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Top 10 Decade Defining Shows of the 1980s

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Written by Max Bledstein In between all the pop music and awesome action movies, we still found time to watch great television. Join WatchMojo.com as we count down our picks for the top 10 decade defining TV shows of the 1980s. For our series on the Top Decade Defining Shows Per Era, we picked series that spoke to the period in which they were made, and set the standard for television during that time. These shows were chosen for how important they were in the 1980s, regardless of when they started or finished. Special thanks to our users akt, Ceione Pafford, Cameronshank and Zombiekilleryamato for submitting the idea through our Suggest Tool at WatchMojo.comSuggest
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Written by Max Bledstein

Top 10 Decade Defining Shows of the 1980s


In between all the pop music and awesome action movies, we still found time to watch great television. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 decade defining TV shows of the 1980s.

For our series on the Top Decade Defining Shows Per Era, we picked series that spoke to the period in which they were made, and set the standard for television during that time. These shows were chosen for how important they were in the 1980s, regardless of when they started or finished.

#10: “Miami Vice” (1984-89)

This crime drama’s look was so influential, it’s still considered emblematic of ‘80s visual style and fashion. It told the stories of Detectives Crockett and Tubbs and their undercover attempts to thwart crimes in Miami involving drug trafficking, terrorism, and more. No matter which criminals they were trying to take down, the awesome hits that made up the soundtrack maintained the feeling of ‘80s cool and kept this from being a standard police procedural. Though it was criticized for its stylized violence, “Miami Vice” had an indisputable impact on pop-culture of the era.

#9: “The Transformers” (1984-87)

Before Michael Bay was blowing up giant robots on the big screen, this animated series was showing them and their transforming capabilities on the small one. The show was based on a Japanese toy line, which it used as inspiration to tell the epic story of the battle between the evil Decepticons and the heroic Autobots. The eye-catching visuals and stunning scenes of destruction were burned into our brains forever, and it was representative of what we’d call the golden era of Saturday morning cartoons in the ‘80s.

#8: “Family Ties” (1982-89)

The free love hippie movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s contrasted with the more uptight conservatism of the ‘80s, and this sitcom did a good job of showing that cultural shift between eras. Pitched as a show with “hip parents, square kids,” Michael J. Fox portrayed Alex P. Keaton, a young Republican entrepreneur whose views clashed with those of his baby boomer parents. Even though the show focused on the politics of the time, the laughs that came from domestic relations continue to resonate.

#7: “Married… with Children” (1987-97)

The dysfunctional family in this sitcom didn’t always get along, but their squabbles made for great entertainment. Former jock Al Bundy has a rough life as a shoe salesman, and it often leads him to scheme or take his anger out on others. Known for tackling topics too controversial for other series, this FOX series was not what we’d call politically correct. But, it still gained a loyal following of watchers who tuned in to see the Bundys fight, offend and break the rules of ‘90s network TV.

#6: “Roseanne” (1988-97)

When this show started, sitcoms were dominated by wealthier families, but “Roseanne” showed there was room for the working class. Not only that, but the brash woman the show was centered around had a body type unusual for TV at the time, and the decision to discuss issues like menstruation and birth control was an uncommon one. But the formula nabbed them the number one spot in the ratings in 1989, won them numerous awards and helped them redefine sitcom subject matter for the era.

#5: “The A-Team” (1983-87)

We pity the fool who hasn’t seen this show. The action series centers around a group of ex-Army Special Forces soldiers who have to fight on their own after mistakenly being deemed war criminals. The tough but lovable team includes unforgettable personalities like Bosco “Bad Attitude” Baracus, memorably portrayed by Mr. T. Their action-packed, almost cartoonish escapades made for thrilling viewing, and fans loved watching their heroes fight for good and coming to the aid of the downtrodden, which helped it achieve solid ratings and influence the medium.

#4: “The Wonder Years” (1988-93)

Growing up isn’t always easy, but it’s certainly filled with lots of emotions, and this comedy-drama did an amazing job of bringing them back. It depicted the coming-of-age of Kevin Arnold, a boy living in a normal American suburb starts the series at 12-years-old. After just six episodes had aired, it won an Emmy for Best Comedy series, thanks mostly to its innovative and groundbreaking writing and storytelling. “The Wonder Years” wasn’t a ratings juggernaut, but the feel-good series spoke to a generation by telling the story of youth.

#3: “Late Night with David Letterman” (1982-93)

Longtime viewers were saddened to learn of Letterman’s retirement from his gig at “The Late Show,” but he proved his chops as a talk show host on this series. Letterman changed the genre forever by adding unique touches like the Top Ten List, answering viewer mail, and bringing on unknown guests looking for a break. His winning personality and trademark wit held it all together, and made the gap-toothed one the man-to-watch if you were up late and craved a little biting comedy.

#2: “The Cosby Show” (1984-92)

Bill Cosby is one of America’s best-loved comedians, and this show is a big reason why. He starred as Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, an obstetrician trying to hold together his upper-middle-class family, aided by his wife, played by the elegant Phylicia Rashad. He created and produced the show, and it was his signature, family-friendly comedy style that allowed the show to deal with serious subjects throughout its run. Not only that, “The Cosby Show” also broke barriers in television for African-Americans, and brought the sitcom format back from the brink of extinction.

Before we unveil our pick for Decade Defining Show of the 1980s, here are a few honorable mentions:
- “Knight Rider” (1982-86)
- “Magnum, P.I.” (1980-88)
- “The Golden Girls” (1985-92)
- “The Dukes of Hazzard” (1979-85)
- “MacGyver” (1985-92)
- “Blackadder” (1983-89)

#1: “Cheers” (1982-93)

Almost cancelled in its first season due to low ratings, this sitcom held on to become one of the most beloved shows in TV history. Taking place in the titular bar, where Bostonians met to drink and where “everybody knows your name,” it depicted the lives of employees and patrons alike. The show’s willingness to tackle issues like alcoholism and homosexuality, albeit with a sense of humor, made it a trailblazer, and it earned what was then a record 117 Emmy nominations for its role as the anchor of NBC’s “Must-See TV” lineup.

Do you agree with our list? What TV show do you think best defined the 1980s? For more memorable top 10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.
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