6 of the best: 80s cop shows

I was laid up in bed with some kind of not-swine-flu virus a couple of weeks ago, and spent several happy hours revisiting one of my favourite TV shows from my teenage years. Moonlighting (which is currently airing every weekday on CBS Drama in the UK) ran for 66 episodes between 1985 and 1989, introducing us to a thinning but not yet bald Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd with a hairdo you could have used as an umbrella. The show was considered ground-breaking in many ways, from its rapid-fire, dialogue-heavy scripts to an experimental style which would, say, see characters address the viewers direct or burst into song.

In fairness, the show is now starting to show its age. Clothes and hairstyles, naturally, look somewhat dated. Some of the tricks to break down the ‘fourth wall’ which were considered innovative at the time seem positively de rigueur by modern standards. And the plots feel terribly slow and drawn-out when set beside, say, 24, or anything from the CSI stable. (Mind you, the procedural crime-solving element of Moonlighting was never really more than a means to an end.)

Nonetheless, Moonlighting remains tremendous fun to watch. I’m currently about three-quarters of the way through season one, just as the show was really starting to find its stride and, racking my brains, there hasn’t really been anything like it since.

In fact, to my mind there was a period during the middle to latter part of the 80s which represents a golden age of US television, at least in terms of police/detective/spy-type shows. (The UK also got in on the act, emerging from an era of late-70s tough guy shows like The Sweeney and The Professionals into one which more frequently featured female leads, such as Juliet BravoThe Gentle TouchDempsey and Makepeace and C.A.T.S. Eyes.)

With that in mind, here are six US examples of the genre from the 80s that I have not seen since their initial UK broadcast; not necessarily the best, but ones which, like Moonlighting, I would love to see again. In alphabetical order …

Automan (13 episodes, 1983-84)

Inspired by the success of Tron, this series featured Lucille Ball’s son Desi Arnaz Jr, a DeLorean car and Chuck Wagner as the eponymous computer-generated, crime-fighting hologram whose sidekick, a skittish ball of light named Cursor, had a habit of looking under ladies’ skirts. Automan, frequently posing under the pseudonym Otto Mann, would assist Arnaz’s character Walter, a police computer geek, in solving a variety of crimes. And that was about it.

It was, as you might expect from the above description, exceedingly silly and played with tongue firmly inserted in cheek. It was certainly not the best piece of television ever; it was, however, good fun, something which is too often missing from contemporary, angst-ridden shows.

The show also featured Robert Lansing as a police lieutenant; who would go on to co-star as a CIA-style handler in …

The Equalizer (88 episodes, 1985-89)

Edward Woodward was the star of one of my dad’s favourite shows, Callan, and his Equalizer character of Robert McCall could easily have been Callan’s doppelganger, a spy who had tired of the spy game and returned to civilian life as a private investigator and defender of the defenceless, a semi-retired James Bond, if you will.

The show was often criticised for excessive violence – by modern standards, it is tame – as McCall, although far from an unemotional character, frequently chose to fight fire with fire. Certainly it didn’t soft-soap in its view of the world, with much of its action taking place at night and frequently eschewing the standard happy ending for something more downbeat and ambiguous. As such, the show always had an edginess to it that contrasted sharply with the ‘bright lights, big city’ setting of LA-based shows, or the exoticness of Magnum, PI.

The Highwayman (10 episodes, 1987-88)

“There is a world, just beyond now, where reality runs a razor thin seam between fact and possibility; where the laws of the present collide with the crimes of tomorrow. Patrolling these vast outlands is a new breed of lawman, guarding the fringes of society’s frontiers, they are known simply as ‘Highwaymen’ – and this is their story.”

Set in the near future, this short-lived series is probably best described as Knight Rider meets Mad Max, with a Wild West feel to it. The title character was one of a small number of law enforcers, each equipped with a futuristic truck, patrolling the country, solving crimes and investigating other strange occurrences.

The Highwayman featured three well-known genre stars in its regular cast: Sam Jones, star of the 1980 film Flash Gordon, played Highwayman, and was joined by V’s Jane Badler and Tim Russ, who would later appear in Star Trek: Voyager.

Leg Work (10 episodes, 1987)

Cancelled before it ever had a chance to establish its niche, this series was rare at the time for having two female leads: Margaret Colin and, nearly a decade before her Oscar-winning turn in Fargo, Frances McDormand.

There was much to admire about Leg Work. Here we had a private investigator, Claire McCarron (Colin), who relied on empathy and intelligence rather than physicality or an excess of testosterone, traits underlined by the running joke of her owning a Porsche which was always broken and which she could barely afford to keep repaired.

It was also the first prime-time show I can remember that centred a story on AIDS at a time when the disease was still very much a taboo and poorly understood subject, and handled it in an unflinching and empathetic fashion. The show deserved better than the mid-season cancellation it received as US audiences abandoned it due to its lack of crash-bang-wallop; entirely missing the point that a huge part of its appeal was that it was so different from the norm.

Midnight Caller (61 episodes, 1988-91)

Gary Cole starred as Jack Killian, the San Francisco cop who turned late night radio talk show host after accidentally shooting and killing his partner.

Midnight Caller provided a different twist on the cop-turned-PI theme by focussing on the social rather than procedural aspects of the ‘case of the week’. Through his KJCM radio show, Killian comes into contact with all manner of people in need, addressing tough issues from neighbourhood drug-dealing to child abuse. There was nothing glitzy about the show, which regularly peered into social subcultures through a slightly jaded lens. And yet through it all, the thoroughly cynical Killian cannot help but reach out to and help his audience with a hand of hope.

Cole has had a distinguished career since, including notable turns as Sheriff Lucas Buck in American Gothic and vice-president ‘Bingo’ Bob Russell in The West Wing, but Midnight Caller remains his finest work. And the show also featured a young Mykel T Williamson, years before his Forrest Gump role as the shrimp-loving Bubba Blue.

Downbeat and yet resolutely optimistic, Midnight Caller spoke to those of us who recognised that, while we live in a far from perfect world, there is something inherently good about people everywhere, a sentiment perfectly encapsulated by Killian’s signature sign-off, “Good night, America, wherever you are.”

Sledge Hammer! (41 episodes, 1986-88)

As a send-up of the long procession of ‘on the edge’ film and TV cops such as Dirty Harry and Hunter, this sitcom presented us with a wonderfully over-the-top caricature of a policeman of Inspector Gadget or Clouseau-level incompetence, for whom violence was the first (indeed only) option.

Played purely for laughs – and with a wonderful balance of seriousness and knowingness by David Rasche – the series lovingly poked fun at all the staples and cliches of the cop show genre, presenting us with a sexist, shoot-first buffoon of a hero who talks to and sleeps with his gun, and yet is somehow utterly sympathetic. If Lethal Weapon had been a comedy, this is what it would have looked like.

And that’s my six, the majority of which have sadly not found their way to DVD yet. I’ve excluded several well-known and excellent series such as HunterMiami ViceScarecrow and Mrs KingTJ HookerThe Fall Guy and Cagney and Lacey, as well as others which I have been fortunate enough to catch again thanks to the marvel that is multichannel TV (Knight RiderRemington SteeleStreet Hawk and Magnum PI, to name but four), but there you go – six slices of a bygone age that will always hold a special place in my heart.