1980s Mystery Detective TV Shows

The 80s: Waiting for Jessica

The 80s began with a charming hunk on the beaches of Hawaii and ended with a nice middle-aged lady chasing down murderers between churning out novels.

Magnum, P.I. (1980-1988) debuted in the closing weeks of 1980 and pretty obviously was designed to capture the free-orm humor of The Rockford Files and the island ambiance of Hawaii 5-0, the two great hits than ended earlier that year. It managed to do both quite well and made a star of Tom Selleck. But good as it was, it probably wasn’t the most important show of the decade. Just over a year after Magnum’s debut, what was to become the most acclaimed cop series ever slipped onto the scene. Somehow, Hill Street Blues (1981-1987) managed to survive all the complaints that it was too confusing and dreadful first season ratings. From then on, the show garnered Emmys by the handful and made the multiple, overlapping storyline a staple of the TV police procedural.

Of course, it could be argued equally well that the most important show of the 80s was Cagney & Lacey (1982-1988, with interruptions), since it was both the first female buddy series and an expiation for the sins of Charlie’s Angels. The show was deeply resented by many when it first appeared because it replaced the popular newspaper drama Lou Grant on the CBS schedule, but it was later saved from oblivion when its viewers mounted a successful write-in campaign after its cancellation in 1983. Mary Beth and Christine were a long, long way from chicks in bikinis.

Other major cop series appeared during the decade. The glitzy and glamorous Miami Vice (1984-1989) was a ground-breaking effort whose fast pacing, pounding music and wild sex and violence made it an instant hit; Crime Story (1986-1988), a period piece set in 1960s Chicago and Las Vegas, starred real life cop turned actor Dennis Farina, and Wiseguy (1987-1990), the adventures of deep-cover operative Vinnie Terranova, was memorable for its charmingly scary villains and extended story arcs.

On other fronts, Remington Steele (1982-1987) thrived on the will-they-or-won’t- they? attraction between its two attractive principals and the British charm of Pierce Brosnan’s con man turned private investigator. Moonlighting (1985-1989) worked a variation on the same theme before it was done in by erratic scheduling and an unwise resolution of the sexual tension between Maddie Hayes and David Addison. In The Equalizer (1985-1989), British actor Robert Woodward played a retired spy who ran a daily advertisement in The New York Times offering his services to people in trouble.

On Matlock (1986-1995), Andy Griffith did the Perry Mason bit with a nice Southern drawl. L.A. Law (1986-1994), incorporating many of the techniques used so successfully on Hill Street, involved enough criminal cases to warrant the attention of mystery fans. And William Conrad, who’d been the first portly PI on the small screen, lent his bulk to a prosecutorial role in Jake and the Fatman (1987-1992).

The 80s also marked the debut of the extraordinary Mystery! (1980-) on PBS. This wonderful anthology series continues to bring such unforgettable detectives as Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot and Inspector Maigret to the TV screen weekly to the delight of mystery fans everywhere. Several “Rumpole of the Bailey” segments starring Leo McKern proved extremely popular and the “Prime Suspect” segments, starring Helen Mirren as the estimable Deputy Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, were undoubtedly Mystery!‘s greatest hits and among the best TV crime shows ever. An eclectic lineup of hosts has included Gene Shalit, Vincent Price, and Diana Rigg.

And yet, when all was said and done, a rank amateur won the day and the decade. Debuting on Sept. 30, 1984, Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996) went on to become the longest-running crime show of all time, 264 episodes worth, and ranked as TV’s highest-rated drama series for a record nine consecutive seasons, from 1985 to 1994. For now at least, Jessica Fletcher rules.


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