20 Best ’80s TV Shows That Are Still Totally Awesome
Get ready for a blast from the past with these ’80s TV shows that are just as addictive now as they were back then.
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The biggest and best of ’80s TV
The ’80s delivered tons of pop culture gems and distinctive (yet questionable) fashion trends. The most indelible memories, however, came in the form of ’80s TV shows, which, in our humble opinion, rank among the best TV shows of all time. If you were a kid during the decade, you probably wished your house came equipped with a dumbwaiter à la Webster or had the colorful wardrobe of Punky Brewster. Adults, on the other hand, embraced the over-the-top styles of classic TV shows like Miami Vice and Dynasty.
And we’d be remiss not to mention the many catchphrases that surfaced thanks to ’80s TV shows, like “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” from Diff’rent Strokes and “Back in St. Olaf…” from The Golden Girls. But it was more than just the jokes that made these series great. They were also often groundbreaking, addressing everything from immigration to HIV to breast cancer in some “very special episodes.”
It’s hard to pick a favorite, but we narrowed down this list by choosing ’80s shows that won major awards, are still referenced today, or were rebooted for a modern audience. It’s the perfect mix of the best sitcoms, crime shows, and assorted dramas that got everybody talking and counting the days till the next episode aired. And chances are, once you start reading about them, you’re going to want to put them on your must-watch list again ASAP. For a different type of walk down memory lane, check out the best cartoon shows of all time too.
The A-Team (1983–1987)
Famous catchphrase: “I love it when a plan comes together!”
Nominated for three Emmys during its five-season run, The A-Team follows four Vietnam vets who band together after being framed for a crime they didn’t commit. They use their skills and wits to help other innocent folks, all while trying to avoid the military team intent on finding them. The series made a bona fide star out of Mr. T, who was unforgettable as the tough but lovable B.A. Baracus. With its constant action and over-the-top explosions, as well as the team’s uncanny ability to make weapons out of literally anything, viewers couldn’t possibly doze off during an episode. In 2010, Bradley Cooper and Liam Neeson starred in a big-screen take on this ’80s favorite.
Memorable episode: The “Who Shot J.R.?” cliff-hanger
This prime-time soap about the personal and professional conflicts of the Ewing family made the term “appointment television” a thing. One of the biggest cliff-hangers in ’80s TV show history was the infamous “Who shot J.R.?” finale episode for the series’ third season. But as the owners of Ewing Oil, the family and their power struggles gave way to plenty of vicious story lines. Then there were the plot points that sent fans in circles, like when we were convinced Bobby Ewing was dead but … think again. (That was one intense dream, Pam!) It was a ratings grand slam, thanks to the backstabbing, rocky relationships, and overall glamour. Dallas came back in 2012 for three seasons, but it just couldn’t top the success of the original.
Punky Brewster (1984–1988)
Famous catchphrase: “Punky Power!”
In terms of the best kids’ shows of all time, Punky Brewster is where it’s at. Not only did this confident orphan with a heart of gold teach us important life lessons (hello, episode where Cherie gets trapped in a fridge during a game of hide-and-seek), but the fashion was amazing. Peacock tried to revive the series with a 2021 reboot starring original the Punky, Soleil Moon Frye, but it lasted only a single season.
The Golden Girls (1985–1992)
Famous catchphrase: “Let me tell you a story. Sicily, 1912. Picture this.”
Winner of an impressive 11 Emmy Awards, The Golden Girls changed society’s view of “women of a certain age.” Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia felt like family members to us as we watched their comedic escapades week after week, but the series was just as heartwarming as it was funny. The strong bonds of friendship through thick and thin (like when Rose, played by the late, great Betty White, was struggling with a prescription-drug addiction) are really at the core of this series. While its spin-off, Golden Palace, didn’t have the same oomph as the original series, the camaraderie between the actresses and the laughs live on in syndication.
Knight Rider (1982–1986)
Memorable episode: K.I.T.T. faces off against his evil prototype, K.A.R.R.
Raise your hand if you ever wished you had a car like K.I.T.T. Knight Rider made a huge impact on television viewers, thanks to the crime-fighting prowess of Michael Knight (played by David Hasselhoff) and his automotive sidekick, K.I.T.T. While the technologically savvy talking car may have stolen the show often, the series was a fun, action-packed romp that could really only enjoy true success in a decade like the ’80s, like some of the best ’80s movies. A brief Knight Rider reboot was attempted in 2008, but it was put to rest after one season.
Memorable episode: The big kiss in “Showdown: Part 2”
Cheers became everyone’s favorite watering hole during its 11-season run, winning 28 Emmys in the process. The cast changed a bit over the years, but one thing always remained the same: At Cheers, everybody knows your name. In the early days, viewers were all about the chemistry between bartender Sam and waitress Diane. But we really fell in love with the show because it was like hanging out with a group of great friends each week—knowing that Norm and Cliff would occupy those barstools regularly offered comfort and consistency. The series made stars out of Ted Danson, Kirstie Alley, Woody Harrelson, and Kelsey Grammer, among many others. Its spin-off, Frasier, which followed Grammer’s character, also enjoyed immense success, with 11 seasons and 37 Emmys. Here are more of the best shows to watch on Hulu right now.
St. Elsewhere (1982–1988)
Memorable episode: The St. Eligius docs hanging out at Cheers (yes, that Cheers)
Talk about a star-studded series! St. Elsewhere introduced us to young Denzel Washington and Howie Mandel, and it featured Mark Harmon and Ed Begley Jr. Revolving around the lives and careers of a Boston hospital’s staff, it’s one of the best shows about doctors to grace TV screens. Considering the era in which it aired, St. Elsewhere pushed the boundaries of what was typically talked about on TV at the time; for example, Harmon’s character tested positive for AIDS. While it definitely got serious, this ’80s show also had quirky charm. In one episode, the doctors were actually seen hanging out at Cheers, where they mulled over life’s problems. That was a crossover no one expected! St. Elsewhere won 13 Emmys and was regularly nominated for Outstanding Drama Series.
Diff’rent Strokes (1978–1986)
Famous catchphrase: “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”
Perhaps one of the most memorable TV quotes of the ’80s was uttered by Diff’rent Strokes‘ Arnold Jackson, who always brought the laughs when he said “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” Actor Gary Coleman’s comedic timing made him a star. Unfortunately, real-world problems plagued much of the cast. Coleman battled health issues throughout his life, while child costars Todd Bridges and Dana Plato each dealt with substance abuse. Coincidentally, the show was famous for its “very special episodes,” which often dealt with topics like drugs, eating disorders, and stranger danger.
Memorable episode: “Halloween Knights,” in which MacGyver has to team up with his nemesis, Murdoc
In the ’80s, there was literally nothing MacGyver couldn’t do with a trusty roll of duct tape—from creating small bombs to silencing pressure alarms. Portrayed by actor Richard Dean Anderson, the character is arguably the most resourceful secret agent of all time, and we would’ve loved to have seen how he would have fared on a reality show like Survivor. In fact, the show is so known for its survival techniques that people have been known to use “macgyver” as a verb when they need to make something out of nothing. In addition to his duct-tape prowess, the man could free himself from anything with a bobby pin or a Swiss Army knife. The series constantly made viewers wonder, Would that work in real life?
Memorable episode: Webster accidentally burning down the family’s apartment with a science kit
Though it may not have been a critical darling (no Emmys to be mentioned here), Webster made a star out of child actor Emmanuel Lewis. The show shared the fictional story of young Webster, who finds himself orphaned after his football player father passes away. An old former teammate, George Papadapolis, and his wife, Katherine, adopt the adorable kiddo. Naturally, comedy and chaos ensue. Lewis was actually 12 years old when the series began, but because of his short stature and baby face, he could play much younger roles.
Famous catchphrase: “So, you want fame? Well, fame costs … and right here is where you start paying.”
At the New York City High School for the Performing Arts, a group of teens with big dreams struggle to find the balance between having a life and advancing in their craft. As Debbie Allen so memorably said during the opening credits of each Fame episode, “So, you want fame? Well, fame costs … and right here is where you start paying.” The series was based on the 1980 film of the same name (which had a fantastic soundtrack), and it won nine Emmy Awards. There were some truly heartbreaking moments on the show, like when Bruno dropped out of school because he couldn’t afford tuition and when one student died in a drunk-driving incident. There was an attempt at a Fame-inspired talent competition, but it was short-lived.
Miami Vice (1984–1989)
Memorable episode: “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run,” in which Crockett and Tubbs team up with a retired, unstable vice cop
Take two handsome vice cops, put them in the middle of Miami, and add over-the-top, decade-specific fashion and music. What do you get? The pinnacle of ’80s TV shows. Miami Vice followed detectives Crockett and Tubbs as they navigated South Florida’s crime scene, and it made stars out of Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas. Though it did win four Emmys during its run, the series is probably best known for its iconic trends, like Johnson’s standard brightly colored T-shirt under a suit jacket and dudes not wearing socks with their suits.
Hill Street Blues (1981–1987)
Famous catchphrase: “Let’s be careful out there.”
Lauded by many as one of the best cop shows of all time, Hill Street Blues zeroed in on an overworked police precinct whose whereabouts were never actually specified. (Some fans think the show took place in Chicago, while others say Pittsburgh is a possibility.) With a cast that included Ed Marinaro, Betty Thomas, Michael Conrad, and Michael Warren, the acting was impeccable. The series won 26 Emmys, snagging the trophy for Outstanding Drama Series on more than one occasion. Its theme song even won a Grammy. There were a lot of things that made this show special, but it all boils down to the fact that the creators insisted on a gritty feel. The show touched on police corruption, cover-ups, and sexual harassment as it simultaneously kept us invested in the characters’ personal lives.
Family Ties (1982–1989)
Memorable episode: Uncle Ned (aka Tom Hanks) drinking a bottle of vanilla extract to get an alcohol fix
Much more than a sitcom but not quite a full-fledged drama, Family Ties doesn’t fit neatly in a box. When it came to Emmy time, the show was considered a comedy, and Michael J. Fox (who also starred in some of our favorite teen movies of the decade) took home the trophy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series three times for his role as Alex P. Keaton. The series featured the trials and tribulations of the Keaton family, not the least of which was how liberal parents Elyse and Steven lovingly sparred with the very conservative Alex. There were also some great guest stars, including Tom Hanks, Courteney Cox, Geena Davis, and Crispin Glover.
The Wonder Years (1988–1993)
Memorable episode: “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” which is filled with mix-ups (hello, Becky Slater!) and true confessions
It may have premiered in the ’80s, but The Wonder Years focused on the life of a young boy growing up in the 1960s and early ’70s. Actor Fred Savage played Kevin Arnold, whose older self (voiced by Daniel Stern) narrated the series. It touched on all of the sweet and less-than-sweet spots of growing up, and everyone fell in love with Winnie (Danica McKellar) as Kevin’s crush. The series dove deep into the world events happening at the time, including the Vietnam War, in which Winnie’s older brother dies after being deployed. The show ran for six seasons, won four Emmys, and was recently rebooted for ABC, this time focusing on the same time period but with a Black family at the center of the show.
Memorable episode: Season three’s “The Threat,” when Alexis and Krystle have an epic catfight in a lily pond
Whether you were Team Carrington or Team Colby, everyone was Team Dynasty in the ’80s. Set in Colorado, it followed two feuding families with stakes in the oil business, and every week, it delivered drama, drama, and more drama. Known equally for its over-the-top fashion and its catfights, the series starred Linda Evans and Joan Collins as the ultimate divas (Krystle and Alexis, respectively) who mainly fought over Blake Carrington … who happened to be Krystle’s current husband and Alexis’ ex. More soapy fun than serious substance, this ’80s TV show did snag one Emmy for Outstanding Costume Design for a Series, and rightfully so! A reboot of the prime-time soap hit TV in 2017 and is still going strong. You can catch the updated version on the CW, but it’s also one of the best shows on Netflix.
The Facts of Life (1979–1988)
Famous catchphrase: “There’s gonna be trouuuuble!”
Mrs. Garrett left her housekeeping duties on Diff’rent Strokes to help the young ladies of Eastland School navigate their lives and loves. The Facts of Life might have the most awesomely ’80s theme song, with lyrics like, “You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have the facts of life, the facts of life.” The series made stars out of Lisa Whelchel, Kim Fields, Mindy Cohn, and Nancy McKeon. It’s also where most of us first laid eyes on a young George Clooney prior to his ER days.
Its poignant coming-of-age story lines were touching, hilarious, and memorable. We all felt for Jo when she visited her dad in prison for the first time and when the girls learned a classmate recently elected to class president had overdosed on pills. There were also “very special episodes” that are impossible to forget, like when Tootie sneaked into New York City to catch a play and ended up befriending a teen prostitute … whose pimp wanted to recruit the roller-skating Eastlander.
Famous catchphrase: “Benson, Benson, Benson.” (Followed by: “Clayton, Clayton, Clayton.”)
A spin-off of Soap, a prime-time sitcom that parodied the lives of daytime soap opera actors, former butler Benson finds himself smack-dab in the middle of the political world as a governor’s director of household affairs. Benson, played by acclaimed actor Robert Guillaume, quickly rises in the ranks, later becoming the state’s budget director and then lieutenant governor. It was a must-watch thanks to Guillaume’s dry humor and quick wit, and it won two Emmys during its seven-season run. Though the show was often criticized for being unrealistic, viewers fell in love with the incredible chemistry among the cast (like Benson and Kraus’ constant banter). And here’s a fun pop-culture trivia fact: Jerry Seinfeld made his acting debut on the series, appearing in three episodes as Frankie, a delivery boy and—wait for it—unsuccessful comedian.
Cagney & Lacey (1981–1988)
Memorable episode: Lacey battles breast cancer
Originally a made-for-TV movie, Cagney & Lacey turned into one of the best ’80s TV shows, starring actresses Sharon Gless and Tyne Daley as detective partners in New York City. More than a police drama, it showed how the coworkers had each other’s backs on the job and in their personal lives. The series tackled many different issues, most notably in a multi-episode story line in which Lacey learns she has breast cancer. Both Gless and Daley took home more than one Best Actress Emmy for their work. At the time, the show was groundbreaking because it portrayed strong women who were excellent at their jobs without making them look like living Barbie dolls. There was nothing bubbly about Cagney and Lacey, and accuracy was extremely important to the actresses, the producers, and the writing team.
Famous catchphrase: Sandra (played by Jackée Harry) saying, “Mary”
As part of NBC’s stellar Saturday-night lineup in the ’80s, the show 227 aired just before The Golden Girls and also featured a cast of hilarious women. Starring the legendary Marla Gibbs, it followed the residents of a Washington, D.C., apartment building, focusing on the latest gossip shared on its stoop. All of that gossip made for some spectacular misunderstandings, and chaos ensued. Jackée Harry made history as the first Black woman to win the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series Emmy for her role as Sandra Clark, the flirtatious younger neighbor who almost always had a man on her arm. The show also introduced us to the talents of Regina King, who portrayed Gibbs’ daughter on the show. Keep the laughs going with the funniest movies of all time.