The Grand Influence of 1980’s Television

After re-watching the old V miniseries a few weeks ago, I got to thinking about the television shows I used to watch back then and how those shows influenced me.  The internet wasn’t in the picture at that point, and VCRs were the pinnacle of recording technology.  It was a period when people actually scheduled time in their lives to watch certain shows, probably the end of that kind of behavior with the soon-to-be advent of on-demand and DVRs and entire television series’ seasons  on DVD which allow us to literally watch whatever we want whenever the mood strikes us.  But back then, networks were important and the TV Guide was actually a pretty useful tool.   So, in the spirit of reminiscence, I thought I’d run through some of the most influential shows, to me at least,  from the 1980s.  Say what you want about pop-culture, and it would be great if my generation were inspired more frequently by Dickens and Hemingway than America’s Funniest Home Videos and Knight Rider, but we are a product of our times and the culture that sprung from it, for better or for worse.  And while some of it is indisputably shallow, I don’t think it was all bad.

Thursday Night is for T.V.

I was never much for remembering what was on which night.  I often missed episodes of shows for weeks because it just wasn’t that important to me to be certain I was in front of a TV at the right time every week.  That is, except for Thursday night.  The Cosby Show was the main popular draw for NBC’s Thursday night schedule, but honestly, I was never a fan.  I always came in at 8:30 for Family Ties, Cheers and Night Court in succession.  I can admit now that I was a big Michael J. Fox fan (I actually paid to see Bright Lights, Big City).  With conservative leader wannbe Alex P. Keaton (it was the height of the Reagen years, after all) and the transcendent (at the time, I was 11 years old) Back To The Future trilogy, Fox was a big-time figure to me.  I even sported the 3/4 part, Republican haircut all through high school.  I’ve got the graduation pictures to prove it.  There were a lot of really cheesy family sitcoms permeating the networks at the point with such luminaries as Kirk Cameron and Jason Bateman, but Family Ties was the one I watched.  I have one clear recollection of an episode where Alex and his girlfriend on the show (who ironically would later become his real-life wife) broke up at a school dance.  It was my first rudimentary understanding of romance and love.  A couple years ago, I was working with a friend of mine at her house, and the TV was on, with a story about Michael J. Fox and his battle with Parkinsons.  I made an offhand comment about that episode of Family Ties, and she immediately started singing, “What did you think I would do at this moment”, the song playing in the background while Alex and his girlfriend split apart!  It was actually very reassuring to discover that I’m not the only one who remembers that.

After Family Ties came what I think is the best comedy show of the ’80s, maybe one of the best ever, Cheers.  It was a good thing that show came about in the ’80s, today, it would be more difficult to do a light comedy that ignores Cliff and Norm’s raging alcoholism, Coach’s senility and Sam’s constant over-compensating womanizing.  But back then, everything wasn’t a psychological condition, people were just people who had flaws.  Plus, the show would be a lot less interesting if it were just some folks getting together to pop anti-depressants (or hang out in a coffee shop) rather than losing their troubles with a beer buzz and a group of good friends.  What we’ve gained in medical progress we’ve lost in the value of social interaction.  Still, Cheers was my first recollection of a show that I couldn’t stop laughing at.  It was the best ensemble show I’ve ever seen, and that includes M*A*S*H, with each of their revolving characters bringing something new and different to the table.  Even M*A*S*H didn’t handle major cast changes with the kind of smooth transition that Cheers had.  A truly great show.

After Cheers for a few years, came Night Court, one of the most unappreciated shows of the ’80s, in my opinion.  Harry Anderson, John Larroquette, Richard Moll and a revolving door of female bailiffs made Night Court the perfect, slightly darker edged chaser to Cheers, at least during its first few seasons.  Thursday night went from sweet, family comedy, to silly, adult comedy, to harder-edged, blacker humor.  I had to watch every week, and I took away an understanding of the many subtle levels of life, and how we can easily laugh at all of it.  Except for Cosby.  Didn’t like Cosby.

The Magnum Effect

I love Magnum P.I. Always have.  I even managed to collect all eight seasons on DVD before I had to sell them last year to pay some bills.  That was an epic tragedy.  I developed an intense hunger for mysteries because of Thomas Magnum.  I’ve devoured all of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories and everything written by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.  The detective story is fascinating to me; trying to divine people’s intentions, looking through their words to their actions, ferreting out little hints of clues to find the truth.  It’s a skill that I’ve found invaluable.  But, for me, Magnum was where it began.  Oh, to live that life, freeloading on the estate of a wealthy author, driving a fire-red Ferrari around paradise, and the women!  Thomas Magnum was my hero.  For years after I first went to college, when people would ask me what I wanted to do with my life, I’d tell them that I was going to be T.C. from Magnum, flying helicopter tours in a tropical paradise somewhere.  I never did learn how to fly, or actually visited a tropical paradise, but the dream remains.

I recall one particular episode, where the bad guy killed one of Magnum’s friends, but because of diplomatic immunity, he wouldn’t be tried, only escorted off the island.  Magnum and the gang hijacked his car on the way to the airport, dragging the villain into the woods where Thomas held a gun on him.  The bad guy laughed in his face, saying that Magnum was the good guy and wouldn’t shoot him.  The show ended with a freeze-frame on Tom Selleck right after he shot the guy in the face.  It was an awesome moment for my young mind, realizing that doing the right thing isn’t always about doing what was good.  There were other detectives in the ’80s, quite a lot of them, actually, but Magnum is the one who stands out.  By the way, if you like Magnum P.I., check out Burn Notice.  It’s a modern day version of Magnum, only with spies set in Miami.  And Bruce Campbell.

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

There were two shows that brought one particular trait into focus for me; resourcefulness in the face of adversity.  The A-Team was undeniably cheesy, but how could you not love this show?  Four guys betrayed by the people they served, hunted by their own government, trying to clear their names while helping people in need.  Damn, they were noble.  However, no one on the show could hit the broad side of a barn with a gun, and after a helicopter would crash into a mountain side and fall to Earth in a fiery ball, people would often walk away with nothing more than a slight headache, but that didn’t matter to me.  It wasn’t about realism, it was about finding solutions to impossible situations.  After a few seasons, I did begin to wonder why the bad guys always made sure to lock the team up in a place with a fully-fueled welding torch and some handy pieces of plate steel every week, but I didn’t dwell on it.

The other show that exhibited some of this, mullet notwithstanding, was MacGyverRichard Dean Anderson, who went on to do some excellent work in Stargate SG1, played the title role as the guy who could take virtually any five random items and create a solution to a life-threatening situation.  While the science behind MacGyver was pretty fuzzy, I took away the lesson that any problem in life can be fixed with a pocket knife and some creative quick thinking.  And unlike the A-Team that was all guns, all the time, MacGyver hated firearms.  They were the easy way out.  People were better off finding inventive ways to deal with problems rather than just shooting their way out.  This kind of problem solving has always been interesting to me.  Over the years, I thrive on the little problems life throws in front of me, simply giving me an opportunity to take what tools I have at hand and craft a solution.  I may not be able to build a bomb out of a stick of chewing gum, three paper clips and a bottle of salad oil, but I’ve done all right.

Try To Enjoy The Daylight

In the mid-’80s, I was just beginning to seriously read for pleasure.  One thing I was immediately attracted to was the short story, in particular, the horror short story.  It’s an art form, when done well, albeit an almost completely unappreciated one.  There is a long and deep vein of quality material running throughout American literary history from Edgar Allan Poe to Stephen King, most of it largely dismissed unfairly.  When I first saw Tales From The Dark Side, it really turned me on to something that I knew was important.  There is no genre out there with a better capacity to make big points about people and society than the horror short story.  It’s a shame that it gets dismissed so readily, in favor of long-winded, pretentious novels by the supposedly insightful author of the moment.

Tales From the Dark Side followed on in a tradition established by Rod Serling’s excellent work with the Twilight Zone and later Night Gallery, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the Outer Limits and preceded The Ray Bradbury Theater and the harsher, more graphic Tales From the Crypt.  Episodes were written by a plethora of great writers, including Robert Bloch, George Romero and Stephen King.  One of King’s episodes, in particular, based on a short story of his, The Word Processor of the Gods, had a unique impact on me.  Good horror tales are always morality fables, and this one was no different.  What would you do if you had a word processor that would make whatever you typed come true?  Would you use that power for good or let it destroy you?  It was that kind of ethical quandary and commentary that brought me to horror fiction.  In fantastic situations, would people stay grounded or would they get drunk on the new-found abilities?

Another series, later in the ’80s, also sticks in my mind.  The Friday the 13th television series (no, it’s not about Jason) continued this trend with an entire series based on the morality play.  The main characters had to go around hunting down cursed objects from their deceased uncle’s antique store, objects with the power to grant the owner their inner-most desires, at the cost of their souls.  Every week, we’d see the consequences of giving in to temptation.  The show was really very 1980’s, big hair and all.  On one episode about a scarecrow who beheaded its owners’ enemies, there was even a macrame owl hanging on a bedroom door.  I haven’t seen one of those since, well, since 1987.

To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before

Near the end of the ’80s, the Cold War was winding down and we were all looking for a path to the future.  Enter Star Trek: The Next Generation. This show began on syndication (what does that tell you; three major networks and none of them would take a chance on rejuvenating a franchise that’s led to three other series, a bunch of movies and big piles of money?)  The success of this show actually paved the way for the consolidation of all the independent channels into the other major networks, even being the direct impetus for the formation of the Paramount network (later UPN, now the CW).  In that sense alone, this show had a profound impact.

To me, at that point, visions of the future on television and in the movies were almost uniformly apocalyptic.  There was no one out there presenting a possible future that didn’t involve the complete collapse of human society.  Star Trek, above all else, brought with it a feeling of hope, that humanity can progress toward the future without wiping ourselves out.  Not that there weren’t problems for the crew of the Enterprise D, all things weren’t wine and roses, but there was a constant undercurrent of discovery and optimism that I found so different from most other futuristic visions at the time.  It was an important turn that I could foresee a future where people actually evolved and learned from their mistakes; that we weren’t all going to inevitably end in a horrible, fiery ball of destruction.  There could be a tomorrow, and it could be amazing.

I was particularly interested in two things; one was Data’s quest to become more human, to become something more than he was.  That was a pretty important notion to my 13-year-old mind; that I could actually grow and become better than I already was.  The other was Patrick Stewart’s leadership as captain.  Sure, Kirk was a great action hero, defying the odds (and rules and regulations) to get the job done no matter who’s toes he stepped on.  It was great escapism.  But Picard was more grounded.  He understood that discarding the rules had consequences, and those had to be respected.  He also understood the subtlety of leadership, how to manage a diverse group of people to get what he needed yet still inspire loyalty and respect from his subordinates.  I was fascinated by the interplay of the characters, and how Picard was always seemingly on top of the philosophical meaning of things.  Every issue, every dispute, every action had a deeper sociological root at its cause.  Without seeing other points of view, and respecting those roots, tragedy would ensue.   The Next Generation wasn’t just a positive view of future progress technologically, but also sociologically.

It’s easy to dismiss the relative quality of the material that made up television lineups in the ’80s, or any time, for that matter.  But often, it’s not that the creative material itself is profound, intentionally or otherwise, just that we are in the right state of mind at the right time in the right place for things to influence us.  That doesn’t mean that The A-Team was a great, transcendent show (or that I could even watch it with any pleasure today), just that circumstances were right for me to take something more away from that meaningless hour a week back in 1985.  Our culture may not be over-stuffed with Michaelangelo’s or DaVinci’s, but one thing I’ve learned is that it’s not the artists that are important.  Often, most lessons taken away from creative works weren’t even intended by the creators.  Inspiration and influence is self-created, seen through our own lenses of experience.  Whoever provides the details aren’t as important as the lessons we take away.  In that sense, our culture, while being dismissed as frivolous and decadent, is as valid as any other.  These are the shows that impacted me during my youth.  I don’t really know if they’ve served me well or not, though I think that they have.  But I do have a sudden urge to go watch The Greatest American Hero.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Glad to see you,too, make the connection between Magnum and Burn Notice! Hubby and I loved Burn Notice from the very first show and were scratching our heads for a bit on the familiar feel: Bingo! Magnum. We both loved Magnum PI and there is a similar ‘feel’ to both shows, even if there are thematic differences.

    I also loved China Beach– a darker version of MASH. (Loved MASH,too.) We also agree on Night Court: great ensemble casting and always funny. Same for Cheers. Never could stand McGyver and never watched Cosby until re-runs.

    thanks for the trip down TV memory lane.

  2. Just remembered another favorite show and wondered about your take: WKRP– Not a Thanksgiving goes by that I don’t recall the famous episode when the radio station gang arranged for a plane drop of turkeys as a promotion to give holiday fixin’s to listeners. they forgot the birds couldn’t fly and there were splattered bird guts and feathers all over the city. You had to have seen the show… doesn’t sound funny but it was.

    • That was indeed a great show. I remember one episode where Johnny and Venus were doing shots on the air with a cop to show how drinking wrecks your reflexes, and the more Johnny drank, the quicker his responses were, getting the cop angrier and angrier. Haven’t seen that in a while. Good call.

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