I Want My 80's TV
January 4, 2013 10:28 PM   Subscribe

Are there any good drama series from the eighties available streaming online?

Lately I've been marathonning through Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix. I watched the show growing up, and in middle school (towards the end of the series run) I was a serious trekkie. But I've never watched the show in order before, and nor have I watched it critically. So it's been a pretty interesting project.

One thing I've realized while doing this is that I haven't really seen any similar shows from the same era. I grew up mostly watching sitcoms until E. R. and The X-Files in the early 90's, and I have no real frame of reference for TNG.

What are other shows I could stream to see how Trek compares with everything else that was on in the mid to late 80's? I know Twin Peaks is out there, but that seems like maybe setting the bar too high. Other ideas? I feel like Dallas and Dynasty are too early and not really the same kind of show, but maybe I'm wrong? Melrose Place? What are the series that might give me some context for what TV was doing when Star Trek returned to the airwaves? I'd prefer series that are available streaming on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime.

Level of difficulty: the main inspiration for this question is the realization that first season TNG has a pretty radically different plot structure from most TV drama that is on today. I'm mainly looking for ways to analyze and think critically about the evolution of the medium (especially WRT storytelling). Not so much "Bah ha ha! Look at Alexis Cruddington's shoulder pads!"

By the way, I've been tweeting miscellaneous commentary during my TNG project, if folks are curious about the kinds of things that interest me about TV from this period. Twitter is in my profile.
posted by Sara C. to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Quick addendum: I'd be OK with series from outside the US, as long as they're easy enough for me to get access to.

I have seen a LOT of British comedy of the 80's and 90's, but not so much drama. I have seen just about all the Tom Baker era Dr. Who that is available, as well as some of the later Doctors. Late period pre-reboot Who makes the first season of TNG look like Citizen Kane, in my opinion.
posted by Sara C. at 10:49 PM on January 4, 2013

I was a kid in the 80s, but my vague memories are that Hill Street Blues, thirtysomething and LA Law were big dramas at the time.
posted by lunasol at 10:51 PM on January 4, 2013

Moonlighting maybe?
posted by XMLicious at 10:55 PM on January 4, 2013

To start, I'd go to instantwatcher.com, go directly to TV at the top, then filter by date range and 'TV only' to see what is available in Netflix.

Wings, family ties, the A Team, Murder She Wrote, Quantum Leap and Twin Peaks all stand out to me on the first page of results when sorted by popularity for 1980-1990.
posted by cgg at 11:02 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not sure if it's available via streaming, but St. Elsewhere.
posted by MegoSteve at 11:03 PM on January 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

I tried my damnedest to find this streaming, but I couldn't let this thread pass without mentioning Max Headroom, the TV series. Some people think it's a patch on the original British telefilm, but I quite like it on its own terms. (Do not confuse this with Max Headroom's corny talk/chat show, which came a bit later.)
posted by mykescipark at 11:03 PM on January 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Hulu has Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere.
posted by timsteil at 11:04 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Wonder Years.
posted by MegoSteve at 11:19 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This article on 1980's TV Dramas from the AV Club is a pretty great overview.

Quantum Leap was the first thing I thought of (already mentioned). Hulu also has 21 Jump Street.

Also, you might want to take at least a quick run at early 80s drams, because I only recently watched some of Miami Vice (on Netflix) and ZOMG has TV changed.
posted by grapesaresour at 11:21 PM on January 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I haven't checked the streaming availability of any of these, but here's a list.

These stand out as having tried something different or innovative. Some were genre changers (or pioneers) based on production value, plot structures, depth of character development etc.:
The Wonder Years (1988 TV Series)
Moonlighting (1985 TV Series)
Beauty and the Beast (1987 TV Series)
Max Headroom (1987 TV Series)
Alien Nation (1988 TV Series)
Amazing Stories (1985 TV Series)
thirtysomething (1987 TV Series)
L.A. Law (1986 TV Series)
Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989 TV Series)
Life Goes On (1989 TV Series)

Here are some cop shows of the era. Some of these are iconic (or iconoclastic):
21 Jump Street (1987 TV Series)
Wiseguy (1987 TV Series)
Miami Vice (1984 TV Series)
The Equalizer (1985 TV Series)
In the Heat of the Night (1988 TV Series)
Spenser: For Hire (1985 TV Series)
Matlock (1986 TV Series)
Crime Story (1986 TV Series)
Jake and the Fatman (1987 TV Series)

Also worth a look:
MacGyver (1985 TV Series)
Quantum Leap (1989 TV Series)
The Twilight Zone (1985 TV Series)
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 11:21 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Came in to say you'd probably be interested in thirtysomething, but after a cursory search I can't find it streaming. Netflix has it on DVD.
posted by trip and a half at 11:30 PM on January 4, 2013

Bit earlier perhaps, but you need to see the Rockford Files before you die. Here's the theme. Jim Rockford is everything a private eye can be.
posted by mattoxic at 11:44 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Max Headroom was SO AWESOME.

So awesome, I STILL think about it occassionally. It had a really interesting structure, and the subject matter is kinda timely for today (at least, as I remember it. Heh. I think I'm off to see if it is streaming somewhere right now.)

Nthing Quantum Leap.

Nthing Beauty and the Beast.
posted by jbenben at 11:46 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Doogie Howser is on Hulu.
posted by NoraReed at 4:52 AM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not sure how much of this is available streaming in the US but here's a list of British 80s popular drama in a similarish vein you might want to look for -

Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes
Press Gang
Inspector Morse
Robin of Sherwood
Edge of Darkness
Sapphire and Steel

There really weren't equivalent 24 episode a year network TV shows in the UK though so the storytelling culture is different, the real 80's British TV gold was in the many awesome miniseries that were made at the time.
posted by brilliantmistake at 11:03 AM on January 5, 2013

The pilots for both miami vice and max headroom are amazing. Must watch.

Why worry about setting the bar too high? Twin peaks is great, and you should absolutely watch it. It does feel like something that could be on tv today, but there are production touches that you wouldn't see in modern tv either.

ST:TNG (which I am also rewatching right now) kinda reminds me of the twilight zone, or the outer limits with its weekly resets, and total nonsense explanations for everything.
posted by jonbro at 11:08 AM on January 5, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions!

For what it's worth, I'm not uninterested in ever watching Twin Peaks, it just doesn't seem relevant to what I'm looking for right now. It's great that the show was good enough that it could easily air today without changes, but that's explicitly not what I'm looking for. I'm looking for TV that is typical of the mid to late 80's. I'm specifically trying to figure out whether the weekly resets and "total nonsense explanations for everything" were par for the course back then, and how TNG stacks up. Was it Mad Men or Honey BooBoo? How was it indicative of the changes to TV that were to come? How was it stuck in the past? Was it maybe stuck way in the past, leaning too hard on Original Series plots and ideas from the 60's?

There are some great suggestions here! I'm especially interested in giving Miami Vice, 21 Jump Street, and Beauty And The Beast a look-see, because those are shows I remember from back then, but which were a bit mature for me at the time. I grew up watching The Wonder Years and Doogie Howser (both of which I remember as comedies?), so I'll probably check out a few episodes of those, to get the same effect TNG is giving me now.

I will also look out for Max Headroom, though I remember being horrified by the talk show version as a kid.
posted by Sara C. at 11:47 AM on January 5, 2013

Response by poster: Also, the AV Club article is exactly what I want. Thank you, grapesaresour!
posted by Sara C. at 11:58 AM on January 5, 2013

One thing to remember about TNG is that it aired in first-run syndication because the Big Three networks turned it down, so they didn't have as tight a rein on what they could do. I don't know that many of the other shows listed so far had that kind of freedom, except perhaps in the sense that networks used to give shows more time to build an audience. (I remember discovering Quantum Leap because NBC had "Quantum Leap Week" and aired it every day.)

I mean, there was some very good tv in the late 80's, but network vs syndicated shows is a bit of an... apples to pears (too similar to be oranges) kind of thing. Which can make your comparative viewing all the more interesting, but hadn't been expressed here.

(Also, it just barely makes the 80s tv cut because it started in 1990, but the only show my college friends and I watched regularly in addition to TNG was Northern Exposure.)
posted by camyram at 1:18 PM on January 5, 2013

Wasn't Max Headroom more of a comedy? My memories of it are UK TV showings, though, which may be different. I LOVED it as a kid, and it's currently really distracting me that a villain in series 5 of Desperate Housewives looks almost exactly like him.

Something which feels very late 80s to me is Murphy Brown, even though only the first couple of seasons were in that decade - the topical references, the fashion, the question of whether women can have it all. thirtysomething I keep meaning to watch as I'm on a big 80s.90s TV binge at the moment, though it isn't easily available here.

If you're looking for UK series and can get hold of it, the soap Brookside was very 80s and very Liverpool. UK soaps differ a bit from US ones - they're shown in prime-time and tend to be more gritty and realistic. There was a 1986 storyline about the rape of a main character which is actually quite harrowing to watch now, plus many references to the Catholicism and economic decline that both influenced that part of the country. I know it's streaming on 4oD at the moment but don't think that's accessible outwith the UK.

Also, it was aired in 1991, but Alan Bleasdale's GBH is excellent and the political themes are very 1980s. If 'Militant' means nothign to you then I'd supplement any viewing with the Guardian's series blog.
posted by mippy at 2:01 PM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

T.J. Hooker. EDIT: Sorry, didn't catch that it was not on streaming. Nevermind.
posted by General Malaise at 2:50 PM on January 5, 2013

I can't believe no one's mentioned Magnum P.I. yet, you can watch it on Netflix.
posted by zinon at 6:03 PM on January 5, 2013

Wasn't Max Headroom more of a comedy?

posted by mykescipark at 7:24 PM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, Max Headroom is set in a dystopian future with an unrestrained corporate hegemony. No more of a comedy than ST:TNG. For a comparison to something in this century, if you've seen the South African series Charlie Jade it's got a similar flavor.
posted by XMLicious at 4:54 PM on January 6, 2013

Oh man. When I was six he was just the funny man with a fancy background and a techno stutter. I need to rewatch it, I think. The series shown in the UK was quite different by the sounds of things.
posted by mippy at 5:44 PM on January 6, 2013

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