Our series of decade-by-decade sitcom retrospectives continues with 1986. Pop culture was still largely consolidated into a few outlets in 1986, but that was beginning to change a bit. Cable TV wasn’t a factor in 1966 or 1976, but was firmly entrenched by 1986. There was explosive growth in television networks, and although network reruns still dominated on cable, channels like HBO, Showtime and TBS were already experimenting with original programming. That opened the door for an increasing number of unusual concepts across every genre. Still, network TV and the classically styled sitcom remained dominant, as you’ll see on our list of the 10 best sitcoms airing 30 years ago.
Honorable Mentions: Designing Women; Growing Pains; The Facts of Life.
It’s a little difficult to parse how much of the humor derived from ALF is from laughing atit as opposed to laughing with it. It’s an incredibly goofy, cheesy show, with the most amazing opening credits in television history. The human actors aren’t very good. The guy who plays Willie seems like he’d rather be anywhere else (and if you’ve read anything about the show, you know that’s true). However, there is something fun about ALF himself. Here’s this weird, furry alien whose real name is Gordon Shumway (which is the best joke in the entire show) and the performance is really broad, but pretty fun. ALF himself generates some laughs, and there’s just enough silly insanity in the show to make it worthwhile. It also has one of the most unintentionally depressing series finales ever.
Kate & Allie is an oddly forgotten show. It ran for six seasons and 122 episodes. It starred Jane Curtin and Susan Saint James. Curtin won two Emmys for her role as Allie. Yet this show never really comes up in discussion of classic sitcoms, or even ‘80s sitcoms. You never see it in reruns. It was a show about two divorced mothers living together and raising their kids, and maybe its slightly more grown-up outlook is why it’s not as remembered today as more kid-friendly but inferior family sitcoms. Or maybe because it was one of the few hits on CBS as it plummeted into a long run as the third-rated network. Whatever the reason, this is a show that could use a revisiting in these modern times.
Family Ties is another family sitcom, but with a twist that gave it more life. Steven and Elyse Keaton were liberal hippies. Their son Alex P. Keaton was a Reagan-worshipping conservative. It was like a reverse All in the Family, albeit one that was not as much of a polemic. Obviously, most of the attention is paid to the natural charisma and talent of a young Michael J. Fox. However, let’s not overlook Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter (nee Baxter-Birney) as his parents, or Justine Bateman as superficial sister Mallory. Long a lynchpin of NBC’s Must See TV, Family Ties was a huge hit whose stature has receded significantly over the years.
Speaking of things that aren’t as well-regarded as they once were… Okay, look: Bill Cosby is a monster. There is no question about that. His disgusting actions have irrevocably ruined his reputation and make it almost impossible to watch or enjoy his work today. We don’t recommend watching The Cosby Show at this point, whether you’ve ever seen it before or not, and we aren’t in any way trying to defend the man who made it. It’s impossible to talk about the history of the sitcom, though, or TV in the 1980s, or even the cultural climate of the decade at all, without mentioning the biggest show of the era. The Cosby Show’s impact at the time is as undeniable as Cosby’s own evil; it didn’t just pave the way for greater visibility of black creators and actors on TV (the brief explosion of black-focused network sitcoms in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s might not have happened if The Cosby Show hadn’t been so overwhelmingly successful), but it was widely credited at the time for saving the entire sitcom genre, which languished mightily throughout the early ‘80s. It was also funny. It’s so unthinkable that a show that could be so sweet and so silly and so sincere in its desire to inspire its audience could still be spearheaded by a monstrous sexual predator that maybe no allegations of rape or sexual assault should be considered “unthinkable” again.—Garrett Martin
Sledge Hammer! is an acquired taste. It’s sort of like Police Squad!, but it’s much more pointed and less silly. Police Squad! is a farce about a bumbling cop. Sledge Hammer! is a satire about a gun-fetishizing lunatic. It only lasted two seasons, and the first season ended with a nuclear bomb going off and killing everybody on the show. It’s ridiculous but brilliant satire of the hypermasculine “tough on crime” mindset of Reagan’s America, and a perfect salve for anybody who ever rolled their eyes at Dirty Harry.
If you read our best sitcoms of 1976 list, you know The Bob Newhart Show topped the charts. Newhart doesn’t quite reach that level, but it’s a very funny show in its own right. Newhart wasn’t as natural as Dick Loudon as he was as Bob Hartley, and the show took a little time to find its footing, with a number of cast changes over its early seasons. By 1986, though, Newhart would be surrounded by such great collaborators as Tom Poston, Julia Duffy and Peter Scolari, and the show wsa firmly established as one of the smartest and funniest of the decade. It also gave us Larry, Darryl, and Darryl, not to mention one of the most iconic series finales of all time.
Here’s a show that needs no introduction. Love for Golden Girls has never died. Four old ladies live together and crack wise. It won two Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series. Most impressively, all four of its main actresses, Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, Rue McClanahan, and Betty White, all won Emmys for their work. It was a true ensemble sitcom. Sitcoms are so often about young, attractive people. Golden Girls proved that, shockingly, as long as you write good characters you can make a good show about just about anybody.
When we mentioned the fraying, and experimentation, of pop culture in 1986, this is a perfect example. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show aired on Showtime, an early pay cable network that celebrated its tenth birthday shortly before the show debuted. (Later, in 1987, slightly edited reruns aired . It was a sitcom, but it was also a deconstruction of the sitcom. Shandling, a true comedic genius, played himself as the star of a sitcom. He constantly broke the fourth wall, openly addressing the live studio audience and the viewers at home, to the bemusement of the show’s other characters, who rarely acknowledge the audience until Shandling pointed them out. When stock sitcom plots started happening, Shandling would point out how crazy it was that his life was just like a sitcom. He would go on to better things with The Larry Sanders Show, but It’s Garry Shandling’s Show would have been a fitting pinnacle for most careers.
Night Court has kind of a brilliant concept for a sitcom, and it’s all right there in the title: it’s set in the night shift of a New York City court, where everything feels just a little bit seedy. In some ways, there were two versions of the show. It started off idiosyncratic but kind of realistic, like a spiritual successor of Barney Miller set in a court. (The show’s creator, Reinhold Weege, was a writer on Barney Miller.) Then it went completely off the rails and became a super broad and crazy show with a roster of cartoonish characters. Both versions work. When the cast settled down after a series of early changes (two different regulars died of cancer during the first three seasons), it turned into one of the tightest sitcom ensembles of the decade. 1986 saw that group come together for the first time, as Marsha Warfield joined Harry Anderson, John Larroquette, Richard Moll, Charles Robinson and Markie Post, who had only been on the show for one season at that point. An interesting trivia note that highlights one of the main reasons the show was so good: John Larroquette was so great as the slimy prosecutor Dan Fielding that he won four Emmys in a row. He had to withdraw his name from future consideration to keep it fair for all the other actors, which is something the cast of Modern Family should maybe think about.
Come on. What other show could it be? Cheers is a brilliant sitcom that is rightfully considered perhaps the best of all-time. Its cast changed a few times early in its run (RIP Coach), but by 1986 almost all of the core cast that would carry it all the way to 1993 was intact, with Frasier and Woody established as regulars. The 1986-1987 season was also Shelley Long’s last as Diane Chambers. Also, 1986 saw the fantastic Thanksgiving episode, which is still one of the best holiday-themed TV episodes of all time. The characters were great. The actors were great. It was full of brilliant jokes. Some of it has not aged well, including some of the Sam and Diane stuff, but the show still holds up on the sheer power of its comedy. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and sometimes you want to watch a show about a place where that’s true.
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.