12 Shows That Prove There Was Nothing Like '80s TV
There’s one thing that top-rated TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, The Middle, and Fresh Off the Boat have in common—no aliens. They also don’t have androids or talking crime-fighting cars, or even adorably inept superheroes, all of which were part of TV shows that were on the air in the 1980s. If you look back at the shows that television executives put on the networks in the 1980s, it’s a funny mix of flabbergasting shows like ALF (who would adopt a cat-eating alien?) to heart-warming odd couple stories like Punky Brewster to, say, the story of four senior citizens who eat a lot of cheesecake. For better or worse, when it comes to television, they don’t make them like they used to.
This oddball TV series starred 10-year-old Tiffany Brissette as Vicki, an adorable android masquerading as a little girl. She lives with her inventor Ted and his family, and while Vicki is supposed to blend in with the Lawson family, her superhuman strength, monotone voice, and seemingly infinite stretching ability makes it hard.
It’s hard to imagine that Hollywood producers were excited about a TV show involving four senior citizens sharing a house—and cheesecake—in Florida. Despite the lack of a flashy or jaw-dropping premise and a cast made up of women-of-a-certain-age, the show was made and quickly became a hit. Rose, Sophia, Blanche, and Dorothy became household names thanks to clever writing, heartwarming storylines, and laugh-out-loud jokes that resonate even today.
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A furry alien with a funny name crash lands in a nice family’s backyard. Do they call the FBI? Nope, they let it move in with them, despite the fact that he is arrogant, annoying, and he really wants to eat the family cat. That’s the plot of ALF (that’s short for Alien Life Form), which follows the Tanner family as they hide Gordon Shumway, the visitor from the planet Melmac, from the Alien Task Force for four long seasons.
Andy Griffith returned to the small screen to star as Ben Matlock, the folksy-yet-cantankerous hot dog-loving, Harvard-educated criminal defense attorney fighting for justice in his Georgia town. To save his clients, Matlock would frequently head to the scene of the crime, finding clues that the police missed. The courtroom action usually ended with Matlock accusing someone else of the crime, and his clients going free. The show clearly followed in the footsteps of Perry Mason with a dash of Murder, She Wrote thrown in, which made for entertaining viewing.
Larry Appleton (Mark Linn-Baker) has just moved into his first apartment when he gets an uninvited guest—his distant cousin Balki Bartokomous (Bronson Pinchot), who has just arrived from the island of Mypos and plans on staying awhile. The show revolves around Balki learning that life in the U.S. isn’t exactly like what he saw on TV, but there are still plenty of reasons for him to do his trademark “Dance of Joy.” Basically, it’s Mork & Mindy but with a legal alien, instead of an extraterrestrial.
Michael Long (David Hasselhoff) was a police officer who was seriously injured in the line of duty. He is nursed back to health by the head of Knight Industries who rewards him with a new name—Michael Knight— and a new car, the super-high tech talking crime-fighting Trans Am known as KITT. Their mission it to fight crime and those criminals who think they are above the law.
When a New York millionaire’s beloved housekeeper passes away, he adopts her two young sons, bringing them down from Harlem to live in his glitzy Park Avenue penthouse apartment. Most of the jokes revolved around Mr. Drummond (Conrad Bain), his daughter Kimberly (Dana Plato), and his two new sons (played by Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges) learning to live with each other. The family’s housekeeper Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Rae) kept them all clothed and fed and of course there were plenty of opportunities for Coleman’s Arnold to say his trademark line, “Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout Willis?”
Facts of Life
When Mrs. Garrett left Mr. Drummond’s employ on Diff’rent Strokes she became the house mother to a dorm-full of girls at the fictional boarding school, Eastland. Her wards include the spoiled rich girl Blair Warner (Lisa Whelchel), the giggly, gossipy Tootie (Kim Fields), eager to please Natalie (Mindy Cohn), and the tough-as-nails Jo (Nancy McKeon). Mrs. Garrett helped guide them through life, school, friendship, and love, teaching them about the titular facts of life, as encapsulated in the show’s incorrigibly catchy theme song.
When their apartment building is demolished, Kip Wilson (Tom Hanks) and Henry Desmond (Peter Scolari) are in desperate need of new digs. Unfortunately, the only place they can find is in a building that is designated for women only. For reasons that only make sense in 1980s sitcoms, they decide to take a page out of Some Like It Hot, they take the apartment, assuming new identities of Hildegard and Buffy and hoping no one sees through their clever cross-dressing disguises—while trying to date their neighbors.
When grouchy widower Henry (George Gaynes) runs into a funny, warm-hearted waif named Punky Brewster living alone in a vacant apartment in the building he manages, he decides to become her foster parent. The odd couple turns Henry’s apartment into a home, complete with Punky’s beloved dog Brandon, but red-tape-minded social workers are always getting in their way. Luckily, they have each other and Punky’s madcap group of friends to see them through it all.
The Greatest American Hero
Ralph Hinkley (William Katt) was just going about his ordinary life as a substitute teacher when a school field trip took a funny turn—he runs into a group of aliens who give him a suit that gives him Superman-like abilities. They also give Ralph a mission to fight crime and injustice. Ralph, though, isn’t sure he is up for the challenge, especially as he lost the suit’s instruction manual and can’t figure out how to work it—or land. Perhaps the most memorable part of the show is its theme song, which went on to play a bit part in a Seinfeld episode.
It’s hard to imagine a modern television executive thinking that a show revolving around interior designers would be a big hit. Yet, thanks to some forward-thinking producer back in the ‘80s, television viewers were introduced to the delightful world of Sugarbaker and Associates and the strong, funny, insightful Southern women who work there. Thank goodness, too, because we don’t want to live in a world without Julia Sugarbaker’s tirades and takedowns to give us strength.