Best TV dramas of the ’80s

Written by:
June 19, 2021
Dean Hargrove Productions

Best TV dramas of the ’80s

The 1980s brought us many things: neon fashion, big hair sprayed into submission, the rise of the yuppie, and some of the best television shows to hit the small screen. Television dramas of the decade brought viewers to police precincts, law firms, and Victorian-era London. The shows featured ensemble casts, police detectives, and mysterious storytellers, who from week to week took audiences on a journey to places both known and unknown where they could forget about life for a while.

Stacker compiled data on all drama TV shows from 1980-1989 and ranked them according to IMDb user rating, with ties broken by votes. To qualify, the show had to have at least 2,500 votes. Only English-language shows were considered.

One show was nominated for 21 Emmys in its first season, though it had extremely low ratings. Another series starred an old man and a talking dog. They were eclectic and interesting and always great. See if your favorite show made the list.

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Stephen J. Cannell Productions

#23. Hunter

- IMDb user rating: 6.8
- Years on the air: 1984–1991

Rick Hunter, a cop who doesn’t play by the rules, and his partner Stephanie McCall fight the bad guys in Los Angeles. Fred Dryer, who starred as Hunter, played for the Los Angeles Rams before he began his acting career. The show got a reboot in the early 2000s, though it was canceled by NBC and only three out of its five episodes aired.

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American Entertainment Partners II L.P.

#22. Alien Nation

- IMDb user rating: 6.8
- Years on the air: 1989–1990

An alien race lives alongside humans in Los Angeles in this often humorous science fiction series. The show focuses on two cops—one human, one alien—who are partnered up and must try to work through their differences. Based on the 1988 film starring James Caan and Mandy Patinkin, “Alien Nation” only lasted for one season.

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20th Century Fox Television

#21. L.A. Law

- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Years on the air: 1986–1994

This series took the world by storm when it first aired in 1986, and in the course of its eight seasons was nominated for 89 Primetime Emmy Awards and won 15 of them. The show followed the lives of several people working at a successful Los Angeles law firm.  

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Witt/Thomas Productions

#20. Beauty and the Beast

- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Years on the air: 1987–1990

The well-loved fairy tale got a bit of a makeover in this fantasy drama. An assistant district attorney is protected by a beast-like man who lives in a secret society under the streets of New York City. Ron Perlman played Vincent, the beast, and Linda Hamilton of “Terminator” fame played his lady love.

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Dean Hargrove Productions

#19. Matlock

- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Years on the air: 1986–1995

This legal drama starred Andy Griffith as Atlanta criminal defense attorney Ben Matlock. Several of Griffith’s castmates from “The Andy Griffith Show,” including Don Knotts and Betty Lynn, made appearances on “Matlock.”

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Corymore Productions

#18. Murder, She Wrote

- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Years on the air: 1984–1996

Mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher (played by Angela Lansbury) helps solve crimes in the fictional seaside town of Cabot Cove, Maine. In an interesting crossover event, Jessica traveled to Hawaii to help Thomas Magnum solve a crime, pairing “Murder, She Wrote” and “Magnum, P.I.” Lansbury received several Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series but never snagged one.

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Universal Television

#17. Simon & Simon

- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Years on the air: 1981–1989

Two brothers (Jameson Parker and Gerald McRaney) who are polar opposites run a detective agency together in San Diego. The show lasted eight seasons, though it was almost canceled after its first. Moving it to a timeslot following “Magnum, P.I.” gave it a significant ratings increase.

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20th Century Fox Television

#16. 21 Jump Street

- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Years on the air: 1987–1991

A show about a group of police officers posing as teenagers to go undercover in high schools and colleges, “21 Jump Street” starred Holly Robinson Peete, Peter DeLuise, Dustin Nguyen, and Johnny Depp. The show was based on a real undercover unit in Los Angeles. Several up-and-coming stars, including Jason Priestley and Brad Pitt, made appearances in various episodes during the show’s run.

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Fred Silverman Productions

#15. In the Heat of the Night

- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Years on the air: 1988–1995

Three lawmen navigate crime and tricky Southern politics in this critically acclaimed series that lasted eight seasons. Loosely based on both a 1965 novel and 1967 film of the same name, the show starred Carroll O’Connor, Howard E. Rollins Jr., Alan Autry, and David Hart.

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Amblin Entertainment

#14. Amazing Stories

- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Years on the air: 1985–1987

Steven Spielberg’s anthology series featured weekly stories of wonder and amazement, blending horror, science fiction, and other genres. Well-known directors and stars worked on the show, including Martin Scorsese and Patrick Swayze.  

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Michael Mann Productions

#13. Miami Vice

- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Years on the air: 1984–1989

Partners Crockett and Tubbs are detectives in the vice squad who go undercover in the Miami drug scene. The series launched a fashion movement for men, including sandals, white linen suits, and pastel T-shirts. Several actors made memorable appearances on the show, including Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, and Jimmy Smits in his acting debut.

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Paramount Pictures

#12. Mission: Impossible

- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Years on the air: 1988–1990

One of the many iterations in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, this television series features agents carrying out highly covert and dangerous operations. Though the show only lasted for two seasons, it returned as a series of successful films starring Tom Cruise.

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Universal Television

#11. The Equalizer

- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Years on the air: 1985–1989

Robert McCall is “The Equalizer,” a former Intelligence Agent who helps his clients get out of tough spots when no one else can. The series spawned two films starring Denzel Washington as McCall and a television series with a spin: Queen Latifah plays Robyn McCall, a single mom, in this updated variation.

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MTM Enterprises

#10. Hill Street Blues

- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Years on the air: 1981–1987

The original ensemble drama, “Hill Street Blues” followed the lives of those working in an inner-city police precinct. The innovative show was known for multi-episode story arcs and handheld camera work. Though its debut season received unbelievably low ratings, it also garnered 21 Emmy nominations, winning eight of them.

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Warner Bros. Television

#9. China Beach

- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Years on the air: 1988–1991

This story of a nurse and her colleagues at a field hospital during the Vietnam War won five Emmy Awards over its four-season run. While the show was critically acclaimed, it took a long time for its DVD release, which may have been due to the music used in the series.

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Braun Entertainment Group

#8. Tour of Duty

- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Years on the air: 1987–1990

This biting drama focused on the tour of duty of a U.S. army platoon, living, fighting, and dying out in the field during the Vietnam war. The series won one Emmy during its three seasons on television. The last two seasons were filmed using the former “M*A*S*H” set.

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Michael Mann Productions

#7. Crime Story

- IMDb user rating: 8.4
- Years on the air: 1986–1988

In early 1960s Chicago, a cop fights crime and zeroes in on a local street thug slowly working his way up in organized crime. The theme song for “Crime Story” was a re-recorded version of Del Shannon’s 1961 hit song, “Runaway.” The show didn’t make it past its sophomore season.

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Central Independent Television

#6. Auf Wiedersehen, Pet

- IMDb user rating: 8.4
- Years on the air: 1983–2004

A group of British construction workers travels to Germany to live and work. There was a 16-year gap between seasons two and three, so while the first two seasons were filmed in the ’80s, the final three were filmed in the early 2000s. The first and only time the words of the show’s title, “auf wiedersehen, pet,” were uttered, was in the final season.

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Goldcrest Films International

#5. Robin Hood

- IMDb user rating: 8.5
- Years on the air: 1984–1986

A mythical being appoints two men to champion the fight for the oppressed against their rulers, including an evil sheriff. Jason Connery plays Robin Hood in the series. His father, Sean Connery, played Robin Hood in the 1976 film “Robin and Marian.”

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Carnival Film & Television

#4. Poirot

- IMDb user rating: 8.6
- Years on the air: 1989–2013

Based on the novels by Agatha Christie, this series features former Belgian policeman, Hercule Poirot, solving crimes as a private detective in London. Actor David Suchet, who portrayed Poirot, would stay in character even when the camera wasn't rolling. He was so committed to accurately portraying the crime-solving detective that he read every book and short story in which Poirot makes an appearance.

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Granada Television

#3. The Return of Sherlock Holmes

- IMDb user rating: 8.7
- Years on the air: 1986–1988

Sherlock Holmes and his partner Dr. Watson return to solve more mysteries. Edward Hardwicke took over the role of Dr. Watson from David Burke, who had played Watson in “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.”

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Granada Television

#2. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

- IMDb user rating: 8.7
- Years on the air: 1984–1985

Over the course of two seasons, investigator Sherlock Holmes and his loyal friend Dr. Watson solve a variety of mysteries. Victorian-era British illustrator Sidney Paget’s drawings appear during the show’s closing credits.

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Henson Associates (HA)

#1. The Storyteller

- IMDb user rating: 8.9
- Years on the air: 1987–1989

Created by puppet master Jim Henson, this series focused on European folk tales told by a mysterious old storyteller to his talking dog. Henson’s daughter, Lisa, suggested the idea for the show while studying folklore and mythology at Harvard. Anthony Minghella wrote the series, and John Hurt played the storyteller.

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