Friday, May 24, 2013

Classic TV 101: The 1980s

The 1980s was the last true classic TV decade. Which is not to say that television hasn’t introduced many brilliant shows in the 20 years since – only that the medium, and our relationship to it – has drastically changed.

Cable and satellite television added hundreds of viewing options to our TV menu. As a result, viewership for even the most celebrated shows has been greatly diminished. Series such as Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Girls and Breaking Bad are watched by about 10% of the people that watched the lowest-rated network shows in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

The introduction of the VCR, followed by TiVo, the DVR and programs streaming on Netflix and mobile apps, allow viewers to view programs whenever they like. So even if 10 million people watch The Walking Dead, they’re not all watching at the same time.

For better or worse, new channels and new technology have abolished the communal pop culture experience that television once provided.  That experience, to me, is what separates the classic TV era from our current TV age.

The times were already changing by the 1980s, but if you can't find your Betamax tapes here's a reminder of the best television of the decade.

Hill Street Blues
Though it was preceded by 30 years of cop shows, Hill Street Blues immediately looked and felt different from anything that had come before. The large, multiracial cast, the frank portrayals of sex and violence, the handheld camerawork that put viewers inside the Hill Street station, sometimes uncomfortably so, all seemed to represent a sea change in dramatic television. 

The last great workplace comedy of the classic TV era (though Taxi would also get some votes) Cheers was lucky to survive a first season where it ranked at the bottom of the ratings. Once it found an audience the series lasted more than 10 years, gracefully adapting to multiple cast changes like no other show since M*A*S*H.

Sardonic and self-referential, Moonlighting was a one-hour detective show that generated more laughs than a situation comedy. The easily-confused Television Academy steered all its Emmy nominations into the Drama category, though the series’ only real drama was whether costars Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd could coexist long enough to keep the magic fresh. They couldn’t, and it didn’t. But for three seasons Moonlighting was a masterpiece.  

Many of the best shows of the 1980s were created by the first generation to grow up with television. Roseanne Barr, raised on sitcoms like Leave it to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show, believed it was time for a less idealized take on family life. And that’s what she delivered, though her self-titled series lost its way in later seasons.

Miami Vice
“MTV cops” was the two-word pitch that allegedly sold this sun-drenched, pastel-colored series to NBC. Parts of Miami Vice are now as badly dated as Valley girl talk and Members Only jackets, but the slick visual style of executive producer Michael Mann and Jan Hammer’s scoring both left their imprint on the crime drama genre – you can see echoes of them in shows airing today. 

The Cosby Show
It’s surprising that it took this long for a family like the Huxtables to achieve mainstream acceptance. And it’s also regrettable that, without Bill Cosby’s cross-generational, cross-cultural appeal, we’ve seen no comparable heir to their success.

Star Trek: The Next Generation
Most of us who remember the build-up to this sequel were pretty sure it wasn’t going to work. Even many of the hardcore Star Trek fans were ambiguous, concerned it might soil the legacy of Gene Roddenberry’s original classic. Instead, Star Trek: The Next Generation expanded and deepened the Trek universe, paving the way for three more series.

The inspired final episode was one of TV’s most talked-about moments, but Newhart also earns a place on this list for updating the absurdist rural archetype established by Green Acres. Just like Eddie Albert’s Oliver Douglas, Newhart’s Dick Loudon was a sane man set adrift among lunatics. 

A love-it-or-hate-it show that divided generations almost as much as The Smothers Brothers, Thirtysomething was a series about baby boomer disillusionment. It struck a chord with viewers coping with the same family and career issues, but others were turned off by what they saw as self-absorbed navel-gazing. 

The Golden Girls
Building a show around four senior citizens was distinctive, but in every other way The Golden Girls was as traditional as comedies get. It holds up thanks to the steadfast expertise of three TV sitcom vets, and an unknown stage actress (Estelle Getty) who consistently trumped their punch lines. 

The Wonder Years
The music and the fashions and the Vietnam references set this coming-of-age series in a very specific time and place, but there was also something universal about the struggles of Kevin Arnold. One hundred years from now, adolescent boys will still identify with his sibling issues, school issues, and the agony and ecstasy of falling in love with the exquisite Winnie Cooper. 

St. Elsewhere
Before St. Elsewhere, hospital shows tended toward idealized depictions of doctors and nurses. The staff of St. Eligius would make Marcus Welby cringe, and the show itself never attracted much of an audience. Fortunately, this was a time in television when quality still counted, and NBC gutted out six low-rated but magnificent seasons. The last episode, unfortunately, was a self-indulgent misstep.

Night Court
No gimmicks, no breakthroughs, no landmark episodes – just superb comedy. Stay with it through an inconsistent first season – after that it’s all good, especially in the Markie Post years.

Designing Women
Both politically charged and politically incorrect, Designing Women was a showcase for Dixie Carter’s supercharged sermonizing, Delta Burke’s entitled cluelessness, and Jean Smart’s downhome charms. But when Burke and Smart leave, you should too. 

Married With Children
In the 1970s it was Soap that heralded the collapse of culture and civilization; in the 1980s that title passed to this series, one of the first on the then-new FOX network. It was comedy wielded like a blunt instrument, but it lasted ten years.

Extra Credit
For more ‘80s goodness, check out these shows as well:

Square Pegs
L.A. Law
Max Headroom
China Beach
Murphy Brown
Family Ties


  1. Mr. Hofstede, did you ever watch "Santa Barbara"? There were some nice-looking women on that show!

  2. I did not -though the show did make it's mark in the '80s and I believe was the first American soap to become even more popular overseas than it was here.

    1. No offense, Mr. Hofstede, but why did you use the word "even" in your reply? "Santa Barbara" never did particularly well ratings-wise in the United States, and series star A Martinez has basically said in the past that the soap was constantly in danger of getting cancelled.