, Joanna Kerns, Kirk Cameron, Tracey Gold, Jeremy Miller, Ashley Johnson
It’s odd to think that there are people living today who are only familiar with “born-again Christian” Kirk Cameron and not “hunky teen dreamboat” Kirk Cameron, but it’s true. In truth, there’s not much that sets Growing Pains apart from any other family sitcom of its day, but it somehow manages to be one of the most fondly remembered sitcoms of the ’80s regardless, from its homey opening sequence of family photos to the classic theme song, “As Long As We’ve Got Each Other.” It’s perhaps most interesting for the sudden conversion of its star, Cameron, to born-again Christianity, which made working with him a challenge, considering his ladies’ man character could suddenly no longer exhibit most of the behaviors that were expected of him. We can only imagine that Tiger Beat subscriptions took a hit that day.
77. Knight Rider
Original Run: 1982-1986
Creators: Glen A. Larson
Stars: David Hasselhoff, William Daniels, Edward Mulhare, Patricia McPherson
Artificial intelligence was never as cool before or since the creation of KITT, Michael Knight’s partner in the Foundation for Law and Government (FLAG). KITT, a souped up Trans Am, didn’t need a driver and was outfitted with enough gadgets to make James Bond jealous. Created and often written by Glen A. Larson (whose credits include Battlestar Galactica, Quincy, M.E., The Fall Guy, Magnum, P.I.), there were always plenty of bad-guy plans to foil in exceedingly awesome manners.
76. China Beach
Original Run: 1988-91
Creators: William Broyles Jr., John Sacret Young
Stars: Dana Delaney, Nan Woods, Michael Boatman, Marg Helgenberger, Robert Picardo, Tim Ryan, Ricki Lake
Focusing on the women (and men) behind the front lines of the Vietnam War, this groundbreaking drama was distinct from many of the other TV series that tackled war. Set on the beach that housed both a hospital and a rest and recreation center, Dana Delaney headlined as nurse Colleen Murphy. Colleen often served as the audience point-of-view into the war and how it affected not only the soldiers but those who supported them. The innovative series did not shy away from the horrors of combat and often featured real-life veterans. Critically acclaimed but low rated, China Beach lasted for only four seasons but like many shows its legacy has grown since its untimely cancellation.
Original Run: 1987-90
Creator: Stephen J. Cannell, Frank Lupo
Stars: Ken Wahl, Steven Bauer, Jonathan Banks, Jim Byrnes
Wiseguy stars Ken Wahl as Vinnie Terranova, an operative for the FBI who specializes in deep cover work. Wanting to explore both the mechanics of undercover work as well as the emotional toil it takes on a person, the writers choose to construct the show in a way that seemed more akin to British serials than episodic American television. Each season would be divided into several distinctive arcs that would play out over multiple installments. While the show received significant critical attention, low ratings and the departure of its lead in the fourth season eventually led to its demise. Often overlooked in the discussion of great TV dramas, Wiseguy nevertheless remains an integral bastion in the development of American televised storytelling.
74. Three’s Company
Original Run: 1977-84
Creator: Don Nicholl, Michael Ross, Bernie West
Stars: John Ritter, Suzanne Somers, Joyce DeWitt, Jenilee Harrison, Priscilla Barnes, Don Knotts
Three’s Company’s best years were in the ’70s before the Ropers got their own ill-fated spin-off. But John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt remained until the series ended in 1984, three years after Suzanne Somers was replaced by Jenilee Harrison. If prime time wasn’t ready for a gay character, it got around that taboo with Ritter’s womanizing Jack Tripper pretending he was gay so that their stuffy landlord would allow him to stay. At its best, it was a slapstick hit, spinning silly misunderstandings into sitcom gold.
Original Run: 1986-90
Creators: Paul Fusco, Tom Patchett
Stars: Paul Fusco, Max Wright, Anne Schedeen, Andrea Elson, Benji Gregory
Somehow, like Full House, this series also featured a family named “The Tanners,” but that’s where the comparisons end. A bizarre show in retrospect that featured a puppet as the titular character, ALF was about an alien named “Gordon Shumway” who crash-lands in the backyard of a suburban family and then proceeds to work his way into their hearts while waiting for his cohorts to stop by and pick him up, occasionally attempting to catch and eat the family cat along the way. Most episodes play out as a cross between Perfect Strangers and Growing Pains, as ALF learns about various human customs and the family attempts to shield him from the public and the government officials hunting for him. It all builds to one of the most insane TV finales of all time, as Gordon is captured by the government and brought to a lab, with the implication that he will be dissected alive in the name of science. Seriously, that’s how ALF ended. It was meant to be a cliffhanger ending, but because a fifth season of ALF was never produced, one of the weirdest sitcoms of the decade ended in one of the weirdest ways.
72. The Twilight Zone
Original Run: 1959-64, 1985-89, 2002-03
Creator: Rod Serling
Star: Rod Serling
Writer/host Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone may very well stand as one of the greatest and most influential TV shows of all time. Certainly after his death in 1975, the fingerprints of Serling and his genre-friendly morality plays could be found in the work of a new generation of writers and filmmakers. Despite the commercial disappointment of the 1983 Twilight Zone movie, CBS decided to resurrect the series in 1985. And while the ’80s revival may not have always reached the heights of the best Serling-penned episodes, it certainly produced installments that would have made the maestro proud, including contributions from the likes of Harlan Ellison, J. Michael Straczynski and a pre-Game of Thrones George R.R. Martin. Then there’s the 2002 iteration of the show—but that’s a whole other can of worms.
71. Kate & Allie
Original Run: 1984-89
Creator: Sherry Coben
Stars: Jane Curtin, Susan Saint James, Ari Meyers, Frederick Koehler, Allison Smith
The strength of Kate & Allie was in its two lead actresses—Susan Saint James and Jane Curtin—and the strong, independent women they portrayed. Kate and Allie are childhood friends who’ve both gone through recent divorces, leaving them to raise children on their own. They move into a Greenwich Village brownstone together, Kate as the breadwinner and Allie taking care of the home. SNL vet Curtain won the Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy Series twice.
70. Who’s the Boss?
Original Run: 1984-92
Creator: Martin Cohan
Stars: Tony Danza, Judith Light, Alyssa Milano, Danny Pintauro, Katherine Helmond
Retired baseball players making their way in the world today was a theme of ’80s sitcoms (the minimum MLB salary in 1980 was $30,000 compared with $500,000 today). In Who’s the Boss?, former Cardinals second baseman Tony Micelli (Tony Danza) decides a housekeeping job in Fairfield, Ct., will provide his daughter with a better upbringing than he got in Brooklyn. He works for a single mom, ad exec Angela Bower (Judith Light), providing years of will-they-won’t they tension and a flip of traditional gender roles. The show was a ratings hit and eventually overcame initial lukewarm critical reaction to win an Emmy and a Golden Globe.
69. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Original Run: 1987-96
Creators: Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, David Wise
Stars: Cam Clarke, Townsend Coleman, Barry Gordon, Rob Paulsen
It’s crazy to think that the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series somehow made it through 10 full seasons and an incredible 193 episodes, but it did. It was the first on-screen depiction of the characters after the original Mirage Studios comic, and much was changed in regards to the series tone and characterization. Gone was the grittiness of the comics, replaced with a bright, colorful, child-friendly series that embraced the “teenage” side of the turtles, turning them into slang-spouting skater boys with a mean pizza obsession. Much of this same characterization would be kept intact for the first 1990 live action movie, and these general depictions have remained in place ever since, which makes the original animated series perhaps the definitive version of the characters as far as influence is concerned. To a young child of the late ’80s/early ’90s, there were few things more satisfying than picking up an empty cardboard wrapping paper tube and swinging it around like Leonardo, except maybe for playing with the thousands of ridiculous Ninja Turtle action figures the series spawned.
68. Crime Story
Original Run: 1986-88
Creators: Chuck Adamson, Gustave Reininger
Stars: Dennis Farina, Anthony Denison, Stephen Lang, Bill Smitrovich, Bill Campbell, Steve Ryan, Paul Butler, Ted Levine
While Michael Mann’s Miami Vice was undoubtedly the more popular program of the day, there’s no question that Crime Story better reflected Mann’s more ambitious sensibilities. Set in 1963 Chicago, the show followed detective Mike Torello (the late great Dennis Farina) as he attempts to take down mobster up-and-coming mobster Ray Luca (Anthony Denison). In the course of the show’s two seasons, Torello’s pursuit of Luca would take the show throughout the dirty streets of Chicago and, eventually, into the desert oasis of Las Vegas. Along with Wiseguy, Crime Story helped eschew the traditional episodic structure of most cop shows in favor of central storylines that would develop over multiple episodes. Not to mention, despite its brief run, the show managed to incorporate many before-they-were-big guest spots from the likes of Kevin Spacey, Gary Sinise, Christian Slater, David Hyde Pierce, Lili Taylor, David Caruso, Ving Rhames and, in her first TV appearance, Julia Roberts.
67. The Tracy Ullman Show
Original Run: 1987-90
Creator: James L. Brooks
Stars: Tracey Ullman, Julie Kavner, Dan Castellaneta, Sam McMurray, Joesph Malone
Tracy Ullman’s prime-time run on Fox may be best known for introducing the world to The Simpsons (a pretty major cultural milestone), but she packed sketch comedy, musical numbers and animation into each show. Her co-stars Julie Kavner and Dan Castellaneta voiced Marge and Homer on the show for three years before making that their full-time gig, but Ullman was the undeniable star here. She played more than 100 different characters over four years, singing and dancing to the demanding choreography of Paula Abdul.
66. Night Flight
Original Run: 1981-96
Creator: Stuart S. Shapiro
Stars: Pat Prescott
The same year that MTV exploded upon the airwaves, another cable network was introducing a program that would prove, for at least one nocturnal cadre of TV viewers, just as influential. Night Flight was something of a four-hour variety show, aired on Friday and Saturday evenings, that would play a little taste of everything going on in the underground and cult music, art, and film worlds. You could stumble upon a screening of the animated sci-fi classic Fantastic Planet, performances by stand-up comics, concert films, Cold War-era newsreels, or episodes of SnubTV, a British TV series covering the indie music scene. It was an invaluable resource for left-of-center thinkers and impressionable teens around the U.S., and the precursor for the work of the similarly minded curators at Network Awesome.
65. Laverne & Shirley
Original Run: 1976-83
Creator: Garry Marshall, Lowell Ganz, Mark Rothman
Stars: Penny Marshall, Cindy Williams, Michael McKean, David L. Lander
“Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incoporated!” That’s the extent of my Yiddish, thanks to a pair of lovable roomies in the ’70s and ’80s. The low-rent, blue-collar, brewery-working buddies began their TV lives as friends of the Fonz. But Penny Marshall’s Laverne De Fazio and Cindy Williams’ Shirley Feeney quickly outdrew Happy Days, doing it their way. Michael McKean and David Lander arrived fully formed as their upstairs neighbors Lenny and Squiggy, characters they created for comedy routines during college. The four characters were unlike any we’d seen on TV before.
64. Full House
Original Run: 1987-95
Creator: Jeff Franklin
Stars: John Stamos, Bob Saget, Dave Coulier, Candace Cameron, Jodie Sweetin, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen
Full House: The absolute definition of the “family sitcom” in the late ’80s/early ’90s. Unlike the Blossoms of the era, Full House wasn’t about the “very special episode”; it was just wholesome, family friendly entertainment all the time, which has become all the more humorous in the years that followed as former viewers learned just how foul-mouthed Bob Saget could be in literally any other context. This, though, was the television equivalent of cotton candy: airy, saccharine, and totally insubstantial. Even if you watched a ton of Full House episodes, I’ll bet you barely remember the full plot of any of them. All that remains is blurred images—Uncle Jesse’s band, The Rippers; Joey’s creepy voices and impersonations and the adorable one-liners of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen as the family’s youngest child, Michelle Tanner. It was a show completely focused on its characters rather than its plots or themes, which were all completely archetypal. Watching it today is even more of a time capsule than most of these shows—I mean really, what says “the end of the ’80s” more than Stephanie Tanner’s dance to The B-52’s “Love Shack”?
63. Austin City Limits
Original Run: 1976-
Creator: Bill Arhos, Paul Bosner, Bruce Scafe
Stars: Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Leonard Cohen
Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Austin City Limits has become the longest-running music series in U.S. television history and the only TV show to receive the Presidential Medal of the Arts. But when ACL launched in 1974, it was just a scruffy, down-to-earth broadcast showcasing mainly roots musicians from the Austin area without a lot of showbiz frills. By the mid-’80s, the show had become an institution. Performers like Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Leonard Cohen, Emmylou Harris, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits all came to play intimate sets at their own pace, which often resulted in unforgettable episodes offering portraits of legendary performers in their primes. Now, of course, every one from Radiohead to Beck embraces a chance to take the ACL stage, but the show’s unique curatorial voice—one that focused on the best country and blues while always willing to consider exciting deviations—took shape in the ’80s.
62. WKRP in Cincinnati
Original Run: 1978-82
Creator: Hugh Wilson
Stars: Gary Sandy, Gordon Jump, Loni Anderson, Richard Sanders, Frank Bonner, Jan Smithers, Tim Reid, Howard Hesseman
Like many of the best sitcoms, WKRP was borne from very real experiences. Executive producer Hugh Wilson spent some years working as a salesman for a radio station in Atlanta, and many of the show’s memorable characters were based on real folks in the broadcast biz. Rooting in reality has helped keep the show feeling fresh 30 years later. There’s also something universally hilarious about the “slobs vs. snobs” tensions between the on-air personalities (’60s burnout Dr. Johnny Fever, and the stylish and smooth Venus Flytrap) and the bean counters (station manager Arthur Carlson and slick ad man Herb Tarlek) keeping the transmitter on. Add in Loni Anderson as a buxom blonde secretary and a newsman who mangles information and pronunciations, and you’ve got the formula for some tart and tangy comedy.
61. Max Headroom
Original Run: 1987-88
Creator: Annabel Jankel, Rocky Morton, George Stone
Stars: Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays, Chris Young, W. Morgan Sheppard, Charles Rocket, Jeffrey Tambor
One of the most indelible images of the ’80s was that of Max Headroom, a glitchy, computer-generated spokesperson/TV host with stuttering speech patterns. Throughout the decade, the character (played by actor Matt Frewer, stuck in a foam and Plexiglas costume) seemed to get reinvented every couple of years from TV movies in the UK to pimping New Coke here in the States. For a short stretch in the late ’80s, though, Headroom was the titular character in a dystopic series that ran briefly on ABC. Built off the same presence as the UK film, the show depicted a future that doesn’t seem that impossible today, a world is ruled by TV networks that use their technology to track the actions and thoughts of viewers. When an investigative reporter (Frewer) uncovers a scandal and is injured trying to escape with the information, a hacker uploads his mind into a computer and Max Headroom is born. The online figure helps his fellow reporters dig into the nasty work their employer Network 23 is up to. It’s a preposterous premise but the show has proven to be strangely prescient some 30 years after its premiere, and its dark undercurrent paved the way for other series like Twin Peaks and Dark Angel.
60. Miami Vice
Original Run: 1984-89
Creator: Anthony Yerkovich
Stars: Don Johnson, Philip Michael Thomas, Saundra Santiago, Michael Talbott, John Diehl, Olivia Brown
There is an urban legend that Miami Vice was birthed after NBC exec Brandon Tartikoff wrote the phrase “MTV cops” on a napkin and presented it to Hill Street Blues writer Anthony Yerkovich. Yerkovich has since dismissed this story, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more concise approximation of the show’s appeal. Starring Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas as a pair of Miami-based detectives, the show made police work look cooler and sexier than ever before. And while the show’s fashion trends and absurd storylines have not aged well, its cultural influence is impossible to deny. Not to mention, the pilot episode, directed by executive producer Michael Mann, remains one of the most compelling, and visually stunning hours in the history of the medium.
59. Reading Rainbow
Original Run: 1983-09
Creator: Cecily Truett Lancit, Laurence Lancit, Twila Liggett, Lynne Ganek, Tony Buttino
Stars: LeVar Burton
Reading Rainbow could probably attribute much of its success to its catchy theme song (Which can now be viewed in sing-along form) although it may have had more to do with LeVar Burton, the show’s amicable and charming host, and the plethora of great books showcased on the series over the course of its 23-year run. The PBS show began in 1983 and quickly grew in popularity with elementary-aged children, as well as their parents and teachers. The show was fun, engaging and made reading exciting: a trifecta of perfect children’s programming. And who doesn’t have fond memories of seeing the TV cart roll into their classroom specifically to watch an episode of Reading Rainbow? Each episode of the show followed a basic format: Burton would give a quirky introduction to a book, which would then be read and further explored through a series of stories and videos. The final segment offered a few library book recommendations from kids (just like you!) who each gave a quick summary of their selected book. While the show lasted 21 seasons, it wasn’t quite long enough; LeVar Burton recently launched the Reading Rainbow App to encourage a new generation of kids to enjoy reading. But you don’t have to take our word for it.
58. Fraggle Rock
Original Run: 1983-87
Creator: Jim Henson
Stars: Gerry Parkes, Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Kathryn Mullen, Karen Prell, Richard Hunt, Jim Henson
After the Muppets went off air in 1981, Jim Henson developed Fraggle Rock following the adventures of Gobo, Mokey, Red, Wembley, Boober with postcards from the human world from Uncle Traveling Matt. Like The Muppets, the world of Fraggle Rock was filled with original music. It was also filled with hard-working Doziers and a trio of gruff Gorgs, who collectively provided the radishes and radish-made buildings that allowed the Fraggles their carefree existence.
57. Wild Kingdom
Original Run: 1963-88, 2002-
Creator: Marlin Perkins
Stars: Marlin Perkins, Jim Fowler
Before the Discovery Channel, The Travel Channel and Animal Planet, there was Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, taking its audience on a trip around the world to see the animals in their natural habitat. Jim Fowler would venture into the field while Marlin Perkins would remain stateside, teaching us about the animals. It was better than a trip to the zoo.
56. The Love Boat
Original Run: 1977-87
Creator: Jeraldine Saunders
Stars: Gavin MacLeod, Bernie Kopell, Fred Grandy, Ted Lange, Lauren Tewes, Jill Whelan, Ted McGinley, Pat Klous
An hour-long sitcom/drama with a laugh track that featured storylines that sometimes didn’t even involve the regular cast, a variety of tones even within the same episode and a penchant for crossing over with other TV shows (from Fantasy Island to Charlie’s Angels)—The Love Boat was its own kind of show. If you didn’t guest star on The Love Boat in the ’80s, you probably didn’t have a SAG card. You never really knew what you were going to get each week except that Your Captain Stubing and his crew would make sure that everything worked out in the end.
55. Married… With Children
Original Run: 1987-97
Creator: Michael G. Moye, Ron Leavitt
Stars: Ed O’Neill, Katey Sagal, Christina Applegate, David Faustino, Amanda Bearse, david Garrison, Ted McGinley
The show that Fox built its empire on, Married…with Children may seem fairly tame by today’s standards. At the time, however, the show represented a fierce subversion of the traditional family sitcom, using Al and Peggy Bundy’s blatant ineptitude as parents for comedy fodder. It was crass, controversial and often very funny. Although the series inevitably begin to show major cracks after 11 years, the comedy stylings of its cast were always good for at least a chuckle. It was a show with a certain charm, even if it avoided sentimentality like the plague.
54. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids
Original Run: 1972-85
Creator: Bill Cosby, Ken Mundie
Stars: Bill Cosby, Lou Scheimer, Jan Crawford, Gerald Edwards, Eric Suter, Erika Carroll, Demetra McHenry, Lane Vaux
Bill Cosby’s legendary animated series was winding down in the ’80s, but new episodes were produced off and on until 1985. Once deemed too educational for Saturday mornings by NBC, Cosby took his series to CBS, where it flourished thanks to one of the most memorable cartoon characters of all time. Fat Albert was the heavyset angel on our shoulders, finding the right course in every sticky scenario.
Original Run: 1985-92
Creator: Lee David Zlotoff
Stars: Richard Dean Anderson, Dana Elcar
Not every TV character has his name become a verb, but man if he didn’t MacGyver his way out of every sticky scenario he encountered with a couple rubber bands, a battery, a paper clip and some duct tape. Oh, and that Swiss Army knife—got to have a Swiss Army knife. For its 139-episode run, Richard Dean Anderson’s MacGyver was the patron saint of non-violent (or at least minimally violent) resourcefulness, and the greatest joy of the show seeing what nifty trick he would employ next.
Original Run: 1978-91
Creator: David Jacobs
Stars: Larry Hagman, Barbara Bel Geddes, Patrick Duffy, Linda Gray, Steve Kanaly, Victoria Principal, George Kennedy, Charlene Tilton, Ken Kercheval
The king of all prime-time soaps, Dallas had the whole nation (and beyond) wondering what would happen next, especially on March 21, 1980, when J.R. Ewing was shot twice outside his office by a mysterious assailant. When the show returned that November, 76 percent of all TV viewers (90 million Americans) were tuned in to find out Who Shot J.R. For comparison’s sake, the most-watched episode of Desperate Housewives drew just over 30 million viewers. It was a phenomenon that reached all the way to the Queen of England. Not bad for a melodrama about a Texas oil tycoon.
51. Police Squad!
Original Run: 1982
Creators: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Stars: Leslie Nielson, Alan North, Peter Lupus, Ed Williams, William Duell
Of the many single season and done series that have littered the highway to TV glory, Police Squad! ranks as one of the greatest. It took Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker’s brilliant work on the films Airplane! and The Kentucky Fried Movie to the small screen while not losing one iota of its anarchic energy and strange logic. A pitch-perfect parody, the show captured the gravitas of the police procedural and injected it with sight gags, bad puns, and slapstick action. If nothing else, it helped bring the character of Lieutenant Frank Drebin into the world, the dim but well-meaning cop given a second life via the Naked Gun films.
50. Designing Women
Original Run: 1986-93
Creator: Linda Bloodworth-Thomason
Stars: Dixie Carter, Delta Burke, Jean Smart, Annie Potts, Meshach Taylor, Alice Ghostley
Designing Women was worth watching for Dixie Carter’s impassioned monologues alone. A Republican in real life, her character was a champion of the left, a counter to her sister, played by Delta Bourke. And the broad comedy, along with the program that aired right after on CBS, Murphy Brown, used its humor to address topical issues from AIDS and homophobia to racism and domestic violence. On a personal level, I just loved seeing a sitcom set in Georgia whose characters weren’t all rednecks.
49. Mork & Mindy
Original Run: 1978-82
Creator: Garry Marshall, Dael McRaven, Joe Glauberg
Stars: Robin Williams, Pam Dawber, Jay Thomas, Gina Hecht, Jonathan Winters
The world was introduced to Robin Williams playing the Mork from the planet Ork on an episode of Happy Days. His talent was so apparent that ABC gave him his own show. His comedy was already alien, and the mile-a-minute slapstick of that first season felt completely original. Things went largely downhill from there with the introduction of Jonathan Winters as Mork and Mindy’s “baby” in Season 4, but even bad Mork & Mindy was better than most sitcoms of its era.
48. Yes Minister
Original Run: 1980-84
Creator: Antony Jay, Jonathan Lynn
Stars: Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne, Derek Fowlds
Network: BBC Two
No one does incisive political satire quite like our former rulers across the pond. Set in the fictional “Department of Administrative Affairs,” Yes Minister centers on government minister Jim Hacker, an idealistic and naïve politician who quickly finds his ambitions for reform being stifled by government bureaucracy. Featuring a hilarious supporting cast, Yes Minister reiterates the idea that—even in the halls of power—people can still be as petty and immature as those working in more traditional office environments. In this way, the show paved the way for the likes of today’s modern political comedies like The Thick of It and Veep.
47. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show
Original Run: 1986-90
Creator: Garry Shandling, Alan Zweibel
Stars: Garry Shandling, Geoffrey Blake, Molly Cheek, Jessica Harper
The goal for most standups in the ’80s was to get famous enough to have an entire sitcom developed around themselves and their onstage persona. It was a concept ripe for parody, which for four seasons, Garry Shandling did with his titular show. Everything about it was self-aware: the characters acknowledged and interacted with the studio audience, guest stars were apropos of nothing, and no one let you forget the plasticity of the TV making experience. Like never before, viewers felt like they were in on the joke and it only made the actual jokes on the show that much funnier.
46. The Dukes of Hazzard
Original Run: 1979-85
Creator: Gy Waldron, Jerry Rushing
Stars: John Schneider, Tom Wopat, Catherine Bach, Denver Pyle, Ben Jones, Sorrell Booke, James Best, Sonny Shroyer, Peggy Rea
There were plenty of cops shows when The Dukes of Hazzard first aired in 1979—but the cops were usually the good guys. But Rosco P. Coltrane was in the pocket of corrupt county commissioner Boss Hogg. The Duke boys may not have always followed the letter of the law, running moonshine for Uncle Jesse, but as the song says, they were “never meaning no harm.” An ex-stockcar-racer and a former boxer/Marine sliding across the hood of the General Lee, the Dukes represented good, simple folks fighting against the crooked establishment; people tuned in for that romantic ideal—or, who am I kidding, for cousin Daisy.
45. Murder, She Wrote
Original Run: 1984-96
Creator: Peter S. Fischer
Stars: Angela Lansbury, William Windom, Tom Bosley, Ron Masak
One of the best things about Murder, She Wrote is the improbability of there being so many random murders for Jessica Fletcher to solve. Consider: The woman is not a professional detective. She’s not employed by a police department, and she doesn’t typically travel to a location in order to solve a mystery. Rather, they just constantly happen around her. Every single day, crimes occur in her vicinity. If she goes on vacation, someone at the resort WILL be murdered—it’s just a matter of time. So in a way, the series is really about a woman who radiates a field of death and destruction that ruins the lives of everyone she crosses paths with. Oh, and also Angela Lansbury is extremely entertaining in the role.
44. The Golden Girls
Original Run: 1985-92
Creator: Susan Harris
Stars: Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty
It’s hard to imagine NBC making a show like this today—how would four elderly women with clashing personalities attract the coveted 18-39 demo? Dorothy (Bea Arthur) is the put-upon voice of reason. Her snarky mother Sophia (Estelle Getty) is always ready with a pithy one-liner. Blanche (Rue McClanahan) reminisces constantly about nights of passionate romance. And all of this goes right over the head of doe-eyed, naive Rose (Betty White). Through it all, the show has a lot of heart and you can tell that these four women care deeply for each other. And the Golden Girls’ adventures found an eager audience, ranking in the top 10 during its first six seasons.
43. The A-Team
Original Run: 1983-87
Creators: Frank Lupo and Stephen J. Cannell
Stars: George Peppard, Dirk Benedict, Dwight Schultz, Mr. T, Melinda Culea, Marla Heasley, Eddie Velez and Robert Vaughn
The A-Team was like the live-action adaptation of a Saturday morning cartoon, G.I. Joe for slightly older audiences. In the style of The Incredible Hulk, it’s one of those “traveling adventure” shows—each week, the A-Team hits a new locale to help out a new group of people by driving their combat van through a brick wall. Its success is all thanks to its instantly iconic characters—strategist Hannibal, con man “Face,” wild man Murdock and Mr. T as B.A. Baracus, the role that has literally defined the man’s entire life. Honestly, if Mr. T hadn’t landed the role of B.A. Baracus, what would he have done with his life?
42. Cagney & Lacey
Original Run: 1981-88
Creator: Barbara Avedon, Barbara Corday
Stars: Tyne Daly, Sharon Gless, Al Waxman, John Karlen, Carl Lumbley, Harvey Atkin
Cagney & Lacey was a straight-forward police procedural, most notable for the on-screen chemistry of its two stars. Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless dominated the Emmy for Best Lead Actress in a Drama, trading off wins from 1982 to 1988. Daly’s working mom Mary Beth Lacey and Gless’s single-minded Christine Cagney gave a not-often-seen female perspective to the male-dominated cop drama.
41. Doctor Who
Original Run: 1963-
Creators: Sydney Newman, C.E. Webber, Donald Wilson
Stars: Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylester McCoy
Network: BBC One
The ’80s were a strange time for everyone. Doctor Who was certainly no exception. Upon entering a new decade, the beloved sci-fi series found itself struggling to find a new identify in the wake of long-time star Tom Baker’s departure. This resulted in several ill-fated decisions, the most obvious being the abysmal eyesore that was the Sixth Doctor’s rainbow outfit. And yet, despite large stretches of mediocre storylines and embarrassing monster designs (even by low-budget BBC standards), the show also yielded moments of transcendental greatness, from Fifth Doctor Peter Davidson’s phenomenal final episode (perhaps the best in the show’s history) to the later serials starring Sylvester McCoy’s Machiavellian Seventh Doctor. Sadly, the decade would end with the long-running show being put on an indefinite hiatus. Much like the eccentric Time Lord himself, however, the series would find itself regenerating in due time…
40. Lou Grant
Original Run: 1977-82
Creator: James L. Brooks, Allan Burns, Gene Reynolds
Stars: Ed Asner, Robert Walden, Linda Kelsey, Mason Adams, Jack Bannon
The Mary Tyler Moore Show not only helped usher in a more sophisticated brand of sitcom, it was also responsible for spawning a serious drama about journalism that racked up Emmys, Golden Globes and a Peabody Award. Lou Grant, Mary’s hard-nosed boss in the sitcom, leaves the world of TV to become city editor of The Los Angeles Tribune. The show dealt with the issues of its day, along with the ethical questions and struggles faced by journalists and those whom they were writing about. Not bad for a spinoff a sitcom.
39. Mister Roger’s Neighborhood
Original Run: 1963-01
Creator: Fred Rogers
Stars: Fred Rogers, Betty Aberlin, David Newell
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood aired from 1968 to 2001, entertaining and instructing millions of children along the way. The show embodied the vision of its creator and star, Fred Rogers, tapping and expanding upon all that was good in children’s programming. Rogers said he went into television because he hoped to use the medium to “nurture those who would watch and listen.” He was successful. For the all the show’s memorable associations with Mister McFeely, Daniel Tiger, hand-knit sweaters and house-shoes, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was at heart a safe zone, an oasis of calm in which the most in-demand resources were kindness and an active imagination. The show was at its best and most popular in the ’80s, when a seasoned but spry Mr. Rogers extolled the virtues of curiosity and understanding to a generation of kids who couldn’t imagine growing up without him.
38. Only Fools and Horses
Original Run: 1981-91
Creator: John Sullivan
Stars: David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Lennard Pearce, Buster Merryfield, Roger Lloyd-Pack, John Challis
Network: BBC One
Following the attempts of a pair of South London brothers living with their grandfather, scheming to get rich, Only Fools and Horses dominated British TV in the 1980s, watched by up to a third of the U.K.’s total population. Del Boy Trotter has the ambition to make it selling goods on the black market, but not the wisdom to match it. After the death of his mother, he raised his much younger brother Rodney, an easily manipulated sidekick. In 2007, the show was voted Britain’s Best Sitcom.
37. Quantam Leap
Original Run: 1989-93
Creator: Donald P. Bellisario
Stars: Scott Bakula, Dean Stockwell
What a goofy show Quantum Leap truly was. Scott Bakula plays Dr. Sam Beckett, a quantum physicist who becomes trapped in a morphing time loop after an experiment gone awry. In each episode, he leaps into the body of another person (man, woman or child) in a different historical time and must “put right what once went wrong” before jumping into a new body. It’s perfect episodic structure, and it allowed the sci-fi series to set each episode in literally any time period and setting it felt like taking on that week. Likewise, the body jumping mechanic meant any number of guest stars could appear and Dr. Sam could go anywhere—he even leaps into the body of a chimpanzee in one episode. Despite the silly premise, though, the series actually had a surprising amount of heart as well, largely motivated by Beckett’s unfailing resolve to return to his own time and body and reclaim his own life and identity. In some respects, it’s like a time traveling version of The Prisoner.
36. The Young Ones
Original Run: 1982-84
Creators: Rik Mayall, Lise Mayer, Ben Elton
Stars: Adrian Edmonson, Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer
Somewhere in the world of MTV, some brilliant executive decided to expand the network’s reach and bring in non-musical programs. And one of the first shows they aired, in 1985, was this violent, filthy, surreal, and sidesplitting series from the UK. The Young Ones follows the misadventures and bodily functions of four students (an angry punk, a bubble-headed hippie, a self-important “poet,” and a sleazy con artist) as they wrestled with situations like the demolishing of their flat or trying to rent a dirty movie. Fairly standard stuff, but given a devilish spin by the four leads’ over-the-top performances and the strange diversions it would take. At any time, you could find yourself moving from the main action to listening in on a conversation among the food in the fridge, watching two demons torture someone in Hell, or seeing Motörhead play “Ace of Spades” in the group’s living room.
Original Run: 1979-
Creator: Chet Simmons
Stars: Bob Ley, Tim Brando, Sal Marchiano, Tom Mees, Chris Myers, Charlie Steiner, Lou Palmer, Jimmy Roberts
During the very first broadcast of SportsCenter, anchor George Grande promised that the show would be “the pulse of sporting activity” around the world. “If it takes an interview, we’ll do it. If it takes play-by-play, we’ll do it. If it takes commentary, we’ll do that too,” he declared. Over the next decade, SportsCenter slowly cut through the three-network monopoly to feed a sporting obsession that we hardly knew existed. Over 50,000 episodes later, to say that the show delivered on its promise is an understatement.
34. Murphy Brown
Original Run: 1988-98
Creator: Diane English
Stars: Candice Bergen, Pat Corley, Faith Ford, Charles Kimbrough, Robert Pastorelli, Joe Regalbuto, Grant Shaud
Before Murphy Brown got pregnant and became a target for Vice President Dan Quayle in 1992, she had already cemented her place in sitcom history. The show began with Murphy returning to her job as a D.C. TV journalist after a stint in the Betty Ford Clinic for alcoholism—not exactly the standard sitcom pilot fare. That initial vulnerability was the perfect introdution for her otherwise tough, acerbic, no-nonsense character.
33. 60 Minutes
Original Run: 1968-present
Creator: Don Hewitt
Stars: Mike Wallace, Steve Kroft
As the longest-running primetime program of all time on U.S. television, one could cite 60 Minutes as classic programming in multiple decades, but it was especially strong and relevant in the pre-internet 1980s. Mike Wallace was in his 60s but still had decades of reporting left in him, and on any given 60 Minutes of this decade you could almost always depend on an extremely entertaining Wallace segment where he would employ his classic “ambush” interviewing. Many were the times some scumbag was walking down the street, only to have Wallace step out from behind a bush with a microphone, yelling something along the lines of “Did you or did you not cheat those senior citizens out of their retirement funds with sham timeshares?!” You could have turned it into a verb: “Did you hear about Roy? He got Wallaced on 9th street the other day.”
32. Happy Days
Original Run: 1974-84
Creator: Garry Marshall, Thomas L. Miller, Edward K. Milkis
Stars: Ron Howard, Henry Winkler, Tom Bosley, Anson Williams, Don Most, Scott Baio, Erin Moran
Happy Days was a better 1970s show than a 1980s—they’d already literally jumped the shark before the Reagan era began. But the show endures—in our hearts and on our late-night TV blocks—all these years because of its endearing innocence, whether from Marion Cunningham or her kids Richie and Joanie. When Ron Howard left after seven seasons (gone off to the army), Fonzie carried the series on his leather-jacket-clad shoulders.
31. The Kids in the Hall
Original Run: 1988-95
Creator: Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald
Stars: Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson
Most every sketch comedy troupe aspires to the greatness of Monty Python, but so few actually achieve it. By the end of the ’80s, the closest anyone in North America got to the mountaintop was The Kids In The Hall. What these five Canadian gents and their writers realized was that the best material comes from taking a comedic idea and pushing it to its absurdist extremes. How else do you come up with a lascivious chicken lady, a sleazy dude with a cabbage for a head, a greasy loiterer who fancies himself a head crusher, or a Jacques Tati-like character with extremely heavy feet?
Original Run: 1988-97
Creators: Roseanne Barr and Matt Williams
Stars: Roseanne Barr, John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert, Michael Fishman, Lecy Goranson, Sarah Chalke and Johnny Galecki
Appearing near the tail end of the ’80s, Roseanne presented a monumental shift in the depiction of the American family. Like Married…with Children, which had premiered a year-and-a-half beforehand, it was a show with real bite, as evidenced by star Roseanne Barr’s stand-up material. Unlike the Fox program, however, the stories of Roseanne and Dan Conner and their rambunctious kids were almost always rooted in heart. In a landscape filled with pretty people and their petty problems, Roseanne chose to tackle the realities of a blue-collar family struggling to get by. Besides highlighting a side of America not seen since the heyday of Norman Lear, the show also used its primetime platform to discuss controversial issues of birth control, drug abuse and homosexuality. And though the show’s much maligned final season did not sit well with most audiences, one cannot deny that Roseanne was, like its titular character, bold and uncompromising.
29. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
Original Run: 1962-92
Creators: Steve Allen, William O. Harbach, Dwight Hemion, Sylvester L. Weaver Jr.
Stars: Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon
Thirty years. Johnny Carson hosted the tonight show night after night for 30 years. And during the 1980s, he showed few signs of slowing down. His is still the template almost every host follows—the monologue, the sketches, the interviews, the guest performances. He was the genuine article, never pandering to his guests, and offering up a delightful impersonation of Ronald Reagan throughout the decade.
28. 120 Minutes
Original Run: 1986-00
Creator: Dave Kendall
Stars: Dave Kendall, J.J. Jackson, Martha Quinn
In 1986, 120 Minutes was my biggest guide to music discovery. During the day, MTV would play the same 20 music videos from the same 20 mass-marketed artists, but for two hours every night, all bets would be off. I’d set the VCR to record it, and watch it with friends after school, thrilled to see artists I loved like They Might Be Giants, The Ocean Blue and Guadalcanal Diary get actual airplay. And I’d discover bands like World Party, The Stone Roses and The Innocence Mission. Before the Internet, it was validation that there were others out there dissatisfied by the radio and hungry for great music.
27. Diff’rent Strokes
Original Run: 1978-86
Creators: Jeff Harris, Bernie Kukoff
Stars: Gary Coleman, Conrad Bain, Todd Bridges, Dana Plato, Dixie Carter
Two African American boys from Harlem are adopted by a rich, white businessman on Park Avenue, and hilarity ensues. Diff’rent Strokes was as defined by the way it tackled difficult American issues as it was by Gary Coleman’s endearing catch phrase, “Whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” Drugs, sexual abuse and racism were faced head-on, even as the effects of child stardom on its three leading kids were swept under the rug (when Dana Plato became pregnant, her character went to study in Paris). R.I.P. Ms. Plato and Mr. Coleman.
Original Run: 1976-84
Creators: Bernard Sahlins, Andrew Alexander
Stars: John Candy, Robin Duke, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis, Catherine O’Hara, Harold Ramis, Martin Short, Dave Thomas
Because they’re both sketch shows, Second City Television is almost always compared to Saturday Night Live, but it’s never been a particularly fair or accurate comparison. The Toronto-based SCTV is a much deeper and fundamentally stranger show, incorporating legitimate continuity and onion-like layers of characterization to each of its cast members. Set at a small, independent TV station in a fictional Canadian town, it satirized the conventions of local TV news, programming and budgetary constraints. That meant actors playing multiple roles as the same character—for example, Joe Flaherty primarily played alcoholic news anchor Floyd Robertson, but being an employee of a struggling local station, Floyd was also required to appear as “Count Floyd,” the horror host of “Monster Chiller Horror Theater” segments, in hopeless attempts to hype terrible 3D movies. Beyond its odd construction, SCTV boasted an incredible cast of future comedy stand-outs, including Flaherty, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Dave Thomas, Rick Moranis and Martin Short, among others. At any given time, SCTV’s lineup of future stars could have gone toe-to-toe with the cast of SNL, but it’s never received the acclaim it deserved.
25. Little House on the Prairie
Original Run: 1974-83
Creator: Blanche Hanalis
Stars: Michael Landon, Melissa Gilbert, Karen Grassle, Melissa Sue Anderson, Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush, Matthew Laborteaux, Richard Bull
In 1974, Michael Landon entered our lives as Pa Ingalls, and things were never the same. The beloved television series differs quite a bit from the books (they left Walnut Grove way earlier in real life, there was no Albert/James/Cassandra/Jenny/Adam/etc., I’m pretty sure Little House never addressed rape), but what the show did do was maintain the sense of home, family, and unconditional love that little Laura Ingalls brought to life in the books. You cried almost every week, whether Adam was teaching Mary to maintain hope after losing her sight or Laura was recovering from survivor’s guilt after her little brother died. Even after they were forced to blow up the town to save it from a railroad (yeah, I was confused too), the stories lived on in reruns. From the hilariously devious Olesons to the lovably gruff Mr. Edwards to the crew of adopted children that they somehow managed to keep finding room for in that little house on the prairie, there was no shortage of characters. And definitely no shortage of tears.
24. L.A. Law
Original Run: 1986-94
Creator: Steven Bochco
Stars: Harry Hamlin, Susan Dey, Corbin Bernsen, Jill Eikenberry, Alan Rachins, Michele Greene, Jimmy Smits, Susan Ruttan, Richard A. Dysart
While L.A. Law was far from the first legal drama to grace the silver screen, it was among the first to not focus on a legal mystery or investigation—it was simply about how the lawyers of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney & Kuzak did their jobs the best they could when confronted with ethical or moral dilemmas. The show never shied away from controversy, openly addressing issues like homophobia, abortion, AIDS and domestic violence. And these weren’t just abstract issues—the lawyers found themselves intimately involved with them. They were also intimately involved with each other (remember when Michael showed up to Grace’s wedding in a gorilla suit?!), which was a pretty big part of why we all really tuned in. In a sense, L.A. Law paved the way for Law & Order, Boston Legal, The Good Wife and many of the other legal dramas that later came to television. But in the ’80s, it was all about L.A. Law and the drama-tastic moments it provided us.
23. The Facts of Life
Original Run: 1979-88
Creator: Dick Clair, Jenna McMahon
Stars: Kim Fields, Charlotte Rae, Lisa Whelchel, Nancy McKeon, Mindy Cohn
With a theme song I can still sing verbatim to this day, there is not a more seminal show from my childhood than The Facts of Life. There was a little bit of me in Blair (Lisa Whelchel), Jo (Nancy McKeon), Tootie (Kim Fields) and Natalie (Mindy Cohn). I wanted the confidence of Blair, could relate to the insecurities of Natalie, spent hours (hours!) trying to recreate Jo’s ponytail/braid look and loved Tootie’s curiosity (and her roller skates). The series tackled teen social issues (drug use, peer pressure, eating disorders) long before it was in vogue, yet at the same time had an innocence not currently seen in today’s teen shows. I still remember what a big deal it was when Natalie (Mindy Cohn) contemplated sleeping with her boyfriend. That doesn’t happen anymore.
22. The Muppet Show
Original Run: 1976-81
Creator: Jim Henson
Stars: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz, Louise Gold
There may have only been a season and a half of The Muppet Show during the 1980s, but it was the rare vehicle that got better as it moved right along. With A-list guests like Johnny Cash, Roger Moore, Carol Burnett, Christopher Reeve, Diana Ross, Paul Simon, Brooke Shields and the cast of Star Wars, there were plenty of great pop-culture references to go with the classic Muppet routines: spies trying to snuff out James Bond during a sweet and cuddly version of “Talk to the Animals”; Scooter getting inspired by Lynda Carter to enroll in a mail-order superhero course; Mark Hamill and company hijacking the “Pigs in Space” ship. Introducing a generation of kids to absurdist humor, The Muppet Show helped reshape comedy forever.
21. Black Adder
Original Run: 1983-89
Creators: Richard Curtis, Rowan Atkinson
Stars: Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry
Leave it to the Brits to find humor in World War I. The fourth season of this show—which featured comedy heavyweights like Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry—took place during that Great War, but each prior season was set in a different historical era, with the Blackadder cast poking fun at the Middle Ages, the Elizabethan age and the Regency period.
20. Family Ties
Original Run: 1982-89
Creator: Gary David Goldberg
Stars: Meredith Baxter-Birney, Michael Gross, Michael J. Fox, Justine Bateman and Tina Yothers
One of the best family sitcoms of our time, Family Ties gave us the Keatons; they were our family. Liberal working parents Steven (Michael Gross) and Elyse (Meredith Baxter) raised their three children—smart and conservative older brother Alex (Michael J. Fox), flighty and fashionable middle child Mallory (Justine Bateman) and sarcastic younger sister Jennifer (Tina Yothers)—with love, compassion and limits. Fox, whose career was launched with the series, made Alex’s Republicanism funny yet not cliched. The series is still remembered for its very special episode, “A my name is Alex,” where Alex struggled to accept the sudden death of his friend. Today family comedies continue to try to capture the magic that was Family Ties.
19. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse
Original Run: 1986-90
Creator: Paul Reubens
Stars: Paul Reubens, Laurence Fishburne, Lynne Marie Stewart, Phil Hartman
There are two kinds of people in my life: Those who like Pee-Wee Herman and enemies. Years ago, I was gifted the complete collection of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse DVDs. Over the years, I’d made a point to watch Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Big Top Pee-Wee whenever the mood was right. As much as I loved this show as a kid, I only expected to get a good kick out of an episode here and there, but I found myself inhaling those DVDs. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is joyous morning viewing (over a bowl of Mr. T cereal, of course) or a good way to unwind at night (I’d recommend taking a drink from a good beer whenever someone says the “secret word” only if your day was exceptionally difficult). For a show that had a supporting cast of genies, cowboys, puppet couches, pterodactyls, clocks and breakfast plates, I think Playhouse still makes sense in 2014. It’s a fully realized vision of Pee-Wee’s whimsical, wacky world—puppet strings and all—and the series is just pithy enough to pull in adults who are willing to go on the ride, too. Paul Reubens is a comedy icon and master of timing, and it’s rare that a well-placed Pee-Wee gurgle or squeal doesn’t get a chuckle out of me. If you can’t find any joy in all of that, we’ve got to reconsider our friendship.
18. The Wonder Years
Original Run: 1988-93
Creators: Carol Black, Neal Marlens
Stars: Fred Savage, Dan Lauria, Alley Mills, Olivia d’Abo, Jason Hervey, Danica McKellar, Josh Saviano
The Wonder Years is a family show, and yes, a few of its episodes inch dangerously close to after-school-special territory, but make no mistake: revisiting this late-’80s/early-’90s staple as an adult is just as—if not more—enjoyable than watching it the first time around. It’s unabashedly nostalgic, but it chronicles the ups and downs of Kevin Arnold’s, Winnie Cooper’s and Paul Pfeiffer’s adolescence against the backdrop of the Vietnam era and our nation’s changing social landscape with a maturity most shows geared towards kids lack. The tiny childhood moments that stick with us are treated with the respect they deserve. We laugh when Kevin’s brother Wayne gets him in a headlock and calls him “scrote” for the umpteenth time (try sneaking that by the Nick at Nite censors nowadays!) or when Kev squares off with his mortal enemy Becky Slater, and we cry when Kevin’s occasionally distant father struggles to relate to his teenage kids. And sorry, but if you don’t hold your breath when Kevin puts that letterman jacket over Winnie’s shoulders, you’re dead inside. Music geeks will appreciate the incredible soundtrack as well.
17. Sesame Street
Original Run: 1969-
Creator: Joan Ganz Cooney, Lloyd Morrisett
Stars: Frank Oz (Bert, Grover), Jim Henson (Ernie, Kermit, Guy Smiley), Caroll Spinney (Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch), Jerry Nelson (Count von Count, various), Kevin Clash (Elmo), Bob McGrath, Loretta Long, Roscoe Orman, Will Lee, Sonia Manzano, Emilio Delgado, Northern Calloway
The ritual for millions of children in the 1980s was to wake up, turn on the TV and hear “Sunny Day/Sweepin’ the clouds away…” before getting ready for school. This was back before anybody but Big Bird could see Snuffleupagus, mind you. The residents of Sesame Street never skimped on entertainment in the name of education or education in the name of entertainment. With characters like Oscar the Grouch, Burt, Ernie, Count Von Count and—my favorites—the Yip Yips, we never minded that we were actually learning something along the way.
16. St. Elsewhere
Original Run: 1982-88
Creator: Joshua Brand, John Falsey
Stars: Ed Flanders, Norman Lloyd, William Daniels
The seminal hospital drama of the 1980s, St. Elsewhere was never resoundingly successful in the ratings, but it racked in Emmys over the years for its realistic, often-dark tone and moments of humor. Its large, ensemble cast had a number of crossovers with the similar Hill Street Blues and carried on many long-form, serialized storylines, leading to great character development over the course of the series. Of course, it’s today often remembered for a different reason: For having perhaps the single most WTF finale moment in TV history. At the end of the final St. Elsewhere episode, the characters are revealed as having all been the creation of the autistic Tommy Westphall, who owns a snow globe wherein the imaginary St. Eligius hospital exists. Moreoever, because so many other shows and characters overlapped with St. Elsewhere, some fans posit this means that everything from Hill Street Blues and Homicide: Life on the Street to The X-Files all take place in the “Tommy Westphall Universe” by extension.
15. Magnum, P.I.
Original Run: 1980-88
Creator: Donald P. Bellisario, Glen A. Larson
Stars: Tom Selleck, John Hillerman, Roger E. Mosley, Larry Manetti
When every other adolescent male of the ’80s and I grew up, we wanted the life of Tom Magnum, played by Tom Selleck and his mustache: living in an opulent Hawaii beach house as a guest of a never-present millionaire novelist and driving his Ferrari 308 GTS; wracking up a never-to-be-paid tab at the country club run by one war-vet buddy and bumming helicopter rides from another; and periodically solving mysteries using a combination of smarts, toughness and mostly chutzpah. I never did figure out how to walk that particular career path, but it was fun to dream.
14. Night Court
Original Run: 1984-92
Creator: Reinhold Weege
Stars: Harry Anderson, John Larroquette, Paula Kelly, Karen Austin, Richard Moll, Selma Diamond, Ellen Foley, Charles Robinson, Markie Post, Marsha Warfield
This lively, ludicrous comedy based on a Manhatten courtroom’s graveyard shift was a success on NBC’s comedy lineup for nine seasons. The show’s oddball cast of characters and risqué humor thrust them into a myriad of tongue-in-check antics revolving around the trite, non-violent and petty crimes brought before the bench in each episode. The ensemble cast centered around the kooky Judge (and amateur magician) Harry Stone, played by Harry Anderson, and the raunchy, slightly corrupt prosecutor Dan Felding (John Laroquette). Other notable and recognizable characeters were Nostradomus “Bull” Shannon, the towering yet doltish court bailiff (Richard Moll) and the gruff and witty female bailiffs, Selma, Florence and Roz, who were played by a succession of actresses over the show’s duration. This ensemble cast of bailiffs, lawyers, plaintiffs and criminals blended sexy and funny with a dash of slapstick humor, entertaining with gusto for the show’s nine-year run. Because while Night Court’s jokes were often uncouth and absurd, you couldn’t help but laugh.
13. At the Movies
Original Run: 1982-2010
Creator: Gene Siskel, Roget Ebert
Stars: Gene Siskel, Roget Ebert
Essentially two different shows, both titled At The Movies from different production companies, the combination of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel completely revolutionized the concept of film criticism. Greatly admired for their ability to succinctly sum up the latest films as well as their honesty and integrity in sparring with each other when opinions differed, the pair were also criticized by many for degrading the integrity of film criticism by reducing it to arbitrary “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” gestures. Such was the duality of this show and the legacy of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. They were among the only film critics whose opinions an “average American” could often be expected to respect and did much for legitimizing the concept of film criticism outside of a classroom setting. Some may still criticize the concept of a two-outcome rating system, but it was the approachable eloquence of the hosts that made the format work.
Original Run: 1978-83
Creators: James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, David Davis, Ed. Weinberger
Stars: Judd Hirsch, Danny DeVito, Marilu Henner, Tony Danza, Andy Kaufman, Christopher Lloyd, Jeff Conway, Carol Kane
Let’s just pause for a minute and remember that somebody once convinced a network to put Andy Kaufman on the air. I just wish it had been live TV. Like M*A*S*H, Taxi often tackled serious social issues like drug and gambling addiction, but did it with a wonderfully strange cast of characters from the alien-like Latka Graves (Kaufman) to drugged-out hippie Reverend Jim (Christopher Lloyd) to misanthrope Louie De Palma (Danny DeVito).
Original Run: 1985-89
Creator: Glenn Gordon Caron
Stars: Cybill Shepherd, Bruce Willis, Allyce Beasley, Curtis Armstrong
Since the Blue Moon Detective Agency stopped investigating crimes, David Addison (Bruce Willis) and Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) have become a cautionary tale in the will-they-or-won’t-they television trope. But during the heyday of Moonlighting, no TV couple did sexual tension like Willis and Shepherd. When they finally decided to consummate their relationship, they literally burned the house down. While the series had plenty of behind-the-scenes strife (starting with the fact that Shepherd and burgeoning movie star Willis didn’t get along), it consistently entertained, pioneered the dramedy genre that is so popular today, and regularly broke the fourth wall in innovative ways.
10. Late Night With David Letterman
Original Run: 1982-93
Creator: David Letterman
Stars: David Letterman, Paul Shaffer, Chris Elliott
Late night in the ’80s was exciting. When David Letterman debuted in 1982, there was a sense that some canonized rulebook of talk shows had been tossed out the fake window of his 30 Rock studio (to the sound of breaking glass, of course). His unique brand of comedy swung from zany (launching into a Velcro wall while wearing a Velcro suit) to absurdist (letting an audience member host while he searched for a missing tooth), but the jokes were always smarter than expected, from his opening monologues to his Top 10 Lists. And no one appreciates the drummer like Letterman.
9. The Jeffersons
Original Run: 1975-85
Creator: Norman Lear
Stars: Isabel Sanford, Sherman Hemsley, Marla Gibbs, Roxie Roker, Franklin Cover
Norman Lear created a run of hit shows in the 1970s, beginning with All in the Family, Sanford and Son (and its British predecessor Steptoe and Son), The Jeffersons, Maude, One Day at a Time and Good Times. It could be argued that no one had a bigger audience for interracial dialogue than Lear. The Jeffersons was his longest running series, lasting well into the ’80s, and in it, he gave America an affluent African American family dealing with new surroundings. George Jefferson might not have been a model for race relations (referring to Louise’s interracial couple friends as “zebras”), but as with Archie Bunker, bigotry in the show was revealed for what it was.
Original Run: 1987-91
Creator: Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz
Stars: Ken Olin, Mel Harris, Melanie Mayron, Timothy Busfield, Patricia Wettig, Peter Horton, Polly Draper
Few shows captured the spirit of the ’80s, and of growing up, as well as Thirtysomething. It wasn’t a family show or a workplace comedy; it showed how adult life is about balancing both those aspects of your life. It wasn’t about the struggles of being single or about the interactions of various couples; it was just about a group of friends, all of whom happened to be at different points in their relationships. And though the Thirtysomething characters were former hippies now trying to fit into a regular, quite un-counter-culture upper-middle-class lifestyle, they never became parodies of themselves. For four seasons, Thirtysomething blurred the lines between film and television, comedy and drama, and managed to make the characters feel like real people. Sure, there was the suburban couple, the womanizer, the climber, and all those other archetypes, but they still came across as—believe it or not—actual people. Who just happened to speak incredibly eloquently.
Original Run: 1972-83
Creator: Larry Gelbart
Stars: Alan Alda, Loretta Swit, Mike Farrell, Harry Morgan, Jamie Farr, William Christopher, David Ogden Stiers
The best part of M*A*S*H’s run was in the 1970s—by the time Reagan rolled into office, we’d already lost Henry Blake, Trapper McIntyre, Frank Burns and even Radar O’Reilly. But with replacements for all but Radar firmly in place, there was still enough momentum in the end to make the season finale the most-watched TV episode up to that point in history with 125 million viewers. Alda, as both star and executive producer, steered the show into more serious waters with episodes like “Follies of the Living” and “Where There’s Will, There’s a War” without ever losing the sharp wit at its heart.
6. Saturday Night Live
Original Run: 1975-
Creator: Lorne Michaels
Stars: Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky, Mary Gross, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Nora Dunn, Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, Dana Carvey, A. Whitney Brown, Phil Hartman, Kevin Nealon, Jan Hooks
Saturday Night Live got off to a rocky start in the 1980s with Lorne Michaels, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner and the rest of the remaining cast members leaving the show. The replacement cast didn’t last long, with the exception of Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy, who helped revitalize the series with characters like Buckwheat, Gumby and Mr. Robinson. But he wouldn’t be the only cast member in the ’80s to use SNL as a launching pad. When he left, producer Dick Ebersol hired Martin Short and Billy Crystal as replacements. Michaels’ return to the helm wasn’t exactly smooth, relying on young stars like Anthony Michael Hall and Robert Downey Jr. But in the fall of 1986, Jon Lovitz and new members Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Victoria Jackson and Kevin Nealon formed the core of what would become one of the show’s best lineups, especially with the addition of Mike Myers two seasons later.
5. Star Trek: The Next Generation
Original Run: 1987-94
Creator: Gene Roddenberry
Stars: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis, Wil Wheaton
The original series was pioneering. Deep Space Nine and Voyager had their moments. But TNG was head-and-shoulders the greatest Star Trek franchise. Jean Luc Picard. Data. Worf. The holodeck. The Borg. Gene Roddenbury must not have had a cynical bone in his body, and as I watched his characters explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before, I didn’t either.
Original Run: 1982-90
Creator: Barry Kemp
Stars: Bob Newhart, Mary Frann, Jennifer Holmes, Julia Duffy, Tom Poston, William Sanderson
You could always count on the writers on Bob Newhart’s second successful sitcom to be playful. In the pre-meta-pop-culture era, they’d invite Russell Johnson (the professor on Gilligan’s Island) to appear as a Beaver Lodge member watching Gilligan’s Island. But it was the original characters who really made the show. Larry and his two silent brothers, Daryl and Daryl. Handyman George Utley. Spoiled maid Stephanie. And the ultimate straight man, Bob Newhart, as Dick Loudon. Too bad it was all just a dream…
3. The Cosby Show
Original Run: 1984-1992
Creators: Bill Cosby, Ed. Weinberger and Michael Leeson
Stars: Bill Cosby, Phylicia Rashād, Lisa Bonet, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Tempestt Bledsoe, Keshia Knight Pulliam, Sabrina Le Beauf, Geoffrey Owens, Joseph C. Phillips, Raven-Symoné, Erika Alexander
George Jefferson may have been moving on up, but The Cosby Show gave the nation a more relatable glimpse of the growing middle-class among African Americans, dealing with race, but much more often, dealing with the trials that we all faced. Inspired by Cosby’s own family experiences which had been a staple of his stand-up routine, the show dominated the second half of the ’80s, topping the Neilsen ratings from 1985-90 and averaging more than 30 million viewers in the ’86-87 season. Cosby’s legacy might currently be in shambles, but the show was bigger than the man.
2. Hill Street Blues
Original Run: 1981-87
Creator: Steven Bochco
Stars: Daniel J. Travanti, Veronica Hamel, Michael Conrad, Bruce Weitz, Joe Spano, Betty Thomas, Charles Haid, Michael Warren, Taurean Blacque, Denniz Franz, Alfre Woodard
In many ways, the 1980s served as the coming-of-age period for TV crime dramas. With its handheld, cinema verite-style camerawork, widespread incorporation of slang and large ensemble cast, Hill Street Blues marked the first shot fired in what would become an artistic revolution. Centering on a single police station in an unspecified city, the show combined the grittiness of ’70s crime thrillers with the loose, natural feel of a Robert Altman production. In the process, it became a defining example for how TV could equal the scope and depth of cinema. Homicide: Life on the Streets, Law & Order, NYPD: Blue, The Shield, The Wire—all owe at least partial debt to the foundation laid down by the men and women of Hill Street.
Original Run: 1982-93
Creator: James Burrows, Glen Charles, Les Charles
Stars: Ted Danson, Shelley Long, Kirstie Alley, Rhea Perlman, Nicholas Colasanto, John Ratzenberger, Woody Harrelson, Kelsey Grammer, George Wendt
Original Network: NBC
The idea of place where everybody knew your name was central to the success of Cheers, even as Coach (Nicholas Colasanto) was replaced by Woody (Woody Harrelson), Diane (Shelley Long) was replaced by Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) and Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) found his own stool at the bar. This was the idea of a “third place,” after home and work, where a community could gather to socialize. Tackling sometimes serious issues in an always hilarious manner, the show created a place without class, where Frasier could grab a bar stool across from Norm and Cliff with an equal sense of belonging. Anchoring it all was Sam Malone (Ted Danson), the womanizing former ball player, who grew a little more with each passing season.
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