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After decades of only having three channels at our disposal, the 1980s introduced us to the miracle known as cable. Networks such as HBO and CNN–for those willing to pay the price–were welcomed additions to many homes. If you weren’t one of the lucky beneficiaries of these cable services, you always knew which neighbor was and you would count on their hospitality to watch your shows. That there was a treasure trove of entertainment sitting right in your living room was a novel and exciting concept, and the breadth of programming has only continued to multiply in the decades since.
As is the case with any cultural medium, the television shows of the 1980s mirrored the attitudes of the times. And so naturally, the office became a preferred setting for plot development. After all, the workplace is our center; far beyond just a place to earn a living, it is where we socialize, form romantic liaisons, make enemies. Television shows of this era brought real-life water cooler conversation to the small screen, albeit with a lot more drama. Viewers were mesmerized by the lives of cops, judge’s chambers and women who thought they ruled the world. The intrigue of the characters and dialogue could make even the most unglamorous industries seem alluring.
Here is a broad spectrum of the shows that celebrates an economic period in time that baby boomers fondly recall, and certainly ignited the career aspirations of many young viewers as they consumed this most beloved form of storytelling.
“Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.”
The Cheers theme song, written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo, became a staple of every TV show theme song trivia contest. Though we never did get to see Norm’s wife and will never know what became of Sam and Diane, this sitcom–which ran for 11 years–epitomized the 80s. Fans never tired of Cliff's tales of working for the post office and Woody’s escapades as the kind-hearted, yet dim-witted bartender. The series was a window into how the working class unwinded; the after-work tradition of grabbing a beer and decompressing with friends was and is so very relatable. Many of these actors went on to appear in other successful television series, like Frasier, but they will always be most beloved for their home in a quaint little watering hole in Boston. Sorry, Yankee fans.
Working in this hotel was like no other experience in the world. This Aaron Spelling gem boasted a progressive approach to subject matter that rendered it ahead of its time, incorporating topics such as lesbianism and spousal abuse intertwined with everyday affairs and actual affairs. The fictional St. Gregory Hotel in San Francisco was the edifice where all of the action occurred. Starring James Brolin as the general manager, the show modeled the extravagances that the 80s manifested. With guest appearances ranging from Steve Allen to Sarah Jessica Parker, there was never a shortage of stories or interest from its viewers. The hotel staff remained constant throughout the seasons it aired, which shows that a hotel is only as successful as the people who work there.
If you didn’t know who Candice Bergen was before the 80s, you did now. This show represented the over-40 working woman stereotype of the generation. Bergen played the titular character in Murphy Brown, an investigative journalist and television anchor. After a stint in the Betty Ford clinic, she returns to 'real life' and attempts to reinvigorate her career. We followed her hairstyles, her suits and, in the early 90s, her political agenda. The show grew even more popular after Dan Quayle mentioned the show in a campaign speech, thereafter referred to as the “Murphy Brown speech.” Never a bad thing to receive huge national attention, and the show took full advantage.
Hill Street Blues
With an astounding 98 Emmy nominations over seven seasons, Hill Street Blues is the quintessential police drama. Taking place in a police precinct in an unspecified city in the United States, the characters were layered and engaging. Were the dynamics true-to-life? Only a real cop would know, but the show brought the experiences of the officers into our living rooms and the camaraderie was always apparent and appreciated. The show aired on the NBC channel for seven seasons, and the legacy of this drama begot so many others in the genre including NYPD Blue and and Homicide.
Hospital dramas have been captivating us for as long as they've been airing on television. You kind of have to wonder what really goes on in any given hospital after watching some of these shows. Do doctors always sleep with nurses? Do patients always try to escape? Set in St. Eligius Hospital in Boston, this drama was more real-life than miracle cure. Airing from 1982-1988, if you haven’t seen it in a while, you almost forget that Denzel Washington and Howie Mandel were part of the brilliant cast. Though the series ending was a bit far-fetched, (no spoiler alerts here, you will just have to watch the episodes), the day to day drama of what happened at this medical facility might trigger your desire to be a doctor. Or at least be a doctor in the 80s before Obamacare. This show also inspired the canon of medical soap dramas that have emerged since– from ER to Grey’s Anatomy to House.
With its catchy theme song and lighthearted vibe, Night Court almost made you want to get arrested solely for the opportunity to appear before the Honorable Judge Harry T. Stone. Showcasing the creative inner-workings of the late shift of court, the cases that came before the judge ranged from the idiotic to the sublime. Thanks to the lead role played by magician Harry Anderson, you couldn’t wait to see how he ruled. The comic geniuses in this cast made this show irresistible. John Larroquette portrayed the egotistical and melodramatic prosecutor, and Richard Moll played the physically large, but emotionally soft, bailiff. The bonds these characters warmed our hearts and made us question if we had chosen the right profession. And like many 80s shows, you loved seeing how many different hairstyles Markie Post could show off in one season.
People either wanted to be a lawyer after watching LA Law, or just wanted to sleep with Harry Hamlin. In either case, McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak was the sexiest law firm in town. Another Steven Bochco creation (along with co-creator Terry Louise Fisher) this show was exceptional at showing what really goes on between senior partners and lowly associates. It seems the size of your paycheck does matter, after all. Another show chockful of fantastic celebrity cameos, the plots tugged at the heartstrings of social consciousness. Rumor has it that applications to law school increased tenfold after the series premiere; If you don’t believe that, hire Leland McKenzie and bring a lawsuit.
Who's the Boss?
Not all jobs come with fancy offices or exclusive degree requirements. Some positions require only a handsome smile and the ability to make a really great pasta. This warm-hearted comedy starred the talented Tony Danza as a former professional baseball player-turned-housekeeper. Angela Bower, played by Judith Light, is his tightly wound, divorced advertising executive boss. The economic discrepancies between the two characters melt away as we watch them fall in love. The best part of Who's the Boss?, aside from the sexual tension between Angela and Tony, is Katherine Helmond as Angela’s mother, Mona. She brings her hilarious wisdom to every episode. Alyssa Milano realizes her star power as Tony’s tomboy daughter.
Charles in Charge
What do you get when two characters from two different 70s hit sitcoms come together? Happy Days’ Scott Baio and Eight is Enough’s Willie Ames as best friends in Charles in Charge. Every teenage girl wanted Charles to be their nanny and every parent reevaluated who their babysitters were. The show’s premise was based on a hard working, ambitious college student who– in exchange for room and board– cared for the Pembroke children. He made working and going to school look cool and easy, setting a great example for the many millions of Scott Baio’s fans who watched him every week.
When being a police officer became too serious, watching Police Squad! was the answer. With Leslie Nielsen at the helm, you knew the humor was going to be slapstick, over the top and full of innuendo. Unfortunately, the show was not long lived, but lucky it brought us the Naked Gun film series shortly after. Created by the geniuses who brought the world Airplane!, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, the sitcom gave the viewer the chance to escape from the seriousness of real-life and laugh until our sides were splitting. No matter where you work or what you do for a living, laughing is never a bad thing. This show spawned a multitude of copycat shows, including the current police comedy Angie Tribeca, created by Steve Carell and starring the hilarious Rashida Jones.
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show
When your occupation is making people laugh, it’s a no-brainer to star in your own show about making people laugh. In this landmark comedy, Garry Shandling portrayed himself as a stand-up comedian with his own television sitcom. One of the first series made for the Showtime, the show modeled the format of other self-titled series where there was an opening monologue, studio audience interaction and a closing monologue, as in The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. The feel of the show was made even more realistic by modeling the set of Shandling’s own condo after his actual condo. Learn what it is like to be a comedian and then either prove your mother wrong and make it to television or prove her right and live out of your car. One of the all time classic theme songs.
The Jeffersons’ George Jefferson moved on up to the 80s in this church-based sitcom. Starring Sherman Hemsley, this predominantly black cast centered on the life of the deacon of the First Community Church of Philadelphia. The show's premise enabled writers to address with many relevant social issues under the guise of comedy. Though there is nothing inherently funny about teenage pregnancy, Amen was able to bring tough subjects to the forefront without the typical preachiness that might otherwise be suggestive. Who knew that working in a church could be so much fun. Amen to that
With working women coming to the mainstream in the 80s, this show depicted them with southern style, grace and lots of humor. Sugarbaker Designs was the fictitious interior design firm where all of the magic happened. Dixie Carter, Delta Burke, Annie Potts, Jean Smart–with a cast like that–who wouldn’t want to go out into the work force? These women were smart and sassy, and became role models to those watching at home; these ladies showed us you can be smart, funny, successful and female. The show incorporated controversial themes and outspoken women: the perfect combination. The big hair was only an added bonus.
Football coaches all over the country would relax by watching Hayden Fox coach the Minnesota State University’s Screaming Eagles. No overbearing fathers offering their two cents, no locker room drama, just put your feet up on the coffee table and watch someone else’s coaching escapades. Craig T. Nelson played the head coach, giving the country a glimpse into the personal and professional day-to-day antics of a regular guy with a regular job and regular problems. Middle America ate this up, and the show was on the air from 1989-1997.