Classic Television: 15 Shows That Defined the 1980s

Certain TV shows define their eras. The style, cars, fashion, and music are among the factors that attach those programs to the time they appeared.

Some shows cross over into several decades, while others struggle to switch.

The 1980s was a memorable period in many different ways, and specific productions defined TV throughout those 10 years.

1. Knight Rider (1982-1986)

Knight Rider
Image Credit: Universal Television.

Knight Rider was a fun show, and unlike Miami Vice, it didn’t take itself too seriously. The program featured David Hasselhoff in the lead role of Michael Knight, who teamed up with KITT, a technologically advanced car that could speak. Together, this unlikely duo fought crime in a show that ran from 1982 to 1986. Knight Rider capitalized on the fascination with new vehicle technology, which was present throughout the 1980s.

2. Quantum Leap (1989-1993)

Quantum Leap
Image Credit: Universal Television.

Most episodes were made and broadcast in the 1990s, but Quantum Leap is seen as a 1980s show. That’s because of the themes portrayed and the series tapping into the era’s fascination with time travel. Quantum Leap premiered in 1989, so it qualifies, and it remains a favorite among viewers more than 30 years later.

3. Dynasty (1981-1989)

Image Credit: 20th Century Fox Television.

Dynasty was a primetime competitor to CBS’ hit evening soap, Dallas, and there are similarities between the two programs. Dynasty wins this time as it had its entire run in the 1980s, between 1981 and 1989. The show has classic ‘80s elements, including wealthy, feuding families, and it gives us another opportunity to look back on an era of terrible fashion.

4. Cheers (1982-1993)

Image Credit: Paramount Network Television.

The characters in the sitcom Cheers were of their time, and several aspects of their personalities would be challenging to replicate in the modern day. Sam Malone, played by Ted Danson, and his serial womanizing, is an obvious example. Cheers resonated with a 1980s lifestyle of kicking back in a local bar where everyone knows you. Although it aired from 1982 to 1993, the show identifies with the 80s.

5. The Young Ones (1982-1984)

The Young Ones
Image Credit: BBC Two.

A classic example of 1980s TV from the UK, The Young Ones, is a tale of four students thrown together. Their bizarre, anarchic behavior showcased a new style of comedy, and it launched the careers of the three main stars, Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, and Nigel Planer. The Young Ones was groundbreaking, but it seems dated when I watch it now.

6. Auf Wiedersehen Pet (1983-2004)

Auf Wiedersehen Pet
Image Credit: Central Independent Television.

A show underlining the trend for UK tradespeople to seek work overseas, Auf Wiedesehen Pet could only be made in the 1980s. A group of workers initially traveled to Germany for employment in a country where post-war tensions were rife. Against a typical setting of the decade, the writers produced a memorable and much-loved comedy drama.

7. The Golden Girls (1985-1992)

The Golden Girls
Image Credit: Touchstone Television.

The Golden Girls benefited from a brilliant cast and a theme that summed up the decade. The 1980s were often about excess and the young striving to make as much money as possible before crashing and burning. The Golden Girls, in contrast, tells the tale of four mature women looking to find their place in that world while aiming to enjoy their later years. The show ran for seven seasons between 1985 and 1992.

8. Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996)

Murder, She Wrote
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

In the 1980s, many TV viewers liked gentle crime dramas that avoided themes of killing and mutilation. Naturally, death was an essential part of Murder, She Wrote, but it wasn’t a graphic show, and that’s why it was a much-loved production. Angela Lansbury played the lead role of Jessica Fletcher, a writer who solves crimes as a profitable sideline.

9. Hill Street Blues (1981-1987)

Hill Street Blues
Image Credit: MTM Enterprises.

It was hard to take Miami Vice seriously, and many crime drama fans preferred the gritty reality of Hill Street Blues. It ran from 1981 to 1987 and claimed many prestigious awards. Fans identified with the main characters, and the show combined crime with the backdrop of real life in 1980s America.

10. Blackadder (1982-1983)

Image Credit: BBC.

While the British comedy Blackadder was exclusively a 1980s show, its humor lives on. Of all the programs on the list, it could succeed in any era. U.S. viewers will remember Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean, but this was his finest hour, taking the lead role of Edmund Blackadder in four series. Each series refers to a specific historical period, and Blackadder remains one of the funniest TV comedies ever.

11. Miami Vice (1984-1989)

Miami Vice
Image Credit: Universal Television.

If you want to witness the worst fashion disasters of the 1980s, watch old episodes of Miami Vice. Box Jackets, pastel shirts, and white shoes without socks were considered acceptable. Contemporary culture was a constant theme of this show, with music and cars typical of the decade. Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas played Crockett and Tubbs, two undercover detectives in a series that ran from 1984 to 1989. Miami Vice in the 1990s wouldn’t have been right.

12. ALF (1986-1990)

Image Credit: Alien Productions.

While it had a furry, loveable alien as its focus, ALF was typical of a 1980s sitcom. There was an irritable dad, a teenage girl with teenage issues, a younger male sibling, and a mom who held the family together. ALF — Alien Life Form — crash-landed on Earth and spent his time evading the military by hiding in this all-American setup. The show ran from 1986 and edged into the 90s, with the finale airing on March 24, 1990.

13. MacGyver (1985-1992)

Image Credit: Paramount Network Television.

Many viewers only know MacGyver from its many references in The Simpsons. The program is mocked respectfully, but don’t let that discourage viewing this fine 1980s series. The hero, played by Richard Dean Anderson, is a special agent who uses everyday objects to escape tricky situations. MacGyver ran from 1985 to 1992 when audiences became used to more high-tech themes.

14. Moonlighting (1985-1989)

Image Credit: BBC Studios Comedy Productions.

Bruce Willis was everywhere in the 1980s. He was an actor and singer who was great at both. I miss him now, and Moonlighting is one of my favorite pieces of his work. The show was an ’80s classic, and it’s another program where it’s fascinating to look back at the fashion of the day. The on-screen chemistry between Willis and Cybil Shepherd also helped make Moonlighting a hit show.

15. Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003)

Only Fools and Horses
Image Credit: BBC Studios Comedy Productions.

There are several UK-based shows on the list, and here’s another. While Only Fools and Horses may not be well known outside of Britain, it’s another show that typifies the 1980s. The main characters, Del Boy and his kid brother Rodney, try to get by, making money by any means possible during tough times. It sounds like a grim backdrop, but this is another hilarious show that you must watch if you’ve never seen it before.

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Image Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.


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Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

The 80s was an incredible time for film. From award-winning cinema to hilarious comedies and everything in between, there was something for everyone to enjoy.

Thankfully, many of these 80s movies still hold up today. I regularly find myself watching these beloved 80s movies more often than modern cinema.

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