Top Television Shows of the 80s

The 1980s were a golden era for television, giving birth to a plethora of shows that have since become cultural icons. This decade was characterized by groundbreaking storytelling, memorable characters, and innovative concepts that pushed the boundaries of what TV could be. From the laughter-filled living rooms courtesy of classic sitcoms to the edge-of-your-seat drama that had viewers tuning in weekly, the ’80s offered something for everyone.

In this article, we’ll take a nostalgic trip down memory lane to explore the top television shows of the 1980s. Whether you were a fan of action-packed adventures, heartfelt family sitcoms, or pioneering science fiction and fantasy series, join us as we celebrate the shows that defined a generation and continue to influence television today.

Action and Adventure Television Shows

The A-Team TV show title logo

The 1980s was an era that truly embraced the action genre on television, blending high stakes, unforgettable characters, and groundbreaking production values. Here, we dive into the top action TV shows of the ’80s, series that not only captivated audiences with their thrilling narratives but also set a precedent for action-packed storytelling in the years to follow.

Magnum, P.I. (1980-1988)

Set against the stunning backdrop of Hawaii, Magnum, P.I. follows Thomas Magnum, a private investigator with a knack for finding himself in the midst of danger. With his charming demeanor and a tight-knit group of friends, Magnum takes on cases that often lead to thrilling chases and confrontations.

Miami Vice (1984-1989)

Miami Vice redefined the action genre with its unique blend of fashion, music, and visual storytelling. The show follows detectives Crockett and Tubbs as they go undercover to fight crime in Miami’s drug-infested underworld. Its influence on pop culture is undeniable, with its pastel suits and synthesizer-heavy soundtrack becoming iconic symbols of the era.

Knight Rider (1982-1986)

Featuring advanced technology and high-speed chases, Knight Rider stars Michael Knight and his intelligent, indestructible car, KITT. Together, they fight crime and injustice, driven by a strong moral code and equipped with futuristic gadgets.

The A-Team (1983-1987)

A mix of action and humor, The A-Team follows a group of ex-U.S. Special Forces soldiers who operate as mercenaries, helping those in need while on the run from the military for a crime they didn’t commit. Their resourcefulness and loyalty to each other make them a formidable team against any villain.

MacGyver (1985-1992)

MacGyver is known for its ingenious protagonist, Angus MacGyver, who prefers non-violent conflict resolution and uses his vast scientific knowledge to solve problems and defeat villains. The show became synonymous with the concept of using everyday items in innovative ways to navigate dangerous situations.

Comedy Television Shows

The title logo of the television show Cheers

In the pantheon of 1980s television, comedy stood as a towering beacon of entertainment, delivering laughter, joy, and a reflective mirror to society’s changing dynamics. The era was rich with sitcoms that not only defined a generation’s sense of humor but also boldly tackled a range of themes from family values and societal norms to aging and cultural divides. Let’s take a closer look at some of the quintessential comedies of the 1980s:

Cheers (1982-1993)

Cheers is the quintessential American sitcom set in a Boston bar where everybody knows your name. The show centers on Sam Malone, a former baseball player turned bar owner, and his colorful clientele and staff. As much about the bonds of friendship as it is about laughs, Cheers became a beloved fixture on television for its relatable characters, witty dialogue, and warm, inviting atmosphere that made viewers feel like part of the family.

The Cosby Show (1984-1992)

Breaking new ground in the portrayal of African-American families on television, The Cosby Show offered a glimpse into the life of the Huxtables, a loving, successful family navigating the joys and challenges of life in Brooklyn, New York. Cliff Huxtable, an obstetrician, and his wife Clair, a lawyer, balance their demanding careers with the task of raising their five children, offering humor and heartwarming lessons in every episode. The show was celebrated for its positive representation and cultural impact, setting a new standard for sitcoms to come.

Family Ties (1982-1989)

Family Ties artfully captures the generational clash of values between the free-spirited Keaton parents, former hippies, and their decidedly conservative son, Alex P. Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox, in a star-making turn. The show delves into the dynamics of a family living in suburban Ohio, balancing political and social themes with humor and warmth and, in the process, capturing the essence of American family life in the 1980s.

Golden Girls (1985-1992)

Golden Girls broke the mold by centering on the lives of four older women sharing a house in Miami, proving that adventure, humor, and romance aren’t exclusive to the young. With its sharp wit, the show tackled topics like aging, sexism, and love with humor and grace, all while celebrating the strength of female friendship. Blanche, Dorothy, Rose, and Sophia became cultural icons, offering laughter and wisdom in equal measure and showing that life can be golden at any age.

Similar sitcoms, which dealt with roommates rather than families, included Who’s the Boss? (1984-1992), which starred Tony Danza as the divorced Tony Micelli, who moved, with his daughter Samantha (Alyssa Milano), into the home of divorcee Angela Bower (Judith Light) and her son Jonathan (Danny Pintauro).

There’s also Three’s Company (1977-1984), starring John Ritter as Jack Tripper, Joyce DeWitt as Janet Wood, and Suzanne Somers as Chrissy Snow, who share an apartment in a building owned by the Ropers (Norman Fell and Audra Lindley), and later by Ralph Furley (Don Knotts).

Soap Operas

Logo for the US television show Knots Landing

Below are some of the iconic soap operas of the 1980s, exploring how they reflected the era’s aspirations, challenges, and societal norms and why they remain beloved by fans around the world.

Dallas (1978-1991)

Dallas is about the story of the Ewing family. Many of the shows included dysfunctional family situations and shady business. Its first episodes were a sort of Romeo & Juliet, with children of two sworn enemies marrying (Bobby Ewing, played by Patrick Duffy, and Pam Barnes Ewing, played by Victoria Principal). Since the two moved home to his family ranch, there was understandably some tension. A remake of the show ran from 2012-2014.

Dynasty (1981-1989)

A primetime soap opera that focuses on the Carrington family, wealthy oil tycoons, and their dramatic lives. The show had the number one spot in 1984 after Joan Collins joined the show as Alexis Carrington. Starring John Forsythe as Blake Carrington and Linda Evans as his second wife Krystle, the show followed the oil magnate through dysfunction, deceit, and devilishness.

Falcon Crest (1981-1990)

Falcon Crest followed a similar plotline as Dallas and Dynasty. It starred Jane Wyman as Angela Channing and Robert Foxworth as Chase Gioberti and their feud with other wealthy wine-industry families. A companion show to Dallas, it followed it for many seasons. Some denigrated it as “Dallas with grapes,” but Falcon Crest made a place for itself about halfway between the less glamorous Dallas and the more outrageous Dynasty.

Knots Landing (1979-1993)

Knots Landing was a spin-off of Dallas. Its length of run neared that of Gunsmoke (CBS, 1952-1961) and Bonanza (NBC, 1959-1973), though it didn’t exceed them. Starring Ted Shackelford as Gary Ewing and Joan Van Ark as Valene Ewing, the show followed the “black sheep” of the Ewing family.

Drama Television Shows

Laura Ingalls (played by Melissa Gilbert) with her dog Jack (played by Barney) in the TV show Little House on the Prairie, 1975

The next-to-largest genre represented in the top ten Nielsen ratings for TV shows of the 1980s is drama. These include romantic drama, comedy-drama, and crime drama. None of these were in the top ten for more than three of the ten years, but many seasons saw the shows within the top twenty.

Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983)

This show had most of its top seasons within the 1970s. Starring Michael Landon as Charles Ingalls, Karen Grassle as Caroline Quiner Ingalls, and Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls Wilder, the show was based on the book series by the same name, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The Love Boat (1977-1987)

This TV show also premiered in the late 1970s but did not become popular enough to reach the top ten until 1980. Set on a cruise ship, the show had different guest actors in each episode to play opposite the regulars, including Gavin MacLeod as the ship’s captain. The episode that was ranked as one of the best according to TV Guide’s “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time” was Season 9, Episode 3, which aired originally in October 1985. Its guests included Andy Warhol, Andy Griffith, Cloris Leachman, Milton Berle, Peter Duchin, Tom Bosley, Ted McGinley, and Jill Whelan.

Hotel (1983-1988)

This show followed Dynasty in the primetime lineup. It was based on the novel by Arthur Hailey and starred Anne Baxter as the rich aristocrat Victoria Cabot, James Brolin as Peter McDermott, the hotel’s general manager, and Connie Sellecca as the assistant general manager Christine Francis. While the general idea is similar to The Love Boat, Hotel’s topics tended to be more serious and somewhat controversial, including such subjects as rape, abortion, suicide, infidelity, abuse, and homosexuality.

The Wonder Years (1988-1993)

This 80s TV show brought in true wonder, as well as amusement, as it followed the escapades and growing-up years of Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar), and Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano). Kevin’s alternate love interest, Becky Slater, is played by Danica’s sister Crystal McKellar.

Cagney & Lacey (1981-1988)

This TV show starred Tyne Daly as Mary Beth Lacey and Sharon Gless as Christine Cagney, a pair of female detectives. Cagney was single and concerned about her career, while Lacey was a working married woman and mother.

Science Fiction/Fantasy Television Shows

Logo of the U.S. television series Star Trek: The Next Generation

The 1980s witnessed a remarkable surge in the popularity of science fiction and fantasy television, a genre that transported audiences beyond the confines of reality into realms of endless possibility. Below are some of the iconic series that not only defined the genre in the 1980s but also left a lasting legacy in the world of television.

Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)

Launching more than two decades after the original “Star Trek” series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (TNG) propelled audiences into the 24th century aboard the Starship USS Enterprise-D. Under the command of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the diverse and highly skilled crew embarked on a mission to explore new worlds, seek out new life and civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before.

TNG was celebrated for its sophisticated storytelling, complex characters, and moral philosophies. It tackled social, political, and ethical issues, making it not just a space adventure but a reflective commentary on the human condition.

Quantum Leap (1989-1993)

“Quantum Leap” introduced viewers to the extraordinary life of Dr. Sam Beckett, a physicist who becomes trapped in a time-travel experiment gone awry. Each episode finds him “leaping” into the body of a different person at a different time, facing the challenge to correct historical mistakes and injustices before he can leap again in hopes of returning home.

The show was a blend of science fiction, drama, and sometimes comedy, offering a unique twist on time travel by focusing on the human element and the potential for individual impact on history. Its innovative premise and heartfelt storytelling resonated with audiences, making it a timeless classic in the genre.

Animated Television Shows

Logo of the American animated sitcom The Simpsons

The 1980s also set the stage for animation to become a powerful medium for storytelling. It offered a diverse range of shows that appealed to both children and adults alike. Below are some of the iconic TV series of the 80s that left a permanent mark on the animated landscape:

The Simpsons (1989-present)

Though “The Simpsons” made its debut at the tail end of the 1980s, it quickly became a cultural phenomenon that has endured for decades, becoming the longest-running scripted prime-time TV series in history. Set in the fictional town of Springfield, the show centers around the Simpson family—Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie—and their everyday antics, which satirize the American way of life, politics, society, and television itself.

“The Simpsons” is renowned for its witty humor, sharp satire, and an extensive cast of recurring characters, each contributing to the rich tapestry of Springfield. Its influence on television and pop culture is unparalleled, often serving as a humorous mirror to society’s triumphs and challenges.

Transformers (1984-1987)

“Transformers” captivated the imagination of a generation with its epic saga of the Autobots and the Decepticons, two factions of alien robots who bring their war to Earth. The show was more than just a battle between good and evil; it introduced audiences to complex characters, each with their unique personalities and motivations, who could transform from robots into vehicles and other objects.

This innovative concept, combined with moral lessons and intricate storytelling, made “Transformers” a staple of 1980s animation, influencing numerous adaptations and a vast franchise, including toys, comic books, and movies. Its legacy continues to resonate, symbolizing the enduring appeal of characters and stories that transcend their medium.


The 1980s were a defining era for television, offering a wide array of shows that have left a lasting impact on viewers and the medium itself. From groundbreaking sitcoms and action-packed dramas to innovative science fiction, fantasy adventures, and animated classics, this decade truly had something for everyone.

As we look back on these iconic series, we’re reminded of the timeless nature of storytelling and its ability to connect us across generations. The television shows of the 1980s will forever hold a special place in the heart of pop culture, continuing to entertain, inspire, and influence audiences and creators around the world.

Other Interesting Facts:

  • Dirk Benedict’s take on the A-Team was that it was “the last truly masculine show.” He said that men wrote it, directed it, acted in it; they did what they wanted when they wanted and were in charge. Some criticized the show for being “sexist;” it was male-oriented unapologetically. Centered on violence, still, it was rare anyone actually got injured. Many consider “Showdown!” one of the best episodes. In it, an impostor “A-Team,” blemishes the good name of the group.
  • The only show that appeared on the top ten lists all ten years from 1980-1989 was the news show 60 Minutes (CBS, 1968-present). It actually appeared on the top ten lists for twenty-three consecutive seasons (1977-2000), a record that has never been beaten. It was #1 for eight seasons in a row, and only one show has ever beaten that record – American Idol (FOX, 2002-present)– although two other shows matched it (All in the Family (CBS, 1971-1979) and The Cosby Show (NBC, 1984-1992)).
  • There was also a reality series back in the 80s called That’s Incredible (1980-1984). It was a sort of live-action “book of records,” the show was a series of amazing feats hosted by John Davidson, Fran Tarkenton, and Cathy Lee Crosby. Many famous people appeared on the show, including a very young (age 5) Tiger Woods.
  • The Wonder Years (1988-1993) had a few episodes. One that stands out as an excellent synopsis of the entire show in one episode is season 2’s episode 5, “Just Between Me and You and Kirk and Paul and Carla and Becky.”
  • Some say that the best episode of Magnum, P.I. (1980-1988) was Season 2, Episode 16, which is called “Italian Ice.” Magnum is attempting to rescue a young woman from mobsters, only to have her develop an infatuation with him. Another excellent sample of the show is episode 6 of the third season, “Black on White,” in which Higgins is forced to be quarantined with Magnum in the guest house.
  • The Cosby Show (1984-1992), being a good, wholesome show, portrayed a way in which parents and children can relate to one another and examined some of the usual growing-up situations. One of these is the desire to live on one’s own, which Theo experienced in Season 2, Episode 21, entitled “Theo’s Holiday.” He learned that the “real world” wasn’t what he expected.
  • In the show The Golden Girls (1985-1992), many cite the pilot as the best episode: “The Engagement.” Their acerbic wit strikes a chord and keeps you laughing, regardless of age or gender.

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