In the 1980s, television became an expected default in the vast majority of American homes. It was so common that the few who chose not to indulge were met with disbelief: “You don’t have a TV?!” TV shows of the 1980s continued to evolve, with the top ten Nielsen lists containing no westerns, more soap operas, and but it was again dominated by sitcoms. Nielsen ratings measure viewer information, and through them one is able to see which TV shows were most popular in any given season.
The action and adventure genre broke into the top ten lists in the 1980s with The A-Team (NBC, 1983-1987). The A-Team was a group of Special Forces who went around helping the oppressed. It starred George Peppard as Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, Dirk Benedict as Templeton “Face” Peck, Dwight Schultz as Captain Murdock, and Lawrence “Mr. T.” Tureaud as Bosco “B.A.” Baracus. Mr. T. was the highlight of the show for most people and his career took off after he left The A-Team.
Dirk Benedict’s take on the show 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.
60 Minutes Is Still Going Strong
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)). Utilizing a magazine-style reporting method, the show started out bi-weekly and later became weekly. It gained its current time slot – Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Eastern / 6:00 p.m. Central – in 1975 and has stayed there ever since. 60 Minutes is the longest-running show in TV history, as well as being the one shown at the same time period for the longest.
Sports also infiltrated the top ten at the end of the decade with ABC’s Monday Night Football (1970-present) sneaking into tenth place in 1989.
Two anthology shows began in the 1980s that have continued into the present: the ABC Monday Night Movie (1981-present) and America’s Funniest Home Videos (ABC, 1989-present). The latter has had a variety of hosts, including its original host Bob Saget, followed by John Fugelsang and Daisy Fuentes. Most recently Tom Bergeron has hosted the show. He announced in 2014 that he would not be hosting once the 25th season of the show ended.
To round out the shows about real life, the reality series That’s Incredible (ABC, 1980-1984) placed third in its first season. 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.
A very popular mystery show began in 1984: Murder, She Wrote (CBS, 1984-1996). Starring Angela Lansbury as professional writer Jessica Fletcher, Murder, She Wrote is a series of mysteries solved by an amateur sleuth. Her spunk and intelligence make the show delightful, and her distinctly feminine qualities made the show one that women, in general, cheered for. When the network was ready to finish the show, they moved it to a different time slot – one that pitted it against Friends (NBC, 1994-2004). In a move that seemed to thumb their nose at NBC, one episode in that last season was “Murder Among Friends,” in which a show called “Buds” starred six twenty-somethings that hung out together in a coffee shop.
Soap Operas in the Top 10
Four soap operas made the top ten lists in the 1980s, which was a jump from the one in the 1970s, showing that the genre was becoming more popular. The stereotype is that most housewives watched soap operas, and with two of them in the number one spot for four of the years, and one of those in the #2 spot for two more years, that may well be true, at least through 1985. Regardless, the top two held the top spaces from 1980 until 1984, with slightly lower rankings in 1985.
The top soap opera was Dallas (CBS, 1978-1991), which reached the top ten lists in the 1970s. 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.
Its rival, Dynasty (ABC, 1981-1989), 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 (CBS, 1981-1990) followed a similar plotline, starring 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.
The last soap opera to make the top ten in the 1980s was Knots Landing (CBS, 1979-1993), which 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.
1980s TV – So Dramatic
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 (NBC, 1974-1983) 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 (ABC, 1977-1987) also premiered within 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, which include 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 (ABC, 1983-1988) followed Dynasty in the prime time 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 (ABC, 1988-1993) 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.
While there are few episodes that could not be considered top 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.”
Simon & Simon (CBS, 1981-1995) is a detective drama that stars Gerald McRaney as Rick Simon and Jameson Parker as his brother A.J. Simon. Their indomitable mother Cecelia was played by Mary Carver. The less fashionable and more rugged brother, Rick owned a truck and lived on a boat (in A.J.’s yard), while A.J. was more of a rule-follower and organized kind of guy. The two built up their own detective agency and much of each episode was about the conflicts between them and how their differences worked out to make them better able to solve the crimes. In one episode, “Double Play,” an escort services uses celebrity look-alikes, Rick has a recurring nightmare, and the brothers are trying to figure out who framed them in a securities scam.
Magnum, P.I. (CBS, 1980-1988), starring Tom Selleck as private investigator Thomas Magnum, can be considered one of the most iconic 1980s TV shows. Magnum, P.I. did crossover shows with Simon & Simon and Murder, She Wrote. Selleck was joined on the Magnum set by Roger Mosley as the helicopter pilot T.C., Larry Manetti as club manager Rick Wright, and John Hillerman as the elegant Jonathan Q. Higgins.
Some say the best episode ever 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 aforementioned are joined in the top ten lists by two other crime dramas: Cagney & Lacey (CBS, 1981-1988) and Miami Vice (NBC, 1984-1990). The former 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. Miami Vice starred Don Johnson as the suave Sonny Crockett and Philip Michael Thomas as Rico Tubbs. It was one of the first television shows in the 1980s to include culture and music as an integral part of the effects.
Let Them Laugh – Comedies Remain Strong in Top 10
Twenty-three of the TV shows on the 1980s top ten lists were sitcoms, further proving that people love to laugh – and especially to laugh at people like themselves.
The most popular – with places in the top ten for six seasons of the ten (the show’s first six seasons, as a matter of fact) – was The Cosby Show (NBC, 1984-1992). Starring Bill Cosby as Dr. Cliff Huxtable, Phylicia Rashad as his wife Clair, and the children: Denise (Lisa Bonet), Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe), Rudy (Keshia Knight Pulliam), and Sondra (Sabrina La Beauf). A good, wholesome show, it 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.
Cheers (NBC, 1982-1993) takes place primarily in a bar and starred Ted Danson as Sam Malone, Shelley Long as Diane Chambers, Rhea Perlman as Carla Tortelli, George Wendt as Norm Peterson, Woody Harrelson as Woody Boyd, Kelsey Grammer as Frasier Crane, and Kirstie Alley as Rebecca Howe. The show nearly got cancelled after its first, somewhat disappointing season, but its rankings rose in subsequent seasons, and the show ran eleven seasons.
The episode that is hailed as the best episode of the whole show is “Thanksgiving Orphans,” which aired in 1987 and ranked #7 on TV Guide’s list of 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.
The Golden Girls (NBC, 1985-1992) starred Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty as Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia. Three widows and one divorcee, the women shared a home. 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.
Similar sitcoms, which dealt with roommates rather than families, included Who’s the Boss? (ABC, 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), and Three’s Company (ABC, 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).
Family-based sitcoms that made the list were more plentiful. The Jeffersons (CBS, 1975-1985) and Alice (CBS, 1976-1985) carried over from the 1970s. They were joined by families ranging from irreverent – Roseanne (ABC, 1988-1997) – to relatively normal – Family Ties (NBC, 1982-1989) – to almost saccharine – Growing Pains (ABC, 1985-1992). Along with these, Americans enjoyed A Different World (NBC, 1987-1993), The Dukes of Hazzard (CBS, 1979-1985), Empty Nest (NBC, 1988-1995), One Day at a Time (CBS, 1975-1984), Too Close for Comfort (ABC, 1980-1986), and ALF (NBC, 1986-1990).
Work-based sitcoms were also popular. M*A*S*H (CBS, 1972-1983), starring Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce, chronicled the adventures and misadventures of the MASH 4077th in South Korea during the Korean War. Night Court (NBC, 1984-1992) starring Harry Anderson as Judge Stone, John Larroquette as Dan Fielding, and Richard Moll as Bull Shannon, deals with a court that handles petty crimes, many of which are completely absurd. Alice (CBS, 1976-1985) and Flo (CBS, 1980-1981) are both about diners (Flo was actually a spin-off of Alice) and often had guest stars in the diners. Anything But Love (ABC, 1989-1992) and House Calls (CBS, 1979-1982) both dealt with people in the medical profession.
Crime sitcoms, like crime dramas, focused on detectives or investigators that solved crimes. The difference is that the crime sitcoms included more humor to lighten the scenes rather than being serious like dramas. These include Moonlighting (ABC, 1985-1989) and Kate & Allie (CBS, 1984-1989).
TV shows throughout the 1980s became gradually more edgy and less family-oriented. When families were displayed, many times they were broken families or partial families, reflecting the real-life situations in which many families were disintegrating as divorce rates increased. The focus moved from learning wholesome lessons to having fun – and poking fun.