Why the Golden Age of TV Was Really Born in the 1980s

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Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture

All week on Vulture, we're examining '80s pop culture, and how it lives on today.

One of the problems with talking about the Golden Age of Television is figuring out which Golden Age you’re talking about. Thanks to recency bias — the fallacy that whatever artistic developments you happened to grow up with represent the Greatest of All Time — there’s a tendency to assume that scripted TV consisted largely of cavepeople yelling through square-shaped rock formations until the late 1990s, when Oz, The Sopranos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the like came along. Sure, the advances of that era were substantial and undeniable; if nothing else, the tighter degree of control exercised by 21st-century creators means we’re much closer to being able to talk about TV as the work of artists with a vision (like cinema, theater, pop music, or literature), as opposed to widgets churned out by a faceless machine that mainly cares about selling ads, yet occasionally lets something interesting slip through.  If you say “Golden Age of Television” around somebody in their 60s or 70s, they might think of their own youth in the Eisenhower era. Back then, the grid consisted of three channels. There was plenty of dreck, just like today, but gems, too, including original plays performed live (on venues like Playhouse 90 and Philco TV Playhouse) and innovative comedy and variety series like The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, Your Show of Shows, The Jack Benny Program, and The Twilight Zone.

But if you ask somebody my age (I’m in my 40s) you’ll hear about another Golden Age: the 1980s. It’s that decade that I’ll make a case for today, because much of what we value in contemporary television was devised or perfected there.

The '80s bridged the gap between the medium’s tumultuous birth — when it seemed as if it couldn’t decide whether to be vaudeville, legitimate theater, radio with pictures, or free-form video art — and its Peak TV maturation, a period of increased artistic sophistication and overwhelming quantity, literary pretensions, and cinematic effects. You don’t get to The Sopranos or Buffy, much less proceed toward the likes of American Crime Story, Better Call Saul, Atlanta, Westworld, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and The Americans, without passing through the era of MTV and Max Headroom, New Coke and Ronald Reagan, skinny ties and shoulder pads. Many of the developments that critics now praise as if they sprang fully formed from the heads of David Simon or Bryan Fuller are refinements of notions cooked up in the '80s.

Let’s start with the A-word: auteurism.

While directors have been described as the auteurs, or primary authors, of films since the mid-20th century — at least for convenience’s sake — the authors of TV weren’t as easy to label. Given the high-pressure, quick-turnaround, assembly-line nature of most TV production, directors were just one type of participant, and usually not the masterminds; the real power to shape material lay in the hands of others. Some were producers who imprinted their personalities on the medium by choosing and shaping material: The giant of giants is still Norman Lear, whose run of popular, socially aware sitcoms (All in the Family; Maude; The Jeffersons; Good Times; Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; Fernwood 2 Night) remains unmatched in variety and cultural prominence. There were stealth auteurs behind the scenes: network executives with adventurous taste who gave writers and producers a chance to do something other than the usual, and tried to intervene when a promising series was being targeted for cancellation due to low ratings. Then there were popular actors who asserted their stardom to gain creative control of a show (like Alan Alda, who pretty much took over M*A*S*H in the late 1970s and transformed it from a raucous but kindhearted shenanigans-fest into an avatar of Carter-era liberal sensitivity). And there were people who did double-duty as performers and producers. Mary Tyler Moore is among the most important of the bunch: She used the clout she’d gained as co-star of The Dick Van Dyke Show in the ’60s to co-found MTM Productions with her husband, Grant Tinker; the company’s output included The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, the Mary Tyler Moore spinoff Lou Grant, and two juggernauts of '80s TV that we’ll discuss in more detail later: Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere.

The '80s auteurs were a bit like the movie auteurs: front and center, sometimes giving network executives headaches, just as ringleader-impresario filmmakers like Francis Coppola and Michael Cimino had done in the '70s. A lot of them were baby boomers: Michael Mann (who brought a Zen hepcat feature-film slickness to series television with Miami Vice, Crime Story, and Private Eye, and who issued the famous dictum to the Vice crew, “No earth tones”); Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law); Bruce Paltrow (St. Elsewhere), and The Rockford Files’s creator Stephen J. Cannell (who made fluffy but wildly popular buddy-driven action comedies like The A-Team, Hunter, and Riptide before graduating to the darker, often masterful Wiseguy). On the comedy side of things, former Bob Newhart Show writers Glen and Les Charles teamed up with director James Burrows to create Cheers, which premiered in 1982, ran 11 glorious seasons, and begat a classic '90s spinoff, Frasier. Then there were brilliant flameouts like Glenn Gordon Caron, whose Moonlighting (1985–89) made a star of Bruce Willis, rejuvenated Cybill Shepherd’s career, and remains the only significant American series whose production troubles were acknowledged in network promotion. Caron’s perfectionism resulted in so many blown deadlines that ABC was occasionally forced to air repeats in what should’ve been a debut time slot; one ad showed a group of network executives waiting on Caron to deliver a new installment. The idea of the brilliant-but-difficult auteur reached its apex in 1989, when ABC green-lit the production of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s surreal melodrama Twin Peaks, which debuted the following spring and made countless TV writers and producers — future Sopranos creator David Chase among them — gape at the screen and think, “I had no idea you could do that.”

It's that last sentiment — “I had no idea you could do that” — that matters most when discussing the relationship of ’80s TV to what we watch today. If you take a hard look at the best and most striking ’80s TV, what you see is a group of artists bucking against the limitations of the medium and mostly losing. They were literally ahead of their time.

The ’80s were rife with indications that TV was no longer content to be thought of as a vast wasteland filled with time-wasters that did the same damn thing every week, and that were determined never to upset or puzzle the viewer. Bochco’s Hill Street Blues (1981–88) — which gave Deadwood creator David Milch his start as a writer — was a landmark in this respect. The series drew equally on the daytime soap opera, the nightly news, the community-focused stage play, and the multicharacter, community-driven ensembles of Robert Altman (who got his start in TV). It was the forerunner of every so-called Quality TV series. You can detect traces of its creative DNA in everything from the hard-edged cop and hospital shows of the early '90s — E.R., Homicide: Life on the Street, Bochco's NYPD Blue — to pay-cable dramas like The Knick, The Wire, and Deadwood, which were equally concerned with failing institutions and the diverse communities they served. Like most cop shows before it, Hill Street was driven by gallows humor and the threat or reality of violence. But it spent the bulk of its time observing the peculiarities of characters who evolved slowly but profoundly, pairing them off in surprising configurations that let us seem them from new angles each week, and weaving their personal stories in with cases (incidents, more often) that seemed drawn straight from crime blotters and newspaper editorials: racism, inter-ethnic rivalries, civic corruption, homophobia. The show was also notable for its style: A roving camera (that often seemed handheld even though it wasn’t) tracked groups of characters through the precinct house in a series of unbroken long takes as intricately choreographed as a True Detective showstopper. Hill Street was so unabashed in its desire to be taken seriously as mainstream art for grown-ups that film critics Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, Neal Gabler, and Jeffrey Lyons debated its merits in a 1983 panel discussion. Ebert didn’t like it — he accused it of ripping off Altman — and Siskel seemed puzzled by it. “I thought the whole thing with television was revisiting familiar characters as opposed to watching them change,” he said. “That’s not the case with Hill Street Blues,” Gabler replied.

Bochco was responsible for another innovative ’80s series, L.A. Law (1987–1992), an alternately outrageous and grim legal comedy-drama notable for its sexual frankness and its pioneering deployment of out-of-nowhere “Oh, shit, I can’t believe they did that!” plot twists, of a sort that would later fuel many a 21st-century Twitter-baiting drama (the show hit peak audacity when it killed off Diana Muldaur’s antagonistic attorney Rosalind Shays by dropping her down an elevator shaft). Bruce Paltrow's oft-cited 80s landmark, St. Elsewhere (1982–88) — a mordant, touching, pop-culture-obsessed hospital soap — added medicine and magical realism to the Hill Street formula, and ended its run with an image that has served as an organizing metaphor for many a TV think piece: The whole show was revealed to have been the fantasy of a minor character, autistic teenager Tommy Westphall (Chad Allen), who imagined it taking place inside a snow globe. (If you want to dive deeper into this rabbit hole, check out the Tommy Westphall Universe, which posits that 419 past and future series are also taking place inside Tommy’s imagination.) Later in the decade came Bochco’s equivalent of a film maudit, Cop Rock (which started production in 1989 and debuted in 1990), a musical police show that borrowed from Dennis Potter’s fantasy-driven British musical mini-series The Singing Detective; it was cancelled after one season, but Glee, Flight of the Conchords, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend would be unthinkable without it.

Other ’80s touchstones were stylistically conservative but told unusual, often daring stories; some of these programs were so provocative that they spilled off entertainment pages of newspapers and made their way into the news and editorial sections. The most famous of these was Cagney & Lacey (1981–88), starring Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless as TV’s first female buddy-cop duo. Its content was startling for the time. Network executives kept warning creators Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday not to make the tough-talking, single Cagney (Gless) too hard-edged, for fear that viewers would assume she was a lesbian. The series was denounced and its advertisers boycotted for daring to show its lead characters sympathizing with the staff of an abortion-clinic bombing and revealing that Cagney was pro-choice and had an abortion in the ’60s before they were legal.

Like Cagney & Lacey, most ‘80s network sitcoms made waves with content rather than form. Seinfeld (which debuted in 1988) and The Simpsons (1988–present, astonishingly) made deconstruction and self-awareness hip and marketable: Both shows’ escalating conceptual complexity eventually drew big ratings numbers, paving the way for such meta-sitcoms as The Bernie Mac Show, Malcolm in the Middle, and Community. Fox’s Married: With Children (1987–97), the network’s first big hit, was a slap in the face to Leave It to Beaver–style sitcom propriety, depicting matrimony and parenthood as hellscapes filled with bitter, self-loathing, often openly hateful people who couldn’t express affection unless it was dragged out of them.

Many of the popular sitcoms brought the 1950s and ’60s family comedy into the Reagan decade while adding topical touches that often played like Norman Lear with sugar in place of vinegar.  Three-camera comedies like The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and A Different World snuggled “very special episode” dramatic plots about drug addiction, racism, class conflict, and teen sex inside family bonding and goofy shtick. Their influence can be felt in ABC’s family-sitcom bloc, in particular Black-ish, Modern Family, Fresh Off the Boat, The Goldbergs, and The Carmichael Show (perhaps the only current sitcom equally indebted to Cosby and Lear).

Roseanne Barr’s Roseanne (1988–97) carried the Lear torch more defiantly, and became a breakout hit despite the skittishness of network executives who’d figured out that if you kept Lear’s harsh language and risqué situations but dropped the political content, you could get big ratings without all the angry letters and phone calls. Barr and her writers proceeded as if it were still 1974, building story lines around economic distress, depression, sexual dysfunction, and gay rights (Barr insisted that Sandra Bernhardt’s character, Nancy, be openly lesbian, because Barr’s brother and sister were gay).

These shows and others walked a hard road, trying to connect to life’s rougher edges without bruising everybody, and many of them didn’t last long. Dabney Coleman starred in two of them, playing deeply unpleasant characters in both. He was a raging narcissist of a talk-show host on Buffalo Bill (1983–84), a forerunner of sorts to Shandling’s ’90s hit The Larry Sanders Show; its caustic scripts dealt with sexism, racial tension, the nuclear-freeze movement, and abortion. The Slap Maxwell Story (1997–88) cast Coleman as a crusty newspaper reporter who filled his column with unsourced rumors; in every episode he got slapped or punched for being such a jerk, thus the title.

There were many game attempts to move the sitcom beyond the three-camera, shot-before-a-live-audience template, but audiences weren’t ready for them, and network executives tended to want to cut them at the first sign of ratings weakness. The Blair Brown vehicle The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (1987–91) now feels like a crucial bridge between two classics about single professional women, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Sex and the City; it was consistently one of the most intelligent and charming sitcoms of its type, but its subtle performances and movie-style production values (single camera, shot on film, no laugh track) made it a tough sell, and it only lasted one season on NBC before moving to the then-new cable channel, Lifetime.

An even sadder example is Frank’s Place (1987–88), a sitcom from WKRP creator Hugh Wilson starring former WKRP cast member Tim Reid, about a college professor who leaves the north to take over his late father’s bar in New Orleans. Handsomely photographed, scored with blues, jazz, and soul, steeped in regional atmosphere and cultural references, and unafraid to let silence and music carry a moment, the series gave network viewers a rare glimpse of a multiracial urban community living in relative harmony. It was canceled after 22 episodes and has never been made available in any other form, but there are fragments of it on YouTube; if you watch either Frank’s Place or Molly Dodd, you’ll see the roots of many critically acclaimed recent half-hour dramedies, including Louie, Atlanta, Better Things, and You’re the Worst.

It seems miraculous, in retrospect, that some of these touchstones got made at all. There was still a mandate from network executives to tell self-contained stories that wrapped up in a half-hour or an hour, rather than serialized tales that stretched out over one or more seasons. The vast majority of viewers still watched TV in pieces, in a slow-motion linear way, often while doing other things. Writers knew that if you expected people to watch every single episode of a show in order and keep every narrative detail at the forefronts of their minds while they did it, they tended to bail out. Yes, in the '80s, home-video recording systems became increasingly common in U.S. households, but they weren’t as convenient as today’s programmable DVRs and scrollable Netflix and Hulu menus. You had to put a plastic tape in the machine, set it to record at a particular time, and try not to accidentally record over something you meant to save. Most preferred to watch the TV the old way — a way that horrifies my children when I tell them about it: You had to find out when a show was on, sit down in front of the TV during that time slot, watch the thing, then come back again the following week, and if you missed one episode, you had to wait several months for the rerun.

These factors all combined to limit the potential of serialized storytelling, at least the kind that stretched out for three or five or eight seasons. American television sometimes got around the anti-serialization sentiment by embracing one of today’s most popular forms — the mini-series — which required more concentration from viewers, and earned it by trumpeting itself as an “event.” But mini-series were necessarily outliers on the schedule because to achieve maximum audience attention and keep the ratings steady, you had to schedule them on consecutive nights, preempting regular programming in the process. A lot of network executives and advertisers disliked mini-series for precisely that reason, because they threw a wrench into the programming works (they were also very expensive; The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, two of the biggest mini-series of the ’80s, had a combined budget of about $80 million).

You couldn’t produce a tonally tricky or narratively complex series like The Sopranos, Lost, Westworld, Fargo, Atlanta, or Mad Men under such conditions and expect it to succeed for long. That’s why only a few foolhardy production companies tried to make shows that were more than one-off escapist trifles, and even fewer network executives wanted to risk their jobs by recommending a green light for anything that smelled of ambition. The problem wasn’t lack of will, but the absence of a way.

TV auteurs who preferred serialization, or who wanted to build complex universes with their own mythologies and rules, couldn’t win for losing. Sometimes you’d see ongoing, multi-episode arcs on regular series; the two-parter was common, and once in a while you’d get a four-episode arc, such as the one that followed corrupt Hill Street Blues detective Sal Benedetto (Dennis Franz) as he systematically destroyed himself. But when Mann, for example, tried to do another cop show that told one very long story — Crime Story, a 1960s Chicago potboiler starring Dennis Farina as a major crimes detective and Anthony John Denison as his mobster quarry — NBC and its viewers couldn’t deal with it. Although the network’s decision to relocate Crime Story to a time slot opposite the more popular Moonlighting damaged it, a greater problem was its dense and detailed narrative architecture, which often played like a shotgun wedding of The Untouchables and the Godfather pictures. The weekly “previously on” montages took up more and more real estate; near the end of season one, the narrator was talking like an auctioneer and rattling off more names than the Chicago phone book. Cannell’s Wiseguy (1987–90), starring Ken Wahl, as an undercover cop infiltrating a new criminal organization each season, struggled for many of the same reasons.

But neither program died in vain: The long-form crime story began to thrive in the late ’90s and early '00s, with series as diverse as The Sopranos, The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, and The Wire (an intriguing merger of the police procedural and the social-problem show). Crime Story and Wiseguy’s contributions can be seen mainly in the unifying device of building a season-long story around a single villain (or target of a police investigation) who ends up dead or in prison eventually. Denison’s Ray Luca from Crime Story and the charismatic criminals played by Ray Sharkey and Kevin Spacey on Wiseguy are the ancestors of Richie Aprile, Stringer Bell, Gus Fring, the hoodlums-of-the-year that used to give Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson agita on Boardwalk Empire, and various temporary Game of Thrones pot-stirrers, including Jonathan Pryce’s High Sparrow and Pedro Pascal’s Oberon.

It also seems clear with hindsight that popular 1980s nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty (and their spinoffs, Falcon Crest and The Colbys) were helping viewers get used to following complicated ongoing plots from week to week. Granted, neither the characterizations nor the storytelling on these shows was especially complex. But those programs bear as much relation to efforts like Lost, Fargo, and Game of Thrones as basic arithmetic does to algebra. To paraphrase Siskel’s comment about what TV used to be, the '80s nighttime soaps tended to spotlight characters who didn’t change, or who changed a little bit and then changed back; and the point of the show was never to ask “What are we made of?” and “Why do we change, or not change?” but, “What can we show you that will keep you watching?” The great triumph of post-millennial TV has been figuring out how to fuse the addictive audience-baiting characteristic of soaps to the storytelling audacity and psychological acuity of good novels, plays, and films: high and low, together at last.

The advent of more sophisticated and responsive home-viewing systems — DVDs first, then DVR and on-demand video — is the biggest contributing factor to scripted TV’s willingness to go deep and wide. Writers and producers are now free to construct alternate worlds replete with callbacks and foreshadowing, obvious and obscure symbolism, confident that if the show catches on, it’ll be watched in first run (and live-tweeted and Facebook-scrutinized) by first-time viewers, then pored over again during the next six days, or else binge-watched at some later date.

The atomization of audiences has removed a lot of the pressure once placed on TV storytellers to make everything neat and bland, flat and colorless. You don’t have to reach gigantic numbers of viewers, only the right ones. A former ’80s network powerhouse who now works for an independent TV-production company recently told me that in order for most current dramas to be considered profitable, they need only draw three million viewers per episode across a variety of platforms, and not all at once.

Those are much lower stakes than TV producers faced in the ’80s, when a weekly audience of less than 15 million viewers per episode was considered grounds for cancellation. If it were possible to travel back into the ’80s and bring some of its short-lived wonders into the present, we could be looking at Frank’s Place, season five, or The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, season ten.

Now that talent and vision have become values to be cultivated instead of irritations to be managed or stamped out, the personalities of individual creators have become much stronger. Networks, cable channels, and streaming services have figured out that if you turn creativity into a cult of personality, you can get the audience interested in the storytelling as well as the story. They’ll second-guess what just happened, compete to guess what’ll happen next, and speculate on how all the pieces fit (or don’t). Storytellers as aesthetically and temperamentally dissimilar as Louis C.K., Noah Hawley (Fargo), Donald Glover (Atlanta), Kenya Barris (Black-ish), Pamela Arlon (Better Things), the Duffer Brothers (Stranger Things), Ryan Murphy (every other show on TV, seemingly), and Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy (Westworld) can all be discussed now as artists and storytellers who are very much in charge of the worlds they devise, executives’ notes notwithstanding.

And they are creating worlds: some hermetically sealed, others connected to life, but distinct, varied, no one quite like any other. A constellation of snow globes. Tommy Westphall would be thrilled.