The 80 Best TV Shows of the 1980s

TV Lists
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The 80 Best TV Shows of the 1980s

To say that I was raised by 1980s TV is unfair to my wonderful parents, but I certainly spent as much time with the Keatons, the Huxtables, the Seavers, the 4077th and the Cheers gang as I did around my own kitchen table. 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 (besides, of course, Too Many Cooks).

v-1983.jpg 80. V
Original Run: 1983-85
Creator: Kenneth Johnson
Stars: Marc Singer, Faye Grant, Jane Badley, Michael Ironside, Robert Englund
Network: NBC
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.—Jim Vorel

sledge-hammer.jpg 79. Sledge Hammer!
Original Run: 1986-88
Creator: Alan Spencer
Stars: David Rasche, Anne-Marie Martin, Harrison Page
Network: ABC
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.—Robert Ham

growing-pains.jpg 78. Growing Pains
Original Run: 1985-92
Creator: Neal Marlens
Stars: Alan Thicke, Joanna Kerns, Kirk Cameron, Tracey Gold, Jeremy Miller, Ashley Johnson
Network: ABC
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.—Jim Vorel

knight-rider.jpg 77. Knight Rider
Original Run: 1982-1986
Creators: Glen A. Larson
Stars: David Hasselhoff, William Daniels, Edward Mulhare, Patricia McPherson
Network: NBC
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.—Josh Jackson

china-beach.jpg 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
Network: ABC
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.—Amy Amatangelo

wiseguy.jpg 75. Wiseguy
Original Run: 1987-90
Creator: Stephen J. Cannell, Frank Lupo
Stars: Ken Wahl, Steven Bauer, Jonathan Banks, Jim Byrnes
Network: CBS
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.—Mark Rozeman

threes-company.jpg 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
Network: ABC
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.—Josh Jackson

alf.jpg 73. ALF
Original Run: 1986-90
Creators: Paul Fusco, Tom Patchett
Stars: Paul Fusco, Max Wright, Anne Schedeen, Andrea Elson, Benji Gregory
Network: NBC
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.—Jim Vorel

twilight-zone.jpg 72. The Twilight Zone
Original Run: 1959-64, 1985-89, 2002-03
Creator: Rod Serling
Star: Rod Serling
Network: CBS
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.—Mark Rozeman

kate-allie.jpg 71. Kate & Allie
Original Run: 1984-89
Creator: Sherry Coben
Stars: Jane Curtin, Susan Saint James, Ari Meyers, Frederick Koehler, Allison Smith
Network: CBS
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.—Josh Jackson

whos-the-boss.jpg 70. Who’s the Boss?
Original Run: 1984-92
Creator: Martin Cohan
Stars: Tony Danza, Judith Light, Alyssa Milano, Danny Pintauro, Katherine Helmond
Network: ABC
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.—Josh Jackson

tmnt.jpg 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
Network: Syndicated
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.—Jim Vorel

crime-story.jpg 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
Network: NBC
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.—Mark Rozeman

tracey-ullman-show.jpg 67. The Tracy Ullman Show
Original Run: 1987-90
Creator: James L. Brooks
Stars: Tracey Ullman, Julie Kavner, Dan Castellaneta, Sam McMurray, Joesph Malone
Network: Fox
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.—Josh Jackson

night-flight.jpg 66. Night Flight
Original Run: 1981-96
Creator: Stuart S. Shapiro
Stars: Pat Prescott
Network: USA
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. —Robert Ham

laverne-shirley.jpg 65. Laverne & Shirley
Original Run: 1976-83
Creator: Garry Marshall, Lowell Ganz, Mark Rothman
Stars: Penny Marshall, Cindy Williams, Michael McKean, David L. Lander
Network: ABC
“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.—Josh Jackson

full-house.jpg 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
Network: ABC
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”?—Jim Vorel

acl-orbison.jpg 63. Austin City Limits
Original Run: 1976-
Creator: Bill Arhos, Paul Bosner, Bruce Scafe
Stars: Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Leonard Cohen
Network: PBS
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.—Dan Holmes

wkrp.jpg 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
Network: CBS
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.—Robert Ham

max-headroom.jpg 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.—Robert Ham