The '80s were a unique era in television history. The shows weren't as socially conscious as they were in the '70s, when series like M*A*S*H* and All in the Family drove the conversation about contemporary issues, nor were they as artistically ambitious as they'd get in the '90s, with shows like Twin Peaks and The Simpsons that broadened the possibilities for what could be done in the broadcast format. In fact, some of the most unforgettably bad TV shows of all time were made in the '80s (gone but not forgotten, Small Wonder).
But there were a number of excellent, groundbreaking series that defined the '80s and whose legacies endure. Many of them still have high rewatch value, or are worth watching for the first time if you haven't seen them before. The jokes may sometimes be problematic and the episodes are a little more self-contained than the heavily serialized storytelling we've grown accustomed to, but the best shows of the '80s all have something valuable to offer today — especially if you're tired of the same shows Netflix keeps putting out every week. Below you'll find a collection of series that can give you a very entertaining '80s history lesson, including some must-see soaps, pioneering science-fiction, classic comedies, and touchstone dramas.
To read more about the TV of the 1980s, check out why Pee-wee's Playhouse remains the gold standard for kids' shows, how The Golden Girls taught us to embrace our twilight years, and why Bob Ross' The Joy of Painting is so darn calming.
Watch it on: IMDb TV
If you were alive in 1980, you know about "Who Shot J.R.?" Villainous oilman J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) got shot in the belly in the Season 3 finale, and then all anybody could talk about for the next eight months were "whodunit?" and the presidential election; Reagan supporters even gave out buttons claiming "A Democrat shot J.R.," so Dallas was clearly the bigger deal of the two. It's still the cliffhanger all other cliffhangers are measured against. And though the "Who Shot J.R.?" phenomenon is what the show is best remembered for, the soap opera about a rich, conniving Texas oil family had enough else going for it to run for 14 seasons, longer than most other primetime dramas.
Diff'rent Strokes (1978-1986)
Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges starred in this NBC comedy as Arnold and Willis Jackson, two Black orphans who move in with a white millionaire, Phillip Drummond (Conrad Bain), and his daughter, Kimberly (Dana Plato), after the death of their mother, who used to work for Drummond. The comedy became known for its Very Special Episodes and earworm theme song written by Alan Thicke, but it's probably most famous for Coleman's catchphrase: "What'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?" The light-hearted sitcom has a tragic legacy, with the later lives of its young stars, Coleman, Bridges, and Plato, plagued by drug addiction and legal issues, but Diff'rent Strokes remains an important piece of pop culture history, helping to expand viewers' notions of what family could look like. –Sadie Gennis
Watch it on: Amazon Prime (purchase)
Robert Guillaume starred in this spin-off of '70s hit Soap as butler Benson DuBois, a witty sophisticate who over the course of the series worked his way up from head of household affairs in Governor Eugene X. Gatling's (James Noble) mansion to state budget director to the lieutenant governor, and by the end of the series, he ran for governor himself against Gatling. The show was canceled with an infamously unresolved cliffhanger, in which the outcome of the gubernatorial election was never revealed. But don't let the ending dissuade you from watching it if you haven't! The show has a ton of great quips from Guillaume, who won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy in 1985. He also won a Supporting Actor Emmy in 1979 for playing the same character on Soap, and was the first Black actor to win in either category.
The Facts of Life (1979-1988)
Watch it on: Crackle
The Cable Guy learned about the facts of life from The Facts of Life. If you did too, maybe it's time to revisit this classic sitcom about the students of an all-girls boarding school and their housemother Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae). The Diff'rent Strokes spin-off — which also had a catchy theme song that is probably now stuck in your head — is the rare offshoot that matched its parent series' success, and the comedy actually ran for one season longer than Diff'rent Strokes after a few instances of retooling and revamping kept the show feeling fresh. The Facts of Life leaned heavily on Very Special Episodes, dealing with issues like drug use, eating disorders, and divorce, but its other claim to fame, of course, is being one of George Clooney's first roles. He played a hunky handyman in a couple of the later seasons. Honestly, his hair is reason enough to tune in.
Hill Street Blues (1981-1987)
Watch it on: Hulu
This cop procedural is the most influential drama series of the '80s, not only for its innovations in serialization, realism, and camera technique, but for how many of its writers went on to create other classic shows. The list includes Anthony Yerkovich (Miami Vice), David Milch (NYPD Blue and Deadwood), Mark Frost (Twin Peaks), and Dick Wolf (the Law & Order and One Chicago franchises), not to mention co-creator Steven Bochco, who went on to co-create L.A. Law and NYPD Blue with Milch. The NBC drama won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series from 1981 to 1984. Since then, the only drama series without serialized arcs to win was Law & Order in 1997, a show that literally wouldn't exist without Hill Street Blues. "Most influential" is not an exaggeration when talking about the impact this show made.
Watch it on: Amazon Prime (purchase)
If you have ever watched the Real Housewives, you should thank Dynasty. The ABC soap, which was developed as a rival to CBS's Dallas, built its success on a now-familiar formula: beautiful rich people fighting with each other. The opulent drama, which starred Joan Collins and Linda Evans, was nominated for and won several awards, set fashion trends, and delivered some truly outrageous storylines about the ruthless family of an oil magnate. So if you like shoulder pads and over-the-top melodrama but haven't seen Dynasty yet — and no, The CW reboot does not count — do yourself a favor and check it out, if only to deepen your appreciation of the powerhouse performer that is Joan Collins. –Sadie Gennis
Cagney & Lacey (1982-1988)
Watch it on: Amazon Prime
Sharon Gless (Cagney) and Tyne Daly (Lacey) had a pretty incredible run in the mid-1980s. For six consecutive years, the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series went to either Gless or Daly (Daly won four times, while Gless won twice). This buddy cop drama followed the pair as they solved crimes in Manhattan, and it's one of the '80s shows most ripe for a reboot (it got pretty close in 2018, with Sarah Drew and Michelle Hurd starring in the pilot that CBS passed on). It's rare to see a cop show with two female leads even today, so unfortunately, Cagney & Lacey is still ahead of its time.
Now that hanging out at bars is a thing of the past thanks to a global pandemic, the sitcom about the place where everybody knows your name is even more of a throwback. But it can also give you the warm feeling of friendship that powered the show for 11 seasons, none of which are bad – a nearly miraculous feat that basically only It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia has matched (and Sunny does fewer than half as many episodes a season). Cheers was a simple comedy about people hanging out at a bar, but it had one of the best casts ever assembled, making stars out of Ted Danson, Woody Harrelson, Kirstie Alley, and Kelsey Grammer, who got his own long-running spin-off, Frasier. With 117 Emmy nominations over the course of its run, it's the most-nominated comedy series ever, a record that seems unlikely to be broken. And traces of its DNA can be found in every location-based comedy since.
Miami Vice (1984-1989)
When you describe the aesthetic of the '80s, you're describing Miami Vice. Everything about executive producer Michael Mann's pastel-shaded crime drama was excessive: the violence, the conspicuous consumption of sports cars and expensive clothing and souped-up speedboats, the way it let an entire five-minute pop song play while Crockett (Don Johnson) and Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) drove through Miami at night. The pilot had the most iconic use of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" outside of that commercial with the gorilla playing the drums. Miami Vice was hyper-stylized, nihilistic noir with incongruously lovely scenery, and it's so seductive that if you watch it now, you'll think that the linen suit over the T-shirt look should make a comeback immediately. No one has ever looked cooler on TV than Don Johnson.
Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996)
Watch it on: IMDb TV
This charming procedural starred Angela Lansbury as mystery novelist and amateur detective Jessica Fletcher, who solved crimes in Cabot Cove, Maine, a quaint seaside town with a per capita murder rate of approximately 149 per 100,000 people. Murder, She Wrote ran for an astounding 12 seasons and 264 episodes between 1984 and 1996, and inspired a classic reggae/dancehall song, which Lansbury heard for the first time last year. It's another show from the '80s that seems like a slam-dunk for a reboot. (Our first choice for the new Jessica Fletcher would be Alfre Woodard, so let's make that happen.)
Who's The Boss? (1984-1992)
Since this family sitcom premiered in 1984, scholars have pondered the question posed by its title. Is the boss Angela (Judith Light), the actual employer? Or is it Samantha (Alyssa Milano), Tony's (Tony Danza) daughter, who often knows better than her father? Is it Mona (Katherine Helmond), the original GILF? Or, secretly, is it actually Tony? Is it me? Is it you? You'll have to watch and decide for yourself. Anyway, the ABC comedy about a former baseball player who takes a job as a live-in housekeeper for a high-powered advertising executive was one of the most popular shows of the decade and a somewhat progressive one, with Tony and Angela challenging traditional gender roles.
The Golden Girls (1985-1992)
Watch it on: Hulu
Are you a Blanche, a Rose, a Dorothy, or a Sophia? If you don't know, you have to watch this iconic sitcom about four single women of a certain age living together in Miami. The ensemble of Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty has some of the best comedic chemistry of any cast ever. You'll immediately see why Betty White is so revered today. The Golden Girls depicted a demographic that had never been shown on TV this way before (mature women enjoying their lives? Imagine!), and it begat shows like Designing Women and Murphy Brown. It also inspired this hilarious recent Twitter thread by the comedian Desus Nice about "The Golden Girls as Air Jordans."
A Different World (1987-1993)
Watch it on: Amazon Prime
Before we had black-ish and its Zoey-focused (Yara Shahidi) spin-off, grown-ish, there was The Cosby Show and the Denise-focused (Lisa Bonet) spin-off A Different World. While The Cosby Show invited America into the living room of an affluent Black family, which hadn't been done before, A Different World followed the Huxtables' eldest daughter to college and explored the more youthful and explicit issues students faced at the fictional HBCU Hillman College. Even though Bonet left after the first season when she became pregnant with her eldest daughter, the show continued to break ground covering topics The Cosby Show wouldn't touch, like sex, race, and the Equal Rights Amendment. A Different World was also one of the first primetime shows to do an episode on the HIV/AIDs crisis. The Cosby Show walked so A Different World could run, and as young people tend to do, the show pushed important boundaries that led the way to greater change in what we're allowed to talk about on TV. –Megan Vick
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
Watch it on: CBS All Access
The importance of TNG is hard to overstate. It reestablished the live-action Star Trek TV franchise, which had been dormant for almost 20 years, set a new bar for intelligence and empathy in televised sci-fi storytelling, and even earned Emmy and Peabody recognition, a rarity for hard sci-fi series, especially back then (don't hold that against its geek cred, though). The syndicated series follows the crew of the Starship Enterprise, led by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (the inimitable Patrick Stewart), Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), and Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner), an android who is TNG's answer to Spock. The story continues today in the sequel series Star Trek: Picard, which is also available on CBS All Access.
The Wonder Years (1988-1993)
Watch it on: Hulu
Arguably the best half-hour dramedy of the '80s, The Wonder Years told the story of a teenage boy named Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) coming of age in the suburbs in the late '60s and early '70s, exactly 20 years before the show aired. Its sophisticated tonal blend of comedy and drama established a blueprint followed by later shows about teenagers that adults could appreciate, like My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, and Everything Sucks!. The formula is so durable that there's probably some enterprising TV writer born in the late '80s working right now on a Wonder Years-style show set in the early '00s, where instead of watching the moon landing they're watching the Bush-Gore election results.
Looking for more shows to stream? Check out TV Guide's TV Throwback, recommending the best shows to rewatch — or to discover for the first time — from 1970 through the present day.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)