While watching the first two episodes that kick off the excellent retrospective show The Eighties, focused on the TV shows of the 1980s, there was a truth that became abundantly clear: There has never been a better decade for TV.
The Sopranos? The Wire? These are not the best TV shows. They're fine, but they don't represent the 'Golden Age of TV' as some critics call it. Are either as good as Perfect Strangers, for example? We all know the answer to that.
We're looking back at the shows from TV's true golden age - the 1980s. These are the standout programs and moments that entertained audiences around the globe.
Who shot J.R.?
Big hair and bigger shoulder pads might immediately spring to mind when thinking about ‘80s soap operas, but it was the scheming of a Texan family of oil magnates in Dallas that made us fall in love with night time soaps. It also gave us the cliffhanger of all cliffhangers. The question of “who shot J.R.?” ended the third season of the show with a mystery, with its next season return drawing in 83 million viewers, spawning a wave of twist-heavy imitators — and, of course, most importantly, an excellent Simpsons’ parody.
The Golden Girls
At a time when families ruled the sitcom scene, The Golden Girls threw caution to the wind, broadening the idea of what a family could be and focusing on a different group of close-knit characters. It introduced some of the most engaging senior citizens to grace the small screen in the process. Played by a formidable cast of Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty, the show also broke ground for its continued treatment of topical issues, including coming out, immigration policy, and the treatment of the elderly. Thank them for being a friend.
Hill Street Blues
As long as there has been television, there have been cops chasing bad guys on screen. Starting in 1981 and spanning 146 episodes, Hill Street Blues offered a different take on cop shows by presenting it in a gritty and naturalistic way. Instead of cases of the week, producer Steven Bochco introduced ongoing storylines and focused on building the characters.
Charting the exploits of the titular character throughout different stages of English history, Blackadder took a smart, witty, satirical approach to something people either love or hate — delving into history, specifically the middle ages, Elizabethan times, the Regency period and the First World War. Watching Edmund Blackadder plot, scheme and try to survive in various eras delivered a comic take on the past, killer dialogue, an ode to turnips, and expert comic performances.
Alex P. Keaton
When considering US politics, any child of the ‘80s raised on Family Ties probably asks themselves a question: what would Alex P. Keaton think? He was the outspoken, determined, conservative teenage son of liberal parents in the hit Reagan-era sitcom, with their clashes of ideology, perspective and culture providing depth beyond the usual domestic-set storylines. He was a living, breathing Fox News before there was a Fox News.
Heroes in a half shell
Forget the terrible recent attempts to bring four sewer-dwelling, martial arts-skilled, not-quite-adult reptiles back to cinema screens — when it comes to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, only the original ‘80s TV version will do. While the concept is based on a comic series, the catchy theme song, the toys, the first live-action films, and the ongoing animated incarnations of Leonardo, Donatello, Michaelangelo and Raphael all stem from the classic 80's cartoon that had people rethinking their relationship with pizza and exclaiming “cowabunga”.
The mullet. The grin. The ability to get himself out of any situation with nothing more than a paperclip, two stones found in his shoe, a shower cap, and an expired can of soft drink. If you were a kid in the 80s, it’s the reason you wanted a Swiss Army Knife.
Scott and Charlene get married
Has there ever been a more important event in the history of Australian television than the wedding of Scott and Charlene? Or in Ramsay Street?
They were the country’s TV sweethearts, with their love overcoming the feud between their respective families — aka the dramatic thrust of Neighbours when it first started airing 30+ years ago. The off-screen hype surrounding both the characters and the actors behind them certainly helped, with actors Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan also a real-life couple.
The music video for Thriller
It was in 1980 that The Buggles told us that “video killed the radio star”, but if there was one clip that hammered this statement home, it was the 13 minutes of horror-themed thrills that Michael Jackson delivered in 1983. Directed by An American Werewolf in London’s John Landis and featuring the voice of guest star Vincent Price, Thriller reshaped the way music videos were viewed, appreciated and enjoyed. More than 9 million VHS copies of the video were sold.
Thinking about it today, the fact that a sitcom about a cat-eating extra terrestrial became a family friendly hit is rather remarkable. Another ‘80s miracle.
Watching what the short, furry Melmacian (known on his home planet as Gordon Shumway, but nicknamed ALF on Earth), would get up to in each episode was a weekly highlight of the 80s. Merchandise for the show was huge, put only to shame by The Simpsons just a few years later.
The best of 80's TV is explored in the first episode of The Eighties, airing on SBS this Wednesday night at 8:35pm.