There is a lot of good television on today featuring A-list actors and complex storylines that surpass the quality of many movies being released by Hollywood. However, there is a lot of bad television being made. Some people would point to the 1980’s as an era when a lot of bad television was churned out with an emphasis on quantity over quality. While this is true to some degree it’s also true there were a lot of the entertaining crime shows like Magnum P.I., The Fall Guy and Hill Street Blues. Many of the classic shows have remained popular enough that they have spawned a handful of movie versions with very mixed results. Crime shows have been popular on television for a long time because of the built in drama and potential for interesting characters and strange storylines. Some of the classic crime shows from the 1980’s are considered cheesy by today’s dark and cynical standards, but they still deserve another look.
10. Freeway Warriors
Much of the action of CHiPs took place on the sun kissed freeways of Southern California. A pair of motorcycle officers named John Baker and Frank “Ponch” Poncherello played by Larry Wilcox and Erik Estrada patrolled the busy arteries around Los Angeles between 1977 and 1983 on NBC. Their Sergeant was played by Robert Pine father of Chris Pine who is best known for the rebooted Star Trek movie franchise. A generation of young viewers grew up watching these California Highway Patrol officers arresting dangerous drivers and aiding motorists in need. This was a fairly accurate depiction of CHiPs duties in the sense that these officers would spend the bulk of their time dealing with some form of traffic enforcement duty. Both John and Ponch were depicted as approachable officers willing to lend a hand whenever possible, but able to take on the crooks when necessary. Before the show was canceled Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner took a turn as a motorcycle patrol officer.
TJ Hooker could have easily been called 4-Adam-30 (Hooker and his partner’s call sign) because it was very much inspired by classic police shows from the past such as Adam-12. Although it would be considered less than hard edged by today’s standards, but for the 1980’s it was considered gritty enough. At least it started out that way before the quality declined over several years. Officer Hooker, Played by William Shatner of Star Trek fame hit the mean streets of Los Angeles with his young partner, officer Vince Romano, played by Adrian Zmed. A very young Heather Locklear became a regular on the show with her character often providing back up to Hooker and Romano. Hooker was always clashing with his supervisors because as a former detective he was always trying to shift his focus away from patrol duties into investigations. The show ran from 1982 to 1985 on ABC then had a one year run on CBS before being cancelled for good.
8. The Gentleman Vigilante
The Equalizer aired from 1985 to 1989 and starred Edward Woodward as a shadowy, but suave intelligence officer. The character exhibits a British accent, but it is implied he worked for an American intelligence agency such as the CIA. Although Robert McCall retired from active service he was willing to use his experience to help people when they couldn’t or wouldn’t go to the police. Unlike Denzel Washington’s 2014 movie version, McCall was always impeccably dressed and well – mannered when he dispensed justice. He also tended to rely more on finesse and skill than brute force, but he was capable of taking down the bad guys when the need arose. People in need of his services could find him in a personal advertisement in the newspaper, which if nothing else it firmly places the show before the later Internet revolution. As talented as McCall was he often had to employ allies to carry a wide range of tasks for him such as surveillance. McCall was notable for his James Bond-like personae when most television heroes of the time were street cops and blue collar private investigators.
7. The Unknown Stuntman
Lee Majors, the star of The Fall Guy, performs the show’s opening song which is called “The Unknown Stuntman.” Lee Majors, Douglas Barr and Heather Thomas play Hollywood stuntmen who also team up as bounty hunters in their free time. This ABC show ran from 1981 through 1986 and the above photographs will give you some idea about what viewers liked about the show. Manly men, attractive women and cool cars were a pretty effective combination of elements in the 1980’s. Lee Majors was best known for his iconic role as Steve Austin on the hit television show The Six Million Dollar Man. His character is named Colt Seavers and he is more laid back than his turn as a cyborg super agent. The episodes of The Fall Guy were usually a mix of movie set stunt work and tracking down fugitives. The trio’s experience with explosives, fast cars and fighting often came in handy when they came up against desperate fugitives. Perhaps one of the less believable shows of the 1980’s, but it offered an equal measure of action and laughs.
6. The Odd Couple
Hardcastle and McCormick begins with the premise that a retiring Judge named Hardcastle, played by Brian Keith, and is often referred to as “Hard Case.” Judge Hardcastle decides to take an interest in the defendant in his last case. Instead of going to jail McCormick, played by Daniel Hugh Kelly, is given the opportunity to live with the judge. The pair try to get along with one another as they try to close out the judge’s old case files. Adventure and mayhem ensue and McCormick sometimes was allowed to drive the judge’s car to catch criminals. But this wasn’t just any car because this was the 1980’s so they drove a car called the Coyote X. This was a custom made automobile based on the design of a race car called the McLaren M6GT. This car stacked up very well against the assorted sports cars, trucks and vans that were an important part of these classic shows. Much of Hardcastle and McCormick revolves around the often contentious relationship between the title characters. During the shows run from 1983 to 1986 the two men bicker and fight but along the way develop something along the lines of a father – son relationship.
5. Hey, Let’s Be Careful Out There
Hill Street Blues ran for seven seasons and the beginning of each episode showed Sergeant Esterhaus giving the morning briefing. As each briefing wrapped up he would remind his officers with the words “Hey, let’s be careful out there.” These words became something of a tag line for the show. Hill Street Blues was groundbreaking in its day because it delved into both the gritty street crime of Chicago and the effects it had on the officers and their loved ones. Also, unlike most shows of its time it was an ensemble drama with many talented actors filling small but memorable parts. Some of the key characters included Captain Frank Furillo played by Daniel Travanti and Sgt. Phil Esterhaus played by Michael Conrad. The show featured an assortment of patrol officers, detectives, supervisors and an attractive and tough public defender. One of the creators was Steven Bocho who went on to create another successful police drama in the 1990’s called NYPD Blue. Although there were many clues to the location most likely being Chicago, the city was never named during the show’s seven year run.
4. I Love It When a Plan Comes Together
The A-Team starts by informing viewers that the this former Army Special Forces unit fought in the Vietnam War. The unit was wrongly accused of committing a crime and has been on the run from the government ever since. The team, led by John ‘Hannibal’ Smith played by acclaimed actor George Peppard. The eclectic cast also included Dwight Shultz, Mr. T and Dirk Benedict of the classic Battlestar Galactica show. Between 1983 and 1987 this band of soldiers operated in the so-called Los Angeles underground surfacing to help underdogs in need of help from an assortment of criminals. The show became known for its heroes constructing a wide variety of vehicles and other contraptions to fight crime with seemingly little more than sheet metal and duct tape. George Peppard with usually declare victory over there enemies with the line “I love it when a play comes together.” However, Mr. T became famous for warning his enemies with the line “I pity the fool.” For a brief time these tough guys doing good deeds was a winning combination on television.
3. Works For Me
Tag lines were pretty big in the 1980’s and Hunter was no exception. Former Los Angeles Rams football Player played Detective Rick Hunter and his tag line was “Works for me.” This was often directed at his beautiful and capable partner Detective Dee Dee McCall played by Stephanie Kramer. Unlike some cop and crime fighting shows Hunter didn’t rely so much on the details of the murders they investigated weekly. The details of these crimes were less important than the interactions between the two stars and the colorful characters they regularly came into contact with such as a snitch called Sporty James played by Garrett Morris. Rick Hunter was a big and could be a little gruff, but his style was balanced nicely by Dee Dee McCall whose quiet and thoughtful manner also got results. The show ran from 1984 to 1991 and sometimes adapted crime novels into two and even three episode story arcs. The show was briefly revived with the original stars Dryer and Kramer, but it only lasted from 2002 to 2003.
2. My FBI Agent Vinnie
In Wiseguy FBI agent Vinnie Terranova went under deep cover as a mafia tough guy for the Organized Crime Bureau. Vinnie is played by Ken Wahl and his character’s fake identity as a criminal causes him problems with his mother and his traditional Italian neighborhood. Vinnie is aided in his investigations on the show by his handler Frank McPike played by Jonathan Banks and a technical specialist referred to as ‘lifeguard’ played by Jim Byrnes. The show ran for four seasons and each season followed Vinnie as he investigated a single case over a season-long story arc. Wiseguy often dealt with Vinnie’s complicated situation trying to juggle his relationships in his real life with his criminal personae. He spent so much time with the criminals he was after that he began to identify and even sympathize with some of them. During the show’s run from 1987 to 1990 a series of up and coming actors and old professionals appeared on the show including Kevin Spacey and Jerry Lewis respectively. Today’s viewers would recognize the show’s dark themes and complex storylines that distinguished the show in the late 1980’s.
1. Another Day in Paradise
Thomas Magnum as played by Tom Selleck was always short on cash, but the show’s creators cleverly set up the private investigator with a sweet situation. Early on in Magnum P.I. it is explained that because of a personal relationship with a wealthy and mysterious writer named Robin Masters Magnum is allowed to live on the beach front estate named Robin’s Nest. he even gets to use Robin’s red Ferrari sports car. The former Naval officer decided on a different kind of life and became a private investigator. Magnum comes into frequent conflict with the caretaker of the estate named Higgins, a proper British man played by John Hillerman. Magnum also frequently convinced his war buddy friends Rick and T.C. with some of the leg work associated with his cases. Over the course of the show’s run from 1980 to 1988 the quality was generally maintained, but like most shows the early seasons were the best. The specific details of the cases he worked were not nearly as important as his relationships with Higgins, Rick and T.C. Magnum P.I. is also notable for its balanced and thoughtful treatment of Vietnam veterans. The show explored some of the serious difficulties veterans often faced without resorting to cliches.