Ah, the 1980’s.
A decade of Reaganomics, big hair, 24/7/365 cable TV, VCR’s, and the collapse of communism, but what didn’t collapse was America’s obsession with superheroes as the comic book market was still on an upward trend.
The 1970’s proved both men and women’s characters from comic books had a place not only on screen, but in our living rooms every week.
You would think that with that kind of success, executives screamed for live-action shows who continued to highlight beloved DC and Marvel comic book heroes along with original content.
Not so much.
Although, there were more animated shows, the promise of more live-action series featuring well established Justice League or Avengers characters all but vanished.
Those running movie productions hadn’t gotten the memo about the unleashed potential of tapping into the comic book market before it went mainstream. At the time mostly collectors and avid fans were your biggest market and those numbers didn’t catch the attention of Hollywood.
Not yet at least.
So the 1980’s had A LOT of original superheroes along with one reboot of a hugely successful series from the sixties and a big change from the prior decade, but we’ll talk about that later.
With a wide range of shows from the witty to the dark, the 1980’s gave us some unforgettable (and some totally forgettable) series that we can still catch on syndication.
So let’s get started.
Greatest American Hero (1981-1986)
Episodes: 45 (5 unaired)
Length: 60 minutes
William Katt as Ralph Hinkley
Connie Sellica as Pam Davidson
Robert Culp as Bill Maxwell
The Greatest American Hero flew into American living rooms in the early 80’s with a fun new idea and a theme song that hit the top of the charts.
Meet, Ralph Hinkley, a newly divorced, a mild-mannered high school teacher who takes his students out to the desert for a field trip.
When the bus breaks down, Ralph sets out to find help, only to run into aliens who give him some cool new threads to help him fight crime and injustice in our world.
The aliens also told him to work with cranky, FBI special agent, Bill Maxwell (Culp) for some reason.
Ralph discovers wearing the suit gives him major abilities such as flying, speed, precognition, telekinesis, X-ray vision, and being bulletproof, plus others that he discovers randomly.
He discovers them randomly, you ask? Why randomly?
Because he has no idea how to work the suit since he LOST THE INSTRUCTIONS!
Yeah, I would have asked the aliens about an extra copy and maybe a help line or something, but whatever.
As soon as the aliens give Ralph his new outfit, they are out of there, leaving him to figure out how to use the darn thing.
Through trial and error, he self-teaches what capabilities he has while fighting crime and discovering what kind of amazingly positive influence he can make in the world.
Not to be deterred, he continued to go back to the desert in hopes to run into the aliens again. Maybe ask for an extra manual they might have laying around or do a quick mind-meld so he can simply have the instructions in his brain.
Although, his learning curve was pretty steep, his love life appeared to smoothly pan out as he and his divorce attorney, Pam (Sellecca) fall in love and end up together.
Initially, the story had him hooking up with a different women each episode, but his character’s kind and responsible demeanor didn’t match him being so flippant with relationships.
What sparked the change in that storyline was producers were so impressed with Sellecca, they wanted her to stick around.
Honestly, him not being a grade A man-whore made for a better story even though it was the 80’s and all as there were plenty of womanizing to go around, fictitious or not.
The theme song, Believe it or Not sung by Joey Scarbury, lyrics by Mike Post, entered the top 40 and peaked at #2 behind Endless Love by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross.
Length: 60 minutes
Jon-Erik Hexum as Phineas Bogg
Meeno Peluce as Jeffery Jones
When a strange man suddenly ends up in your room, it’s not customary to travel time with him, but that’s what happened in the series Voyagers!
Phineas Bogg (Hexum) traveled time streams with the help of a hand-held device called an Omni, but when it malfunctioned and shoots him into 1982, twelve years beyond its supposed capabilities, everything changes for young Jeffery.
Why? Because Phineas ends up in the apartment where Jeffery lives with his aunt and uncle after the death of his parents.
As if this kid hadn’t been through enough and now this guy stood there explaining his situation when Jeffery’s dog grabbed the guidebook of how history should play out. During the struggle, Jeffery’s thrown out the window and Boggs jumped to save him by activating the Omni, which shot this unlikely pair through time and space.
Thankfully, Jeffery’s late father was a history teacher and Jeffery helped keep Boggs focused on the mission to make sure things happened as they should. Boggs, like many 80’s leading men, had an eye for the ladies, and ended up falling “in love” pretty much every episode.
As random as the storyline sounds, the ending always made me smile as Jeffery would say, “If you want to learn more about (whatever historical event they tackled in the episode), take a voyage down to your public library. It’s all in the books.”
But you know, the library is always a fun trip, too.
Knight Rider (1982-1986)
Length: 48 minutes
David Hasselhoff as Michael Knight
Before Hasselhoff ran slo-mo down the beaches in California, he cruised around in a tricked out Trans-Am with some majorly cool Artificial Intelligence, all because of a close call with death.
Wilton Knight, a self-made billionaire (when no one thought people could really be billionaires), rescues Detective Lieutenant Michael Long (Hasselhoff) after he suffered a near fatal shot to the face.
Knight gives Long a new face, identity, and a talking car named KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand).
To keep his new life in check, Long changed his name to Michael Knight as he and KITT search for dudes that are up to no good while cranking some major 80’s tunes and impressing the ladies.
Length: 50 minutes
Desi Arnez, Jr as Walter Nebicher
Chuck Wagner as Automan
I honestly do not remember this show and there’s probably a good reason why.
Created by the same dude who brought you Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and Manimal (see next show), Automan was what happened when a guy who was too good with computers had a whole lot of time on his hands and not many friends.
Nebicher (Arnez) worked for the police department by day, but by night, his program left the computer and became Automan (Wagner).
They drove around town fighting crime and, I guess, if things got really scary, they merged into one being and became a super human.
That merging thing seemed like it could get weird really quick if they weren’t getting along.
After extensive searching, I only found a DVD with all thirteen episodes. So if you’re in the mood for a short lived 80’s cop show, check out Automan.
Or, if you’re more into shape shifters, have I got a treat for you.
Keep on reading.
Length: 60 minutes
Simon MacCorkindale as Dr. Johnathon Chase
Who’s ready for a shape-shifting wealthy, young, handsome man who can shift into any animal he chooses to help him fight crime?
I know I am and why not?
Creator Glen A. Larson was a wealth of ideas in the early 80’s as his next project in a five year period had actor Simon MacCorkindale AKA Dr. Jonathan Chase change into animals of his choosing to help the local police department.
Even with this amazing ability, the usual animal du jour ended up being a hawk and/or panther because of budget restraints.
Reminded me a lot of the Wonder Twins when one of them always changed into a bucket of water.
Looking sharp as always, Dr. Johnathan Chase’s impeccably pressed clothes ripped to shreds when he transformed. Thankfully, his power of returning to his human form also included an automatic tailor as his outfits were always put to rights when he re-appeared as his wealthy, handsome self.
Neat trick for certain, but the real trick is finding the series on anything other than a non-US friendly DVD.
Length: 60 min
Rex Smith as Jesse Mach
The intro says it all: This is Jesse Mach, an ex-motorcycle cop, injured in the line of duty. Now a police troubleshooter, he’s been recruited for a top secret government mission to ride Street Hawk — an all-terrain attack motorcycle designed to fight urban crime, capable of incredible speeds up to three hundred miles an hour, and immense firepower. Only one man, federal agent Norman Tuttle, knows Jesse Mach’s true identity. The man…the machine…Street Hawk.(1)
Because who doesn’t want to go out and kick ass on a tricked out 1983 (pilot) or 1984 Honda X500 at night after working as a police pubic relation’s officer all day?
Officer Jesse Mach does, that’s who! It also helped he was an amateur dirt bike racer with mad computer skills.
Seriously, these superhero types are overachievers.
Something to note, the Honda motorcycles used in the series were the first known electronic start Honda sports bikes so Streethawk could start his ride uberquietly, giving the badguys little time to prepare.
Rev your engines because you can catch the one season of StreetHawk on Prime.
Misfits of Science (1985-1986)
Length: 44 minutes
Dean Paul Martin as Dr. Billy Hayes
Keven Peter Hall as Dr. Elvin “El” Lincoln
Courtney Cox as Gloria Dinallo
Mickey Jones as Arnold “IceMan” Beinfheiter
Before Courtney Cox became the OCD clean freak Monica Gellar, but after she danced in the dark with Bruce Springsteen, she was known as Gloria Dinallo and used her telekinesis to help her super-powered human friends as they went on outrageous adventures.
Recruited by Dr. Billy Hayes (Martin) and Dr. Elvin “El” Lincoln (Hall), Dinallo along with Johnny B Burkowski, a rock-and-roll musician who manipulated electricity, and Arnold “Beef”/Ice Man Beifneiter, who froze anything he touched, the team attempted to fight against a “secret government project”.
Inspired by the team dynamics of Ghostbusters, creators wanted a fun, paranormal/scify type show that people would stay home on Fridays to watch.
Sadly, Misfits failed to capture audiences and the show latest one season.
On the upside, the show employed a young, excited writer who later created an incredible series called Heroes.
Yep, this was screenwriter and producer, Tim Kring’s first paying gig.
You can find clips on YouTube.
Star Trek Next Generation (1987-1992)
Length: 44 minutes
Network: First-Run Syndication
Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard
Jonathan Franks as William Riker
LeVar Burton as Georgie LaForge
Denise Crosby as Tasha Yar
Michael Dorn as Worf
Brent Spiner as Data
Gates McFadden as Dr. Beverly Crusher
Marina Sirtis as Deanna Troi
Wil Wheaton as Wil Striker
After a twenty-year absence from episodic television, a new crew assembles on the Star Trek Enterprise.
For seven seasons and over 150 episodes, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Stewart) led his incredible crew through the perils of space travel, meeting new allies, and confronting enemies.
With a budget of $1.3 million/episode, STTNG was one of the most expensive series of the time.
As cool as it looked to the viewer, creative differences plagued behind the scenes writing team as many butted heads with creator Gene Roddenberry. Because he so believed in his creation, he didn’t want any insinuation of the characters being driven by common emotions like greed or lust. Writers were to work within a “Bible” and found it constraining and difficult. Roddenberry frequently re-wrote scripts and changed storylines to keep in line with his vision.
Although, they won multiple awards for their first season, changes were made for season two.
Guinan, played by Oscar-Winner Whoopi Goldberg, appeared for the first time. While she tended bar, her calm and insightful discussions with crew members as they frequented the recreational area of the ship, always helped with evaluating tough decisions to be made or regrets about what was already in play.
One such scene between Picard (Stewart) and Guinan (Goldberg) presented the discussion of whether Data (Spinner) was considered an individual or property.
Powerful stuff, but before season two could even begin, the Writer’s Guild of America strike occurred bringing the total episodes for that year from 26 to 22.
Despite the behind the scenes chaos, the general consensus of viewers were the show had improved.
With each season bringing about new challenges from new cast members to the death of series creator Roddenberry, the actors continued to shine, winning over new fans, delighting long-time admirers, and navigating space with finesse.
The series finale brought in a whopping 30 million viewers.
During the entire run, they won 19 Emmy Awards, 5 Saturn Awards, a Peabody Award, and 2 Hugo Awards.
For long-time lovers of the crew of the Enterprise, the adventures didn’t end when The Next Generation faded to black.
Spin off shows and movies came like Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, four feature films, Star Trek Generations, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Insurrection, and Star Trek: Nemesis kept people shelling out plenty of money for years to come.
Length: 22 minutes
John Haymes Newton as Clark Kent/Superboy (Season 1)
Gerard Christopher as Clark Kent/Superboy (Season 2-4)
Stacy Haiduk as Lana Lang
Jim Calvert as T. J. White
Scott James Wells as Lex Luthor (Season 1)
Sherman Howard as Lex Luthor (Season 2-4)
Ever wondered why Clark Kent learned to be a journalist? I mean, the inverted pyramid method isn’t a standard form of writing in English class, so he had to learn it from somewhere.
Wonder no longer as you’ll discover how he not only learned everything he knows about journalism while attending the Siegel School of Journalism at Shuster University in Shusterville, Florida.
(The names of the journalism school and university were nods to the original creators of Superman-Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster.)
Between classes and studies, Superboy fought crime and came face-to-face with his future nemesis, Lex Luthor, who more focused on fixing sporting events and humiliating Superboy.
Of course, these two clash more than once, but when Superboy rescues Lex from a lab experiment that leaves Lex bald, he’s hell bent on totally destroying his rescuer.
Way to be appreciative, Luthor.
When Clark wasn’t in hero mode, he hung out with his high school crush Lana Lang and his roommate T. J. White, son of his future boss, Perry White.
Filmed in Florida on the University of Central Florida campus, the series had multiple actor changes from season one to two.
In season 3, the title officially changed to Adventures of Superboy and moved Clark and Lois to the Bureau for Extra-Normal Matters in Capital City, Florida to be interns.
Although no cast changes were made in season four, the tone became darker, but Noel Neill and Jack Larson guest appeared, which just goes to show you how full circle things can be.
Neill originated the part of Lois Land in the 1948 movie Superman and 1950 Atom Man vs Superman and she replaced Phyllis Coates in the 1950’s TV series, Adventures of Superman.
Larson played Jimmy Olsen along side George Reeves and Noel Neill in the 1950’s show.
Although the show remained extremely popular, after a solid four year run and one-hundred episodes, the series ended.
This was mostly due to fighting with licensing agreements of the Superman franchise.
Quantum Leap (1989-1993)
Length: 45 minutes
Scott Bakula as Dr. Sam Beckett
Dean Stockwell as Admiral Al Calavicci
Cult culture favorite, Quantum Leap hit the airways in March 1989.
This slightly futuristic series starred Scott Bakula as Dr. Sam Beckett, a physicist who jumped through spacetime and on arrival temporarily took the place of other people to correct historical mistakes.
Because he could not control where he’d go or who he’d be, Beckett could be male or female and pretty much any age or race. The show went out of its way to highlight racial, religious, and gender injustices through time as Beckett’s gentle and intellectual presence offered a positive outcomes and discussion within the storyline.
Once the “mistake” was righted, he’d be randomly sent somewhere else, but always hoped to find his way back home.
His virtual companion, Al, who could only be seen by Beckett, helped answer questions of time, place, and situations by way of a souped up hand-held contraption that looked like an original cell phone.
The show started out on Sunday nights at 8p (CST), but were changed to Fridays at 8p, then Wednesdays , back to Fridays 7p, then Tuesday 7p and finally landing on Wednesdays at 8p.
Despite the show jumping around the week as much as the character did through time, the series managed to stay on for five seasons.
The final season ended with a screenshot of “Sam Beckett never returned home” and viewers had reactions all over the place.
In recent years, rumors circulated of screenshots of Al and Beth together indicated they were not only together, but potentially Al went after Sam, bringing him home. Per Wikipedia, Scott Bakula, who played Sam Beckett “confirmed that several endings were shot” and that the screenshots were authentic.
To be honest, I’d love to see a reboot of this show as it could bring about many stories of history that so many of us never hear about in school.
Maybe mix it with Timeless and see what comes up.
Until I pitched this series of stories, highlighting the superheroes of the 20th century, it didn’t register there were ZERO women-centric superhero shows of the 1980’s.
We went from four (Isis, Wonder Woman, Electro-Woman and Dyna Girl, and Bionic Woman) to none. Nada. Zilch.
Way to go (backwards), progress and let’s mention that many different groups had yet to see their representation on the small or big screen, despite them being present in the comic book fandom.
Apparently not, Taraji P. Henson.
Apparently, not, but people in the industry noticed because the 1990’s had a whole lot to say about it.
Incredibly iconic characters entered the TV/film world and forever changed the landscape of pop culture as it began its catapult into the superhero universe we know now.
As we leave the 1980’s do you remember watching any of these shows? What was your favorite?
Drop a comment below before we head to the 1990‘s.