10 ’80s TV Shows Worth a Second Look
For every iconic ’80s TV series like ‘Cheers’ or ‘The Cosby Show’ or ‘St. Elsewhere’ or ‘Miami Vice,’ there are plenty that never led the Nielsen ratings, got canceled quickly and faded all too quickly into pop-culture obscurity. Sure, many of these shows were ill-conceived trash, but a select bunch (including the 10 series below) became massively influential to future generations of writers, directors and actors. Better yet, after 25 years or more, these 10 series hold up better than some of the most popular shows of the ’80s. And that makes all of them worth a second look.
Based on the 1986 movie and conceived by network executives as a ‘Lethal Weapon’-like series with a sci-fi edge, the short-lived ‘Alien Nation’ became much more than a gimmicky procedural. Creator Kenneth Johnson used the concept of an alien race integrating into human life as a springboard to deal with all sorts of discrimination. The focus of the series is on a pair of Los Angeles detectives – one human and one alien, a member of a race of “Newcomers” who often stand in for African-Americans, Hispanics and homosexuals. The aliens even offered a shot at gender commentary, when the male Newcomer detective became pregnant, as is normal for the race. ‘Alien Nation’ became another entry in the esteemed sci-fi tradition of creative social commentary, and it even did pretty well in the ratings. But, the axe fell after just one season when Fox realized it had overestimated network ad revenues and decided to cancel all of its dramatic series. Fans of the show were rewarded with five TV movies in the mid-’90s that continued with the same characters, actors and creative team.
Just as the halcyon days of the NBC sitcom were beginning, Dabney Coleman starred as irascible local talk show host “Buffalo” Bill Bittinger on this half-hour comedy. Although modern TV is full of hard-to-like protagonists (think Larry David and Kenny Powers), viewers in the early ’80s were slow to warm to egocentric Bill and his series — in spite of the brilliantly acerbic writing and a killer cast that included Geena Davis, Joanna Cassidy (‘Blade Runner’), Meshach Taylor (‘Designing Women’) and Charles Robinson (‘Night Court’). For its two truncated seasons (26 episodes in total), ‘Buffalo Bill’ received 11 Emmy nominations, but was still canceled by NBC. Former network president Brandon Tartikoff would confide in his memoirs that ending the series so soon was his biggest professional regret.
The computer-generated character of Max Headroom became a media sensation in the late ’80s — appearing in everything from Coke ads to ‘Sesame Street’ to the 1988 Summer Olympics. But the character’s eponymous dramatic series didn’t fare quite as well, lasting a mere 14 episodes before being canceled midway through its second season. That’s too bad, because the show, based on a British television movie, was a pioneering work of cyberpunk with an interesting premise. ‘Max Headroom,’ set in the near future, depicted a world in which television had conquered all, leaving only media crusader Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) to fight back with a digital creation of his own making: the slick, sly and stuttering titular character (also portrayed by Frewer under four hours of makeup). One way to know that your show is ahead of its time: Your “computerized” character is fabricated out of old-fashioned latex and fiberglass. There were rumors of spinning the series off into another movie, but the 1988 writers’ strike prevented that — preserving Max’s place as an ’80s ruh-ruh-ruh-relic.
Co-created by all-star television producer Stephen J. Cannell (‘The Rockford Files,’ ‘The A-Team’), ‘Wiseguy’ anticipated the modern formula for dramatic series on basic cable. The series, which followed mob-busting undercover agent Vincent Terranova (Ken Wahl), broke up its seasons into smaller arcs that resembled a season of ‘Justified’ or ‘Breaking Bad.’ Speaking of the latter, the legendary Jonathan Banks (cantankerous Mike Ehrmantraut on ‘Breaking Bad’) had a major role as Vince’s commanding officer Frank McPike, which should be reason enough to revisit this show. Of course, ‘Wiseguy’ was no slouch when it came to guest stars either. Through four seasons, the likes of Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Ron Silver, Jerry Lewis, Tim Curry and Michael Chiklis were featured in recurring roles. NBC thought about rebooting the series in 2011; perhaps they looked at the old episodes and thought they’d never be able to top them.
Critically lauded but ignored by most viewers, ‘Frank’s Place’ is one of those shows that always ends up on TV writers’ canceled-too-soon lists. As such, it remains the most recent show to air for a single season, yet still be nominated for a best comedy series Emmy. The show starred Tim Reid (Venus Flytrap on ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’) as Frank Parrish, a university professor who returns to New Orleans to run a restaurant he inherited. The series was daring in its mix of comedy and dramatic situations that revolved around class and race. It was also a trend-setter in a technical way. Unlike most half-hour comedies at the time (but similar to most of the best half-hour comedies airing today), ‘Frank’s Place’ was shot in a single camera style, with no studio audience or laugh track. Even Aaron Sorkin’s much-lauded ‘Sports Night’ wouldn’t be able to get away without piped-in guffaws when it debuted a full decade later.
These days, there’s a lot of talk about how cinematic television has become. Back in 1986, ‘Crime Story”s two-hour pilot premiered in movie theaters. Fresh off the massive success of ‘Miami Vice,’ Michael Mann was given the creative freedom to do whatever he wanted on television. He chose ‘Crime Story,’ a serialized cops and mobsters show set in the early ’60s and starring Anthony Denison and the late, great Dennis Farina. Although it lasted only two seasons (good ratings when following ‘Vice,’ not-so-good when placed against ‘Moonlighting’), ‘Crime Story’ endures as one of the most influential series in TV history. Without Mann’s gritty concoction, we might live in a universe without ‘The Sopranos,’ ’24’ and ‘Mad Men’ – not to mention Martin Scorsese’s film ‘Casino,’ which took its cues from ‘Crime Story.’ Along with ‘The Wonder Years,’ the show featured some of the best uses of source music, supervised by rock legends Todd Rundgren and Al Kooper.
‘The Real Ghostbusters’
What could have been a schlocky cartoon tie-in following a huge hit movie instead turned into an intriguing anthology of sci-fi/adventure stories … at least until Slimer became the show’s breakout star. The animated series – aired both as part of ABC’s Saturday morning block and weekdays in syndication – picked up where the 1984 blockbuster left off, following Egon, Ray, Peter and Winston in their ghostbusting adventures around New York City and beyond (the “Real” was added to the title because of Filmation’s ’70s ‘Ghost Busters’ cartoon). Thanks to story editor J. Michael Straczynski — who would go on to have a great career as a comic book writer, create ‘Babylon 5′ and is working on a Netflix series with the Wachowski Brothers — the Ghostbusters never lacked for occult adventures, ranging from battling historical ghosts (the spirits of Wyatt Earp or a New Orleans ragtime band) to notorious figures of folklore (Samhain, the Boogieman and the Sandman). Plus, the first couple of seasons featured an all-star voice cast: Lorenzo Music (Garfield), Frank Welker (Fred on ‘Scooby-Doo’), Maurice LaMarche (The Brain of ‘Pink & the Brain’ fame) and Arsenio Hall (seriously).
From one Bill Murray-related TV series to another, ‘Square Pegs,’ which featured the famous episode where the former ‘Saturday Night Live’ star played Mr. McNulty – pretty much the best substitute teacher ever. But there’s more than that to like about this one-season stunner, which starred a young Sarah Jessica Parker as awkward but endearing high schooler Patty Greene. Created by former ‘SNL’ writer Anne Beatts (hence the Murray connection), the show was lauded for its realistic portrayal of high school. Although it was about young people, the series was aimed at an adult audience, similar to another one-season wonder, ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ that would come along more than 15 years later. Just like that show, ‘Square Pegs’ remains one of the great cult shows of all time.
Surely, you must be joking that this series from the ‘Airplane!’ creative team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker and starring comic genius Leslie Nielsen was canceled after a mere four episodes (six were made in total). The reason given at the time of the cop procedural spoof’s demise seems like a bizarre backhanded compliment: “The viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it.” Yes, the rapid-fire gags and deadpan humor woven into every fiber of ‘Police Squad!’ required your full attention (in the same manner as the golden years of ‘The Simpsons’) but with Nielsen’s detective Frank Drebin on the case, how could anyone look away? Of course, Nielsen and pals would get their revenge when they took the ‘Police Squad!’ concept to the big screen for the ‘Naked Gun’ movies and crafted some of the most beloved film comedies of all time.
‘It’s Garry Shandling’s Show’
When it comes to Garry Shandling, ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ hogs most of the attention (and it deserves ever accolade that comes its way). But before that HBO show plumbed the depths of human behavior, Shandling broke the fourth wall on his post-modern Showtime sitcom (later picked up for the brand-new Fox network). Every character – heck, everything – on ‘It’s Garry Shandling’s Show’ was self-aware, from Garry (who lived on a sitcom set) to the studio audience (which could be directly involved in his exploits) to the series’ classic theme song (sample lyric: “This is the theme to Garry’s show … Garry called me up and asked would I write his theme song?“) Guest stars sometimes showed up to lampoon themselves, often in darkly comic ways. For instance, Gilda Radner made her last television appearance on Garry’s show. When Garry asked why we hadn’t seen her on TV in a while, she shrugged, “Oh, I had cancer. What did you have?” The show still ranks as one of the boldest and most experimental comedies in TV history.