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Following my binge of 1970s detective shows last month, I thought it was time to move on into the 1980s.
The detective TV show genre seems to have really expanded in the 80s, and one of the most salient things I noticed about TV shows from that time period is how many of them featured multiple lead characters. Whereas in the 70s, shows tended to focus on a single detective hero (whose name lent itself to the title of the show), the 80s liked to feature characters in pairs.
Below is a description of the 11 shows I watched over the past month that fit these criteria, presented in alphabetical order. Crucially, shows that prominently featured sidekicks didn’t count — the two characters had to receive equal billing.
This post focuses on just those 11 shows, but you can click here for a complete list of American detective shows ever produced in the 1980s.
[This post was updated in February 2021 to include more accurate information regarding show streaming and DVD availability.]
Cagney & Lacey
Cagney & Lacey features two female cops working in New York City who, in the pilot movie, get promoted to plainclothes detectives. The show focuses a lot on the sexism they experience both at home and in the workplace, and they spend a lot of time trying to prove themselves to their male colleagues.
Lacey, the married working mother, was played by Tyne Daly, whereas Cagney, the career-minded single woman, went through some cast changes. Cagney was played by Loretta Swit (of M*A*S*H fame) in the pilot, and then by Meg Foster in Season 1, before settling on Sharon Gless from Season 2 onwards.
The show premiered in 1981 and ran until 1988, and it was so popular that the characters were brought back to feature in multiple TV movies in the 90s.
Episodes of the show are available to stream through Amazon Prime (alternate link). Amazon Prime also has the movie sequels from the 90s: Cagney & Lacey: The Return (1994); Cagney & Lacey: Together Again (1995); Cagney & Lacey: The View Through the Glass Ceiling (1995); and Cagney & Lacey: True Convictions (1996). The series has also been released on DVD.
Even though it premiered in the 70s, CHiPs makes it to this list because most of its episodes aired in the 80s. The show ran for six seasons from 1977 to 1983.
It features two California Highway Patrolmen: the responsible Jon (played by Larry Wilcox), and the troublemaker Ponch (played by Eric Estrada). The show follows them as they chase down dangerous drivers and solve other vehicle-related crimes. It was highly popular and the two characters were brought back for a TV movie in the 90s.
Based on what I saw of the pilot episode, it’s a fun show with a somewhat slow-moving pace. But slow-moving doesn’t mean that it’s boring — just that it allows you more time to fully appreciate the story.
Hardcastle and McCormick
Hardcastle and McCormick is not strictly a detective show, but it does feature crime and the pursuit of justice. Hardcastle is a former judge, played by Brian Keith (of Family Affair fame), while McCormick is a former race car driver, played by Daniel Hugh Kelly. The two partner together to catch criminals who, according to Hardcastle, managed to beat the justice system.
The show ran for three seasons from 1983 to 1986, and also features another ubiquitous feature of 1980s TV show: a really fancy sports car called the Coyote X.
As far as I know, the show is currently not streaming anywhere, but it has been released on DVD.
Hart to Hart
Hart to Hart is about a rich married couple living in L.A. whose jet-setting lifestyle always somehow manages to get them tangled up in one crime or another. In fact, the introductory narration at the beginning of every episode in Season 1 stated that “their hobby is murder”. Watching an episode of this show will make you wonder why Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote is the only one who’s often criticized for having an unrealistic number of crimes follow her around.
The show features Robert Wagner as Jonathan Hart, and Stefanie Powers as his wife Jennifer Hart. Prior to Hart to Hart, Robert Wagner had also starred in numerous other mystery/crime TV shows such as Switch and It Takes a Thief.
It ran for five seasons from 1979 to 1984, and was so popular that the characters were featured in multiple made-for-TV movies in the 90s.
Jake and the Fatman
Jake and the Fatman features a legal team working in Los Angeles (later moving to Hawaii). The Fatman is actually district attorney J.L. McCabe played by the proudly rotund William Conrad, who had previously starred in the 70s detective show Cannon. His sidekick Jake is a special investigator. The show also features Fatman’s adorable bulldog Max.
The show ran for five seasons from 1987 to 1992, so it’s technically only half 80s. But it’s a crucial show for the detective TV cannon: 90s show Diagnosis: Murder was a spin-off of this show, whereas Jake and the Fatman was a spin-off of 80s show Matlock.
The show is currently not available to stream anywhere, but it has been released on DVD.
If you’ve never seen Miami Vice before, you will be absolutely blown away. The show features amazing neo-noir film-making techniques as well as pop music from the era that will make you want to get up and dance.
As the title suggests, the show is about a couple of vice cops working in Miami. Crockett, played by Don Johnson, lives on a boat and has a pet alligator. Tubbs, played by Philip Michael Thomas, ended up in Miami after leaving the NYPD force to pursue his brother’s killer in the pilot episode.
The show ran for five seasons from 1984 to 1990. It also had a huge influence on other shows at the time. For instance, if you’re a big fan of Magnum, P.I., you may have noticed how later episodes started to incorporate pop music and similar cinematography.
Miami Vice is available to stream on Amazon Prime, and on DVD/Blu-ray. I personally have the DVD collection pictured below and can confirm that while the packaging is simply cheap cardboard sleeves, I haven’t had any issues with the discs themselves.
Moonlighting pairs together Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis. In the pilot episode, former model Maddie Hayes (played by Shepherd) learns that she’s broke and one of her only business assets is an L.A. detective agency run by David Addison (Willis). Somehow they convince each other that it would be a good idea if they run the agency together, and so the show was born. As with many of these shows, the comedy comes from the clash of personalities between serious Maddie and lax David.
The show ran for five seasons from 1985 to 1989.
Moonlighting has been released on DVD, although it can be difficult to find a complete collection at a reasonable price.
If you don’t know much about Remington Steele, you might wonder why I included it in this list after specifically stating that the two lead characters had to receive equal billing. Well, in this case, the reason is because it’s a bit ambiguous as to whom “Remington Steele” actually refers to.
The show centers around private investigator Laura Holt, played by Stephanie Zimbalist, who has to invent a fake male boss for her detective agency in order to get clients to hire her. In the pilot episode, she meets a nameless con man, played by Pierce Brosnan, and ultimately hires him to play the role of Remington Steele for the benefit of her clients. Thus, “Remington Steele” is both Laura Holt and the con man.
The show ran for five seasons from 1982 to 1987.
Scarecrow and Mrs. King
Scarecrow and Mrs. King has an interesting premise. In the pilot episode, a housewife (Mrs. King) gets embroiled in espionage after an agent (alias “Scarecrow”) gives her a package to pass on. Scarecrow is played by Bruce Boxleitner and Mrs. King is played by Kate Jackson (of Charlie’s Angels fame).
Because she seems to have a knack for the job, Mrs. King eventually gets hired by the espionage agency. This is both a good thing (because she’s been looking for a job) and a bad thing (because she has to lead a double life).
The show ran for four seasons from 1983 to 1987.
Simon & Simon
Many detective pairings feature two characters who have divergent personalities, and this is true of Simon & Simon. The show focuses on a San Diego detective agency run by two brothers: Rick (played by Gerald McRaney), a Vietnam war vet with a wholesome country-boy image; and A.J. (played by Jameson Parker), a college grad with a more clean-cut image.
The show ran for eight seasons from 1981 to 1989. While there’s not much to say about the show’s premise since it’s not super gimmicky, it does manage to hook you once you watch an episode or two. There’s evidence of that in the fact that its ratings weren’t doing so well until it had a crossover with the more popular Magnum, P.I.. Which goes to show that once viewers became exposed to the characters, they wanted to see more.
As far as I know, the series is currently not streaming anywhere, but it has been released on DVD.
Tenspeed and Brown Shoe
Tenspeed and Brown Shoe was a very short-lived series: there were only 14 episodes made and they aired in 1980. But boy, what a show it was.
“Tenspeed” is a hustler played by Ben Vereen, and “Brown Shoe” is an accountant played by Jeff Goldblum. Brown Shoe loves hard-boiled detective novels and has a black-belt in karate, which comes in handy when he gets mixed up with Tenspeed. In the pilot episode, they fight gangsters and Nazis in order to recover gems that went missing in WWII.
After they get arrested, Brown Shoe helps Tenspeed get parole by promising to offer him a job in a detective agency he decided to open.
One final note to mention: Tenspeed and Brown Shoe is not the only show to feature Nazis and diamonds. Gems going missing after WWII was the premise for both the pilot of Moonlighting as well as Cagney & Lacey. This gives an interesting insight into the zeitgeist of the 80s.
Let me know in the comments: which of these shows was your favourite?