1980s TV Dramas
It was the summer of 1980, and television executives were asking themselves one question: “How can we find our own version of ‘Who shot J.R.’?” Dallas had become a mega-hit, one of the biggest in television history, and it broke every single rule about how dramatic TV was supposed to work. Now it was at the pinnacle of its popularity, as the entire nation speculated on who shot the series’ biggest heel in the third-season finale. Dallas was huge, and other networks wanted a piece of its success.
Yet the shows that were critical successes at the time, the ones that won Emmys and the plaudits of TV reviewers, were small, social issue-focused dramas from the Grant Tinker-led MTM, an influential production company that had built its name by helping to reinvent sitcoms in the previous decade and had now turned its eye toward revamping the TV drama.
With a handful of exceptions, TV dramas had been the same since the end of the live-drama anthology series of the early ’60s: The characters faced down some sort of life-or-death situation; almost always, the stories were closed off at the end of the hour; and if the network could help it, absolutely nothing in the way of real-world issues would intrude upon the show, even though dramas like Marcus Welby, M.D., trafficked heavily in real-world issues and were highly successful. Some shows had broken the rules over the years. Peyton Place was an early type of primetime soap. Science-fiction shows like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek or Westerns like Gunsmoke and Wagon Train often tackled social issues through the prism of aliens or cowboys. There had been good dramas before the ’80s, but they were few and far between.
But while Dallas challenged network assumptions that audiences wouldn’t tune in for heavily serialized TV, MTM and Tinker challenged the assumption that dramas should take place in an unrealistic world that didn’t have anything to do with the issues of the day. The sitcoms of the ’70s found success by trying to reflect the changing times; why shouldn’t dramas do the same? Tinker and the writers who worked for him were instrumental in bringing to the air both Lou Grant—an unusual dramatic spinoff of The Mary Tyler Moore Show that turned Ed Asner’s character into a newspaper editor who frequently confronted the big issues of the day—and The White Shadow, a moving ensemble drama about a high-school basketball coach. Both series became major critical successes, and Lou Grant even became a modest ratings hit. As such, the ground was ripe for Tinker to take a chance on selling NBC on a series that blended the lessons of both Dallas and the Lou Grant/White Shadow duo, a drama that would have continuing stories and arcs but also attempt to reflect the world as it was out there on the streets.
If the story of sitcoms in the ’70s is one of a longtime genre learning to take itself seriously, the story of dramas in the ’80s is that of a TV form utterly reinventing itself. Even the least-serialized dramas on the air today have some form of continuing character interaction. MTM and Dallas won, in the end. Without them, there likely never would have been Sopranos, The Wire, or Mad Men, even if it seems unusual to link the ridiculous excess of Dallas to any of those other shows.
And like the story of sitcoms in the ’80s, this is a story about networks realizing they didn’t have to cancel shows if they drew good ratings from certain desirable demographics, and a story about veteran TV producers realizing they’d been given free rein to go a little nuts.
But first, we have to go back to MTM and meet Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll.
’80s dramas 101: Cops, doctors, and lawyers
Since the ’60s, most drama series had focused on police officers/detectives, doctors, or lawyers. This still applies today; the professions’ built-in life-or-death stakes make them inherently compelling. They’re also the professions many ambitious TV writers wish to write about the least, simply because so many different versions of this kind of show have already been done. This may be why Steven Bochco always seemed to resent being asked to keep making cop dramas.
Bochco, like many of the people who changed the face of television, always acted like he wished he’d been making films all along. After graduating from college with a degree in playwriting, he landed at Universal, where he began writing material to fill out Bob Hope specials. Over time, he worked his way up to staff-writer positions on shows like Ironside and The Bold Ones, acclaimed, good-for-their-times series that nonetheless didn’t play around with Bochco’s pet fascinations with what becomes of professionals when they go home after a hard day’s work. He contributed to scripts for two movies (including the science-fiction cult classic Silent Running), and worked on the quickly canceled but influential cop show Delvecchio in the ’70s. But his career seemed to be stuck in neutral.
Bochco left his other jobs in 1978 to work at MTM, where he contributed a couple of White Shadow scripts before getting to create a series of his own. Debuting in 1979, Paris was something of a trial run for everything Bochco would do in the ’80s. Starring James Earl Jones, the series focused on an L.A. police captain who also worked as a professor of criminology on the side, a second career that allowed Bochco to follow Paris away from his job. Although well-received by critics, Paris was canceled after just 13 episodes.
Bochco then balked when he was asked in 1980 to create yet another cop show for MTM, which thought it could sell one to NBC, a network in dire ratings straits. Bochco’s reluctance faded once he paired with fellow writer Michael Kozoll, who shared his interest in getting to know police officers as characters and not as interchangeable crime-solving parts. MTM gave them carte blanche, and once Tinker got a look at the show they devised, he went to the wall with NBC, first getting the network to pick up the show, then convincing it to renew after a little-watched first season, making it the lowest-rated program ever to be renewed up until that time.
The show was Hill Street Blues, and the innovations it brought to TV drama reads like a laundry list of elements we now take for granted. Characters had interpersonal relationships that didn’t stop at the end of each episode and deepened over time. Although the cases in each episode were usually sewn up by the end, the show’s universe was affected by previous events, meaning that Bochco and Kozoll were able to build an entire world centered on one police precinct in a run-down, crime-ridden neighborhood. The two brought in the sort of soapy relationship material that worked for Dallas, getting viewers interested in who was sleeping with whom and the cops’ occasionally oddball home lives.
Furthermore, the ensemble was massive for its time, and while Bochco and Kozoll had a lead in Daniel J. Travanti’s Captain Frank Furillo, they lavished just as much attention on supporting characters. Multiple storylines took place within the same episode, and there was no guarantee that any given one would end with that particular episode. It was shot in a faux-verité style, the camera moving freely and characters often talking over each other as the show tackled the world of early-’80s inner cities, where poverty and rot had created a neighborhoods where just walking to your car at night could mean danger. Two characters were seemingly shot to death in the Hill Street pilot. Another two ended the episode in bed together. It was unlike any other television show up until that point.
NBC, naturally enough, asked the producers to change nearly everything about the program after audience testing suggested it would be received poorly. Bochco and Kozoll, with the backing of Tinker, stuck to their vision, and the show was rewarded, first with rapturous critical reviews, then with the most Emmys a series had ever won in one season. Though apprehensive, NBC renewed the program for a second season of 10 episodes (later increased to 19) and watched as the TV audience slowly caught on. By the third season, the show had risen into the Nielsen top 30. The series would run seven seasons and become one of the great proving grounds for new writers, directors, and actors, most notably David Milch, whose grungy, elliptical dialogue would become a hallmark of many great television series.
While Hill Street holds up today, it still looks like a relic of an earlier time, a field trip to the early ’80s and the concerns of the era. The show’s portrayals of various groups, especially homosexuals and gang members, can seem clumsy, while many of the elements that were so remarkable at the time are now commonplace. To drop in on an episode of Hill Street―with its formulaic episode-opening roll-call scene and episode-closing scene of gentle domesticity―can seem almost quaint.
But the writing and directing are strong, and the series’ sense of the neighborhood in which it takes place gradually grows so all-encompassing that it’s easy to see the seeds being planted for everything from NYPD Blue to The Wire. Full of fascinating characters and packed with memorable episodes, Hill Street Blues is the kernel that expanded into what we think of as the modern cop show. It also began an informal tradition of NBC airing one of the best dramas on TV at 10 p.m. on Thursdays, a tradition that existed until the end of E.R. in 2009.
With Hill Street firmly ensconced as a hit, MTM turned its attention to another of the three most popular TV drama types, latching onto an idea whose origins predated Hill Street. Bruce Paltrow, a producer on The White Shadow, had long wanted to do a medical drama. When Joshua Brand and John Falsey—story editors on Shadow who wanted to create a series based on the experience of one of Brand’s friends at a clinic in Cleveland—approached him, they formed the germ of the idea that would become St. Elsewhere in 1982.
Taking place in the crumbling St. Eligius hospital in Boston, St. Elsewhere, like Hill Street, had a huge ensemble cast, storytelling packed with social issues, and ongoing plotlines. Its biggest innovation over previous medical dramas: Patients died on St. Elsewhere. That made the show too grim for some viewers, but opened up space for hospital dramas to come. The show’s other innovations came from its often-experimental writing. Paltrow, Brand, and Falsey’s vision for the series had always involved gallows humor among the doctors, but there were weeks when St. Elsewhere could be as much a comedy as a drama. Where Hill Street could occasionally be too self-serious, St. Elsewhere had a great, gritty sense of when laughter could punctuate drama to deepen the pathos.
It was also wildly innovative with the different kinds of stories it told. The show’s writing staff would eventually include the great Tom Fontana, who, with the other producers, indulged in his love of both television history and playing with the form of an episode. Characters from other series crossed over. There were numerous references to earlier shows the writers loved and revered. There was rampant meta-commentary about the show’s consistently low ratings and the threat of cancellation. And the writers didn’t think episodes had to begin and end with the treatment of patients. A memorable fifth-season episode involved one character having a hallucination (or was it a vision?) of the afterlife. The series finale memorably closes with one of the most debated moments in TV history, and the fourth-season episode “Time Heals,” one of the great episodes of TV drama, told the story of St. Eligius throughout its entire history over two hours of spellbinding television in which tiny events in the past rippled outward into the present.
St. Elsewhere’s final innovation came from the fact that it kept getting renewed despite perilously low ratings. Admittedly, Tinker, who had been present at MTM in the earliest days of the show’s development, was now working as the head of NBC, and he and programming chief Brandon Tartikoff really liked the show, which also benefited from success with critics and the Emmys. But it was also helped by the new way advertisers were looking at ratings, the idea that younger viewers, who watched St. Elsewhere in greater numbers than older viewers, were more valuable. This idea kept St. Elsewhere on the air, and ABC, in particular, would use the idea of appealing to the “key demo” to develop a series of experimental dramas at the end of the decade.
Meanwhile, Hill Street suffered three key losses. Kozoll left the show at the end of season two, burned out on the pace of network television. Michael Conrad, who played Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, the closest thing the show had to a father figure, died in the middle of production of season four. And, finally, Bochco was fired in season five after a dispute with MTM (which was slowly falling apart after Tinker’s departure) over the show’s growing budgets. The show tried to hang on, and Milch was still a prolific voice, but it was never the same without Bochco’s hand at the helm.
Bochco, for his part, simply decided to create another series for NBC sans MTM, turning this time to that last drama type: the legal drama. With co-creator Terry Louise Fisher, he launched L.A. Law, a big, glossy workplace soap about a high-powered law firm and the many men and women who worked there. As might be expected with a legal drama, the social issues were even more prominent than they had been on Hill Street and Elsewhere, but the show’s other innovation was to mix in the sort of wild story twists that had become the province of prime-time soaps. Characters talked endlessly about a mysterious sexual maneuver known as the Venus Butterfly. One character was written off the show by being dropped down an elevator shaft. The show went to the courtroom in nearly every episode, sure, but the real fun was watching for the wild twists.
Those twists were largely the work of a young writer named David E. Kelley. Kelley had been trained as a lawyer before he decided to try his hand at writing TV scripts. He quickly rose through the ranks at L.A. Law and was soon running the show. Kelley got just as much mileage out of the clandestine business maneuverings of the various players in the firm as he did the legal cases, and he was fond of taking a left turn when he might be expected to go right. Kelley’s twists made the show the most popular drama of the three discussed here, and it can be wildly entertaining. But it fell apart quickly after abandoning reality too thoroughly, and once Kelley left, it became an utter mess.
INTERMEDIATE WORK: IN THE GENRE TRENCHES
Over the course of TV history, many of the best dramas have been in genres that are often held in ill repute by critics who prefer highbrow workplace fare. Often, these genre shows will age better than the workplace shows, which can strain for profundity. Often, they’re the biggest hits, despite critics’ grumbling. And often, they’re very good. In the ’80s, most of this programming fell into the broad genres of prime-time soap operas, crime thrillers, and science-fiction programs. (We’ll examine the action-adventure hours that so dominated the early part of the decade a little later on.)
Savaged at the time for their ludicrous plot twists and embrace of American overindulgence, the prime-time soaps of the ’80s don’t all hold up, but they do show the kind of escapism—often involving the very rich—audiences enjoyed during the recession-plagued early parts of the decade. The shows’ storytelling models, which were largely invented on the fly by TV writers who weren’t quite sure how to approach the idea of a show where the story never ended, were pillaged first by Hill Street Blues then nearly every TV drama of note over the next several decades.
It’s impossible to talk about these shows without beginning with Dallas, even though the show began in the ’70s. The apex of the show’s popularity came in the early ’80s, and of the four major soaps of the era, it’s the one that remains the most entertaining today. J.R. Ewing (the great Larry Hagman) is one of the all-time great TV heels, a guy who simultaneously made audiences root for his death and for his success at crushing his enemies. Yes, the show went on far too long, and yes, some of the cliffhangers strained to re-attain the instant pop-culture status of “Who shot J.R.?,” and yes, the dream season was a terrible idea. But Dallas is still a lot of fun to watch. Even its later, flawed seasons have a sprawling cast filled with fun characters and the occasional gem of an episode. Producer Lee Rich shepherded the show, and though Dallas was far more over-the-top than his previous series, The Waltons, both reflected his interest in the ways that families hang together and fall apart.
The other most successful soap of the era was ABC’s Dynasty, brought to the screen by TV super-producer Aaron Spelling. Dynasty at first seemed like an attempt to copy Dallas, but in its later seasons—particularly after the arrival of Joan Collins’ Alexis—the show consciously decided to become as crazy as possible, reducing all of its wealthy characters to idiots who would wrestle in mud over a man or get gunned down by terrorists at a wedding. Where Dallas at least contained a slim tether to reality, Dynasty cut the cord and sailed off into outer space. For that reason, it’s often hard to watch nowadays, though the early seasons can be fun. (The show also spawned a completely bizarre spinoff named Dynasty II: The Colbys, which featured, among other events, an alien abduction.)
The other two popular prime-time soaps of the era were Knots Landing and Falcon Crest, both of them by way of Rich. (Knots, in fact, was a spinoff of Dallas, which led to problems when Knots’ continuity insisted it had to ignore the fact that one of the seasons of Dallas was all a dream.) Generally regarded as the best prime-time soap on the air at the time, Knots Landing is the better of the two. It reflected creator David Jacobs’ (who also created Dallas) interest in making a show about the small-scale minutiae of married life, focusing on a handful of couples living in a Los Angeles cul-de-sac. Though Jacobs and Rich’s success with Dallas gave them plenty of leeway, the show’s low ratings demanded it become soapier and soapier, and the quality suffered.
Falcon Crest, on the other hand, has its moments but little to recommend it. An attempt to find a balance between the borderline realism of Dallas and the insanity of Dynasty, it’s mostly notable for a strong Jane Wyman performance as the head of family of California wine producers and the fact that it was, strangely, created by Waltons creator Earl Hamner, Jr.
One final soap of interest: Fame, one of the first teen soaps. Set at a performing-arts high school, the series had a rudimentary sense of the teen soap clichés that would become dominant in the next decade but is mostly notable for its generally enjoyable performance numbers (spearheaded by Debbie Allen).
The detective drama has almost always been a staple of TV storytelling, but the shows took on a harder edge in the ’80s, becoming almost noir-like at times. So long as producer Stephen Cannell kept pumping out shows, networks kept buying them and audiences kept watching them. Yet the series got more violent and darker as the decade went on, reflecting national fears about the rising crime rate. Many of them boast some terrific filmmaking as well.
At the forefront of the “TV as visual medium” movement was Michael Mann, one of the first TV directors in years with an obvious visual style. Even though he didn’t create any of them, the ’80s series Miami Vice and Crime Story (discussed below) and the short-lived 2002 series Robbery Homicide Division all bear his visual stamp and thematic concerns. It’s no wonder they’re often referred to as “Michael Mann series.”
Anthony Yerkovich (a former Hill Street Blues writer) created Miami Vice off a two-word pitch from Tartikoff (“MTV cops”). Mann then took the basic idea and heaped tons of style on top of it. From the pilot, it was obvious that this was going to look like no crime drama before (and very few since). The justly acclaimed pilot sequence, set to Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight,” announces the show’s visual flair. Shadows mute the bright colors of Miami. Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) stops to make a phone call beneath a giant neon sign for no reason whatsoever. Tight shots focus on the wheel of the car or the two lead characters silently riding through the night, the lights of the city flashing by.
Miami Vice has seen its reputation diminish over the years, largely because it attracted so much attention and inspired so many imitators, both on television and in the fashion of the time. And though it shares some of the goofiness of other cop dramas of its era, the series’ best episodes, like season two’s “Out Where The Busses Don’t Run,” replaced that goofiness with cold, dark cynicism by episode’s end. The conclusion of “Busses” set a new standard for TV direction: The nearly wordless sequence is set to Dire Straits’ “Brothers In Arms” and takes place in an abandoned wasteland where Crockett and Rico Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) discover a terrible secret. Emboldened by the other acclaimed NBC dramas discussed above, Mann and the other producers took the show darker and darker as the seasons went on until it eventually became one of TV’s grimmest shows.
Mann would split his time between Vice and another series, Crime Story, set in the early ’60s and inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s German miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz, of all things. Directing a season one episode himself, Mann upped the stylishness. The streets were slick with rain. The noir-ish shadows grew longer. The neon that was the sole source of light grew bolder. In many respects, Crime Story has aged better than Vice, particularly since it only ran for two seasons and never got the chance to diminish as drastically as Vice did in its final year. It boasts a riveting Dennis Farina performance and the sort of sophisticated serial storytelling that might mark it as an AMC or FX series nowadays.
Heading in the complete opposite direction was Donald P. Bellisario and Glen Larson’s Magnum P.I., produced for CBS. Magnum, while not great television, is endlessly watchable television and not nearly as formulaic as its reputation suggests. Though it was nowhere near as serialized as, say, Hill Street Blues, the characters grew and changed over time, and the mystery of the Masters, at whose behest Thomas Magnum lived so easily, grew over the course of the series. The show was a testament to the strength of solid writing and likable actors on TV. Bellisario has always been a solid craftsman, and his scripts tend to emphasize fun, tough-guy action. Tom Selleck became one of the biggest TV stars of all time and the show also featured a fun John Hillerman performance as Higgins.
The decade was also marked by a spate of series based around the idea of a man and woman solving mysteries together. Both Hart To Hart and the somewhat similar Scarecrow And Mrs. King have qualities to recommend them, but the best version of this type of show (outside of a more experimental ABC series we’ll get to in a bit) is NBC’s Remington Steele, also produced by MTM. The series, which made an instant star of Pierce Brosnan, is about detective Laura Holt (Stephanie Zimbalist), who can’t find clients because she’s a woman. Thus, she makes up Remington Steele to be the “front” of the organization. Laura pretends he’s her superior, and when Brosnan’s character (whose real name was never revealed) stumbles upon her at a crime scene and overhears the name, he assumes Steele’s identity. The series was peppered with funny scripts and irresistible chemistry between the leads, but it had a surprisingly serious core in Laura’s struggles to get anyone to take a female detective seriously.
The decade also saw a series of shows that focused on older stars playing crime-solvers of one type or another. Matlock is notable mostly because Andy Griffith has fun as the eponymous lawyer, and In The Heat Of The Night won Carroll O’Connor an Emmy (though the show’s examinations of racial strife paled in comparison to its contemporaries). But the pinnacle of this form, at least in its early years, was Murder, She Wrote. Again, it’s not a great series, but Angela Lansbury is fantastic, and despite a slow pace, it’s almost defiantly watchable, like a lost series of Agatha Christie novels exhumed and turned into a TV show.
The decade also featured the rise of ultra-violent crime dramas, including The Equalizer, which had a nascent mythology and a strong central performance from Edward Woodward. The show, while never hugely popular, was something of a cult sensation at the time, primarily for its gritty sense of vigilante justice and the mystery of the lead character’s past. Similarly, Hunter, which sometimes seems like a stereotypical—and awful—’80s crime drama with shocking acts of violence pasted on for no apparent reason, remains worth watching for the ways it pushed at the era’s envelope.
To discuss all of the crime dramas of the era would take several thousand more words, but those curious about the shows of the era would do well to check out the strangely popular Simon & Simon, then move on to Stephen J. Cannell’s series of the era, especially Hardcastle & McCormick, Tenspeed And Brown Shoe, and 21 Jump Street, notable mainly for being the Fox network’s first successful dramatic series and the beginning of Johnny Depp’s career.
There weren’t as many science-fiction dramas in the ’80s as there had been in earlier decades, but the few that made it to air were often very good. In particular, one revisit of an earlier series improved on that show in some ways, while another felt like a shoddy reboot.
The revisit that worked was Star Trek: The Next Generation, though it took some time to get going. With the original Star Trek’s cast starring in a successful movie franchise, series producer Gene Roddenberry made the astute decision to come up with an entirely new crew, set the show on the latest version of the U.S.S. Enterprise, and tell the sorts of symbolic science-fiction stories the earlier series had excelled at telling. The new actors—particularly Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard—were so good and the writers produced such grand, universe-spanning storylines on a syndicated budget that the series eventually gained one of the largest audiences for a science-fiction program ever. It was one of the few science-fiction series to ever be nominated for the Best Dramatic Series Emmy. (The reboot that didn’t work? 1986’s Twilight Zone remake, which has its partisans but rarely lived up to its potential.)
Also currying favor with the Emmys, oddly enough, was one of the few attempts TV ever made at something like an epic fantasy, Beauty And The Beast. (It’s one of the few series Game Of Thrones author George R.R. Martin worked on before quitting Hollywood in disgust.) Creator Ron Koslow came up with an elaborate storyline about a colony of below-ground outcasts who formed a sort of perfect community into which Catherine (Linda Hamilton) was slowly seduced by the titular Beast, Vincent (Ron Perlman). Occasionally very silly, Beauty And The Beast remains remarkable simply for the depth of its backstory and its commitment to doing something this strange on network TV.
Alien Nation is a little over-obvious with its theme of aliens standing in for all oppressed peoples in the world, but by trying to graft a hardcore science-fiction mystery onto what was basically a cop show, the Fox network built the template it would use on The X-Files. Meanwhile, Max Headroom remains one of the strangest TV series ever produced, a journalism drama transplanted into the world of the near-future, where lead character Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) uploaded a version of himself to a computer that turned into virtual person Max Headroom. Featuring a fully realized world and production values that struggled to keep up with the producers’ vision, Max Headroom isn’t wholly successful, but it’s well worth watching simply for all of the ideas it throws out in every episode.
The most successful sci-fi drama of the era (outside of The Next Generation) was also from the pen of Bellisario, who left behind the easy fun of Magnum to create a series that tried to tie together the turbulent history of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s via time travel. Though the show’s science-fiction content remained fairly light, Quantum Leap used it as an entertaining gloss to get viewers interested in stories of the near-past. The series was eventually killed by network notes that destroyed its initial concept of how small lives played out against the epic sweep of history, but it boasts tremendously fun performances from Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell, as well as a premise so engaging that it’s easy to ignore how little sense it makes.
ADVANCED STUDIES: GETTING WEIRD
The success of the MTM dramas and some of the stronger genre shows emboldened producers to take more chances, and all three networks, to some degree, were open to these ideas. The TV audience had begun to fragment, with viewers slowly shifting to cable, and networks were open to anything they thought might slow the slide. ABC, which had lost most of its big hits by the midpoint of the decade, especially found itself open to trying new, weird notions, and found some degree of success doing so. But the process of experimenting with TV dramas—which would accelerate rapidly in the ’90s—happened in fits and starts.
One drama seen as experimental at the time, though it hardly seems so now: Cagney & Lacey, CBS’ cop drama about two female police officers who juggle crime-solving and their personal lives. Obviously inspired by shows like Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey followed a strange path to the small screen, debuting in 1981 as a TV movie starring Loretta Swit (then starring in M*A*S*H) and Tyne Daly. It was then picked up as a six-episode midseason tryout series, this time with Meg Foster in the Cagney role. CBS, reportedly thinking Foster—who played a single woman—would be seen as a lesbian, asked series producers Barney Rosenzweig (who had bounced around television for decades) and Barbara Corday to replace her. The two hired Sharon Gless but refused the network’s demands to make Cagney a more glamorous female character.
Like Mary Tyler Moore and Maude in the ’70s, Cagney & Lacey reflected the United States’ uneasy relationship with feminism. Today, it seems like a fairly standard cop drama with understated domestic elements. In the ’80s, it was seen as daring simply for showing women working in a profession dominated by men. The few female police officers on TV before Cagney & Lacey were often eye candy. Cagney and Lacey were both working-class women, hard-edged and able to hold their own. The show also dug deeply into social issues, as in a season four arc where Lacey battled breast cancer.
The show was canceled after its second season due to low ratings, but the cancellation touched off one of the first successful movements by fans to save a TV show, prompting the founding of the briefly prominent Viewers for Quality Television. The campaign resulted in CBS renewing the series for a third season that vaulted into the Nielsen top 10 on the basis of curiosity over the campaign.
CBS was responsible for another surprisingly innovative cop drama. Wiseguy was yet another show from the pen of Stephen Cannell, who co-created the series with Frank Lupo. Though seen as a curiosity at the time, the series has gained fans since it aired, largely thanks to how much it seems to predict what would become the dominant movements in TV drama in a decade’s time. The series features a handful of standalone episodes, but mostly consists of extended “arcs” wherein lead character Vinnie Terranova (Ken Wahl) infiltrates assorted crime organizations and works to destroy them from within. Vinnie’s work often requires him to do very bad things, making him something of an antihero, and the show’s use of slow, contemplative moments followed by huge action climaxes would also become influential. The series’ first season consisted of two long arcs, and the second, featuring Kevin Spacey as the villainous Mel Profitt, is some of the best TV of the decade, though the DVD release robs several key moments of their power by replacing the pop music that underscored the scenes.
NBC mostly stuck to the workplace and light-action dramas it knew well, but it was briefly seduced by the idea of a TV series produced by Steven Spielberg. Though it features a handful of good episodes, Amazing Stories is mostly an interesting failure, an attempt by Spielberg to resurrect the anthology dramas of his youth. It failed to come up with enough interesting ideas, often simply because the methods of producing anthology dramas had mostly been lost. Still, it’s worth checking out a few episodes, and Spielberg’s shift of the focus from writers to directors gives the series a fun “spot the visual style before the director credit pops up” element. The Brad Bird-directed “The Family Dog” is very amusing, too.
But the real experimentation was going on over on ABC, a network that had crawled to the height of the Nielsen ratings by embracing the cheesy shows popular at the end of the ’70s, then found itself entering a long, slow decline when those shows ceased to be relevant. Where CBS doubled down on cop shows and mostly tried to be a slightly less challenging version of NBC, ABC ultimately decided to push things even further. The decision ultimately paid off for the network, even if some of those shows were never anything more than demographic hits.
The first of these shows to debut, and the one that convinced ABC that following the path of maximum experimentation could result in ratings success, was Moonlighting, Glenn Gordon Caron’s dizzily funny riff on the private-eye genre. Like many other shows on the air at the time, Moonlighting was based around a man and a woman, David (Bruce Willis) and Maddie (Cybill Shepherd), who solved crimes together and simply couldn’t stand each other, though they obviously wanted to have sex. Usually more of a comedy than a drama, Moonlighting took the combination of fluffy romance and mysteries that were largely beside the point to the limit. Caron was known both for writing scripts that were often double the length of a normal TV shooting script—thus forcing Willis and Shepherd to speak faster and faster and faster, capturing the screwball vibe Caron wanted—and also for taking so long writing them that production was often delayed, meaning weeks would go by without new episodes. Where other shows produced seasons with more than 20 episodes (and soaps like Dallas sometimes produced more than 30), Moonlighting was lucky to get to 15.
Still, the show was one of the most effortlessly entertaining programs on TV. The dialogue was hilarious, the chemistry between the leads sizzled, and the series never met an experiment it didn’t want to try, including everything from a Shakespeare episode to a film noir episode to lots of fourth-wall breaking. If episodes came in short, Caron would place the leads in front of the camera and have them improvise. And he expertly built to the first time David and Maddie did the deed, scoring the tryst to The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” in what was one of the highest-rated episodes of the decade. Moonlighting, for a time, was the biggest sensation on the air.
And even though popular wisdom holds that the show died after David and Maddie slept together, the season after, season four, was hurt more by a writers strike and various health issues keeping the two leads apart than by any story decisions. By the time the show wrapped that season, which had written Shepherd’s pregnancy into the plot, it had mostly gone off the rails. Caron left Moonlighting acrimoniously, and with him went any chance of the show regaining what it had, and it left the air (albeit after a memorable series finale).
Though never as big of a hit, Thirtysomething—the debut series from Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, whose production company would produce some of the most interesting dramas and train some of the best TV writers of the ’80s and ’90s—pulled terrific numbers among the younger viewers ABC sought. Roundly derided as pretentious and navel-gazing when it debuted, Thirtysomething quickly attracted a small but deeply dedicated audience, and critics came around as well. The series had no obvious hook: It was simply about the way upper-middle-class yuppies lived their lives. Following a group of friends through the closing years of the ’80s, the series examined marriages falling apart, the compromises made by children of the ’60s, and the problems of child-rearing. Deliberately small-scale and patient in its storytelling, Thirtysomething essentially invented a new TV genre. It, too, was fascinated by the potential of experimental episodes, including a famous Christmas episode shot as if it were an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
ABC also took a chance on China Beach, a Vietnam-era period piece set on the front lines instead of back home (as the then-popular Wonder Years was). (CBS aired Tour Of Duty, a similar series about an infantry platoon in the war. It’s worth seeing, but broadcast standards hamstrung it in several ways.) China Beach’s amped-up, almost action-like approach to medical scenes would later be appropriated by the much more popular ER, and the series’ choice to focus on medical units working on the beach allowed it to avoid some of the issues that trouble Tour Of Duty. The series also featured a forthright look at the issues of the ’60s through the prism of several decades’ remove, while its period detail was surprisingly strong for a small-budget TV show. Though the series was never particularly popular, ABC kept it on the air for four seasons, and Dana Delany’s work cemented her as a TV star.
The experimentation of those three series, however, would be nothing compared to what was shooting in the Pacific Northwest as the decade closed out. In early 1990, ABC would introduce Twin Peaks to the world, and the next, far bolder chapter of TV drama would begin.
Miscellany: Leftovers and action-adventure TV
The dominant form of ’80s dramas, prompted by the rise of The A-Team, was the action-adventure show. Producers like Larson and Cannell clogged the airwaves with show after show about small teams of men who worked to right wrongs and make the world a better place. The bad reputation ’80s dramas have among many casual TV fans mostly stems from these shows, nearly all of which are awful. For every show with an interesting element or two—like the Richard Dean Anderson performance in MacGyver or the initial, let’s-see-what-works-and-screw-the-formula episodes of A-Team—there’s an endless parade of cheesy series that now look strange to modern eyes. One exception is Larson and Belissario’s Tales Of The Gold Monkey, which at least had an intriguing premise in that it aimed to hearken back to the Howard Hawks adventure movies of the ’30s and ’40s. But all was not lost: As with so many of the genre shows in the ’80s, the raw materials of these programs would become much, much better shows in the ’90s and 2000s.
Finally, both Bochco and the St. Elsewhere producers had very odd follow-up series that have mostly been lost to the mists of time. If you find Bay City Blues, Bochco’s series about a minor-league baseball team, or Tattinger’s, a series from the St. Elsewhere producers about a New York City restaurant that started as a drama and ended up a half-hour sitcom, they may be worth watching, purely for curiosity’s sake.
1. St. Elsewhere (1982-88)
One of the best dramas ever made, St. Elsewhere features an airtight ensemble (featuring, among others, a young Denzel Washington) and relishes in seeing just how far the premise of the show could be pushed before it stopped being a hospital drama. For the episode “Time Heals” alone, it would be on this list. Sadly, only the first season, far from the show’s strongest but still good, is available on DVD and online streaming sites.
2. Hill Street Blues (1981-87)
Sort of the proto-version of The Wire, Hill Street Blues took its time but gradually built up a massive ensemble of cops, criminals, politicians, and those who loved them. It’s one of the most influential shows in history, essential viewing to understand what came next. The first three seasons—the show’s best—are all available on Hulu.
3. Miami Vice/Crime Story (1984-89/1986-88)
Frustrated filmmaker Michael Mann brought his ideas of neo-noir to the small screen, creating hypnotically engaging crime dramas, often ripped from the pages of penny dreadfuls or classic authors like Edgar Allan Poe. Both series are deeply ambitious and surprisingly grim. The complete runs of both are available on DVD, with many of the most prominent original music cues intact.
4. Moonlighting (1985-89)
Funnier than many of the comedies on the air at the time, Moonlighting ramped up the pace of the average television show and then kept pushing it ever faster. Featuring two magnetic leads and scripts that would often throw out basic rules of TV structure (and logic), Moonlighting is a tremendous amount of fun. The entire run is available on DVD.
5. Thirtysomething (1987-91)
Could it be annoying? Sure. But this chronicle of yuppies and their kids doesn’t strain or over-emote unless it absolutely needs to, choosing to portray life as it was lived, or at least as close as broadcast TV could get to that in the ’80s. Launching the careers of numerous writers and actors who would spread out through TV in the years to come, the series is on DVD in its entirety.
Special thanks: As always, I’m grateful for the thoughts of Jaime Weinman, Alan Sepinwall, and Jason Mittell, who helped me cull an already lengthy list to something shorter and suggested titles I might have forgotten. For further reading on this topic, the memoirs of Tinker and Tartikoff, Robert J. Thompson’s Television’s Second Golden Age and Prime Time, Prime Movers (co-written with David Marc), and The Sweeps by Mark Christensen and Cameron Stauth are all solid reads.