The only action hour during the early-to-mid-’80s that might’ve been cooler than The A-Team was another series about soldiers of fortune (sort of, anyway) with an awesome black vehicle. Self-made billionaire Wilton Knight (Richard Basehart) rescues police detective Michael Long (David Hasselhoff) from a near-fatal gunshot to the face; via plastic surgery, Long is resurrected as Michael Knight and chosen to be one half of the field team of the Knight Industries-funded public justice organization, the Foundation for Law and Government (FLAG). The other half is, of course, the Knight Industries Two Thousand (KITT), a tricked-out, near-indestructible 1982 Pontiac Trans Am that can talk (courtesy of an uncredited William Daniels, who was appearing on St. Elsewhere around the same time). Knight Rider, which ran for four seasons from 1982-1986, was pure adolescent fantasy, and an instant hit; what ’80s kid didn’t sit in their parents’ car parked in the driveway, pretending to talk to KITT (whether the car looked anything like KITT or not)? Producer Glen A. Larson conceived the show as The Lone Ranger with a car, a sci-fi show that also had a strong western vibe; it was all of that and so much more. The series was rebooted in 2008 with Justin Bruening as Michael Knight’s estranged son and Val Kilmer as the voice of KITT (Knight Industries Three Thousand), a Ford Shelby GT 500 KR Mustang; while nowhere near as sweet a ride as the original series, it’s still worth a look.
Time and tide have made this series now seem quaint and rather juvenile, but from 1983 through 1986, The A-Team was the most exciting and intense action hour on television. The show, which ran for five seasons, followed four ex-Special Forces operatives who now traverse the United States in their awesome black van as soldiers of fortune, all the while on the run from the U.S. Army that seeks to bring them to justice for “a crime they didn’t commit.” These guys might technically be mercenaries, but they always work for “the good guys,” helping those who can’t help themselves in various battles against the forces of evil; they can also make weapons and vehicles out of pretty much anything (no episode was complete without a “building something” montage), with which they inflict extreme violence upon those who would oppress and exploit the innocent (even though no one ever really gets hurt too bad). The show was originally conceived as a showcase for Mr. T, who plays the one-man army known as Sgt. Bosco Albert ‘B.A.’ Baracus (who must be knocked unconscious in almost every episode in order for him to overcome his fear of flying); other team members include the cigar-chomping Col. John ‘Hannibal’ Smith (George Peppard), the charming (yet, let’s face it, somewhat fey) Lt. Templeton ‘Face’ Peck (Dirk Benedict) and the crafty yet insane Captain H.M. ‘Howling Mad’ Murdock (Dwight Schultz), who had to be busted out of a Veterans Administration mental institution at the beginning of almost every episode of the first four seasons. Silly stuff, but it’s also got a big heart to go with its big guns; the feature film adaptation that came out in 2010 isn’t too shabby, either.
Perhaps the most clever and innovative of all the ’80s action-adventure shows, MacGyver, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992, chronicles the secret missions of Angus MacGyver (Richard Dean Anderson), an eccentric yet brilliant operative of a covert U.S. government organization called the Phoenix Foundation (which is actually based on Los Angeles, not in the capital city of Arizona). MacGyver, whose background includes an extensive science education and a tour as a Bomb Team Technician in Vietnam, refuses to carry a gun and attempts to employ non-violent resolutions to conflicts whenever possible; he’s something of a one-man A-Team as he’s able to solve complex problems with everyday materials that happen to be lying around (along with his trusty duct tape, Swiss Army knife and a lot of luck), often during extreme situations that require him to build complicated devices in mere minutes. MacGyver received praise for its super-smart writing that generated interest in the applied sciences; here was an action-adventure hero for “nerds” who also made things like engineering look “cool.” Indeed, the term “MacGyver” has found its way into pop culture slang to describe improvised jerryrigging, such as “He locked himself out of his car but he used a coat hanger to MacGyver his way in.” Hey kids, learning is fun. . . with MacGyver!
The ’80s wasn’t the best decade for SNL, but there were still a few laughs to be mined and enjoyed. Granted, the ’80s cast members had the dubious task of being the successors of the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players, and the likes of John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Garrett Morris, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman are tough acts to follow. Notable ’80s cast members include Joe Piscopo and a kid by the name of Eddie Murphy, who barely got the gig over Robert Townsend; the decade also saw the likes of rather bizarre casting choices such as Robert Downey Jr. and Anthony Michael Hall (huh?) and certain obligatory choices like Jim Belushi and Brian Doyle-Murray (pale imitations of their successor-brothers). Still, the ’80s era also got Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Damon Wayans, Joan Cusack, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer for at least one season each, with Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey and Jan Hooks began their careers as long-term SNL ace cards in 1986 (and Jon Lovitz in ’85); the decade also closed with Mike Myers and Ben Stiller joining the cast (though the latter lasted barely half a season). Some rough road, to be sure, but keep your eyes peeled as you scroll through and you’ll find some examples of the true comedic genius that Saturday Night Live is somehow able to occasionally pull off even during the darkest years.
“You want to be where everybody knows your name. . .” The poignant opening theme song to Cheers was the first sign that you were in for something classier than just another lame sitcom with a canned laugh track; this long-running ’80s comedy series was about real working-class people who were able to share each other’s various joys, triumphs, disappointments and failures within the sanctuary of a basement Boston bar. Cheers, which ran for 11 seasons from 1982-1993 with a total of 275 episodes (that’s a lot of beer!), was a shelter from the storm not only for the on-screen characters but for the audience as well; each week you looked forward to unwinding from the stress of Monday through Thursday (it aired on Thursday nights on NBC) and hanging out with your pals Sam (Ted Danson), Diane (Shelley Long, from seasons 1-5), Rebecca (Kirstie Alley, from seasons 6-11), Coach (Nicholas Colasanto, from seasons 1-3), Frasier (Kelsey Grammer, from seasons 3-11), Woody (Woody Harrelson, from seasons 4-11), Carla (Rhea Perlman), Cliff (John Ratzenberger) and, of course, Norm (George Wendt). A great show, and there’s never really been one quite like it since its last call, which aired on May 20, 1993; Grammer’s highly successful spinoff show, Frasier, also ran for 11 seasons and featured guest appearances by almost all of the major Cheers patrons.