Best 80s Crime Drama TV Series
Some of the Best Detective Shows Aired in the 80s
Call them crime dramas, private investigator shows, police shows or any other name you can think of. Regardless, the 80s were full of them, and many were just incredible to watch!
There were more heroes in this genre then any other, as well as some epic criminals and bad guys. Even science fiction, with all its hype in the 80s, had a hard time competing with these cops and private investigators. Everyone wanted to solve crimes, and they were all good at it!
Let's take a look together at some of the best crime shows of the 80s.
21 Jump Street (1987 - 1991)
This was a fabulous series that ran for 5 seasons and 103 episodes! Full of cute boys and featuring some quality storytelling, the show was a joy to watch. The catchy tune at the beginning caught your attention and the cast held it for the rest of the show.
Johnny Depp, Peter DeLuise, Steven Williams, Holly Robinson Peete and Dustin Nguyen comprised the main cast of the show, but the show also featured a great supporting cast and new faces every week. Even Richard Grieco made it into the show for 18 episodes, spawning his own spin-off TV series named Booker after the character he played in 21 Jump Street.
Booker (1989 - 1990)
Alas, this series only ran for 22 episodes in one season. Richard Grieco reprized his role as Dennis Booker from 21 Jump Street. The story revolved around the crime solving of an ex-cop who had problems with authority. Most of the crimes were related to his friends instead of his employer, which resulted in a fun variety of plot lines.
Cagney and Lacey (1981 - 1988)
This edgy detective show ran for a whopping 7 seasons and 125 episodes. Though the show didn't grab my attention at first, the later seasons drew me in deeper and deeper. Cagney and Lacey starred Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless as two New York police detectives. Never mind having to make it in a male dominated profession, these two ladies had full lives outside of the job as well. Their home lives added a human element that drew a large audience to watch the show. Because one was a single career officer and the other a married mother, the two characters dealt with a variety of everyday problems at home. The chemistry between these two actresses won my family over as dedicated fans and viewers, and I hope it will do the same for you.
Charlie's Angels (1976 - 1981)
Charlie's Angels, a unique crime drama for the period, focused on a team of female detectives funded by a mysterious benefactor. The benefactor, known only as Charlie, was voiced by the distinguished John Forsythe. This series ran for 5 seasons with a respectable 110 episodes. The team of three angels changed periodically. Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson, Cheryl Ladd, Shelley Hack and Tanya Roberts all played angels on the show at various points. Of course, let's not forget David Doyle as Bosley. The series packed humor and action into a thrilling drama filled with undercover shenanigans.
CHiPs (1977 - 1983)
This show focused on two California highway patrol officers. The series ran for 6 seasons with 139 episodes. Although real life California patrol officers never rode in pairs, the chemistry between the two main actors, Larry Wilcox and Erick Estrada (playing officers Jonathan Baker and Francis "Ponch" Poncherello), prompted the show's producers to change the rules in the name of good television. The series started off as more of a comedy, piling on slapstick humor and ridiculous events, but eventually changed to a more serious format which generated a strong viewer following.
Hardcastle and McCormick (1983 - 1986)
Starring Brian Keith as Judge Milton Hardcastle and David Hugh Kelly as an ex-con race car driver named Mark McCormick, this series ran for 3 seasons with 67 episodes. Upon retiring, Judge Hardcastle realized that 200 criminals had escaped on legal technicalities. The judge made a deal with McCormick, who was facing a long prison sentence, and in return for his help promised to help McCormick find his best friend's murderer. One of the best parts of the show was the prototype sports car driven by McCormick, the Coyote X.
Hart to Hart (1979 to 1984)
For 5 seasons and 110 episodes, Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers portrayed Jonathan and Jennifer Hart. The Harts were an extremely wealthy couple who worked as detectives for the sheer thrill. Honestly, there is not much more I can say about this show. There was a lot of cheese, but also a lot of fun.
Hill Street Blues (1981 - 1987)
More of a police drama than a detective show, this series ran for 7 seasons and 146 episodes. It focused on a police precinct in some American city, which I do not believe was ever named. It was highly acclaimed and earned several Emmy awards, breaking ground especially in its use of casual and colloquial dialogue and focus on characters at the bottom of the social ladder, giving it a gritty, almost documentary feel.
Hunter (1984 - 1991)
Another police drama, this one was based on the character of Sgt. Rick Hunter (Fred Dryer) and Sgt. Dee Dee McCall (Stepfanie Kramer). It ran for 7 seasons and 153 episodes. Originally thought of as TV's version of Dirty Harry, the series calmed down its antics in order to increase ratings, but at the end of the day, Hunter and McCall almost always resolved situations by shooting the criminals dead.
Jake and the Fatman (1987 - 1992)
This series ran for 5 seasons and 106 episodes. It centered around Prosecutor J.L. "Fatman" McCabe (William Conrad) and Investigator Jake Styles (Joe Penny). "The Fatman" was a former police officer turned District Attorney who teamed up with an easy-going Investigator named Jake. With this series, viewers could see both sides of the investigative process, from the in court drama to all the investigative action outside.
Magnum, P.I. (1980 -1988)
The handsome and debonaire Tom Selleck portrayed Thomas Magnum, a Hawaii-based private investigator. The series ran for an incredible 8 seasons and 162 episodes. Magnum lived in the guest house of a millionaire's beach-front estate known as "The Robin's Nest." This mysterious benefactor, known as Robin Masters, was never seen, but due to some favor Magnum had done for him, allowed the investigator to stay in his guest house. The other primary actor, John Hillerman, portrayed Jonathan Higgins III. If you've never seen this series, I highly suggest you check it out. It is worth the viewing time.
Matlock (1986 - 1995)
Matlock ran for 9 seasons and 195 episodes as a legal drama, but the show encompassed far more than a typical legal show. Ben Matlock, played by Andy Griffith, found a way to get himself in trouble both inside and outside of the courtroom. Matlock's character, an old-fashioned defense attorney, studied at Harvard and practiced law in Atlanta, Georgia. His trade marks were visiting crime scenes and investigating for overlooked evidence, particularly in murder cases. The show was a lot of fun and a big proponent of the brainy underdog, proving that one does not need might in order to be continually victorious.
Matt Houston (1982 - 1985)
Lee Horsley portrayed a Texas oil man by the name of Matlock "Matt" Houston who works as a P.I. Apparently being rich was not enough for many people in the 80s, since they had to resort to investigating crimes and murders to pass the time. His assistant, C.J. Parsons, was played by Pamela Hensley, whom I recognized as Princess Ardala from Buck Rogers. My favorite part of the show was the Apple II computer, affectionately named Baby, which happened to have information on every single person on the planet.
Moonlighting (1985 - 1989)
This show ran for 5 seasons and a measly 66 episodes. I really wish they had made more, since it was a lot of fun to watch, especially with Bruce Willis' character driving Cybill Shepherd's character mad!
That's right, Moonlighting starred hunky action man Bruce Willis with sultry Cybil Shepherd, creating a dynamic chemistry that few shows have ever rivaled.
Murder, She Wrote (1984 - 1996)
Angela Lansbury starred as detective and mystery writer Jessica Fletcher. This series ran for an unbelievable 12 seasons, 260 episodes and even 4 TV movies! A retired English teacher turned writer, Jessica had a knack for having murders happen all around her. Even though she lived in a quiet little town named Cabot Cove in Maine, the murders kept coming. The show was mischievous and downright fun. I highly suggest everyone take the time to watch a few episodes.
Ohara (1987 - 1988)
I found this series very interesting, since it starred Pat Morita from Karate Kid fame as Lt. Ohara, an unconventional cop who preferred to solve crimes without a gun or a partner. This was the first television series to have a Japanese-American actor in a lead role. It only ran for 2 seasons and 30 episodes, but is what I consider a diamond in the rough. Check it out!
Quincy M.E. (1976 - 1983)
This series began in the 70s, but carried over into the 80s, so I decided to include it. It ran for 8 seasons and 148 episodes, starring Jack Klugman in the lead role as Quincy. Focusing on crime solving from the point of view of a medical examiner, Quincy ME was a precursor to the now common C.S.I. format of shows. Using deduction, asking the tough questions and investigating the evidence, Quincy regularly comes into conflict with his boss and police officers, yet always manages to solve the crimes.
Remington Steele (1982 - 1987)
This show starred Pierce Brosnan as Remington Steele and Stephanie Zimbalist as Laura Holt. After creating a fictitious male boss in order to bring business into her detective agency, Laura accepts a new partner to play the part and take on the persona of Remington Steele.
Remington Steele ran for 5 seasons and 94 episodes. The show was fun, flirtatious and full of mystery. I loved it!
Riptide (1984 - 1986)
This series ran for 3 seasons with 56 episodes. It focused on two former army buddies, Cody Allen (Perry King) and Nick Ryder (Joe Penny), as they opened Pier 56 Detective Agency. They quickly realized that technology was a big part of detective work and recruited Murray Boz Bozinsky (Thom Bray), another friend they met in the army, as their resident computer genius. The business was renamed Rip Tide Detective Agency, operating out of a boat called "The Rip Tide." My favorite part of the show was the vehicles they used, in particular the Sikorsky S-58T helicopter named the "Screaming Mimi."
Scarecrow and Mrs. King (1983 - 1987)
The premise of Scarecrow and Mrs. King was simple. Mrs. King (Kate Jackson) was an ordinary divorced mom who inadvertently got mixed up with a spy by the codename of Scarecrow (Bruce Boxleitner), and for 4 seasons and 88 episodes the pair were simply a delight to watch in action. I mean, the Tron and one of the Charlie's Angels was a winning combination from the start! My favorite part of the show was the growing emotional tension between the two, which eventually led to... Do you really think I'm going to tell you? Watch the show!
Simon & Simon (1981 - 1989)
Take two brothers, Rick (Gerald McRaney) and A.J. (Jameson Parker), one a Marine Corp Vietnam veteran and the other with college book smarts, and you get the Simon & Simon Detective Agency. Lots of fun, plenty of action and good undercover work. They were quirky, with endless conflicts between them, yet I couldn't stop watching.
Sledge Hammer! (1986 - 1988)
Once again I can hear the critics! "But Sledge Hammer is a comedy," they say. "It shouldn't be on this list!" Well, Inspector Sledge Hammer had a big gun, he solved crimes for the most part, and for some reason he was successful. Was this show primarily a comedy? Yes. I just felt the need to add it for a feeling of completeness. It ran for 2 seasons and 41 episodes of crime solving hijinks, starring David Rasche as Inspector Sledge Hammer.
Spenser: For Hire (1985 - 1988)
Starring the handsome Robert Urich as Spencer and Avery Brooks as his associate and muscle Hawk, this series ran for 3 seasons, 66 episodes and 4 TV movies. I can't say enough good things about Robert Urich. The man was simply a fantastic actor. And being a science fiction fan myself, I can tell you that Avery Brooks went on to be Captain Sisko in Deep Space Nine.
Stingray (1985 - 1987)
The series ran for 2 seasons and 24 episodes. Yes, it featured a main character known only as Ray (Nick Mancuso) who drove a 1965 Black Stingray. Ray helped those in trouble and worked through advertisements in the newspaper. The advertisements were coded so that only people who learned about Ray by word of mouth could understood their true meaning and contact him for help. Mysterious, eh?
T.J. Hooker (1982 - 1986)
William Shatner, the Captain of all Science Fiction, starred as 15-year police sergeant T.J. Hooker. Supporting cast included Heather Locklear, Adrian Zmed and Richard Herd. It ran for 4 seasons and a total of 72 episodes. Come on, it was William Shatner! You have to watch it!
The A-Team (1983 - 1987)
Although The A-Team features an admittedly unorthodox team of investigators and problem solvers, I felt the need to include them in this detective list. These were soldiers turned mercenaries after being wrongly accused of a crime they did not commit. The series ran for 5 seasons and 98 episodes, starring George Peppard, Dwight Schultz, Dirk Benedict and Mr. T. There were a lot (and I mean A LOT) of explosions! I don't believe there was a single episode where guns were not fired and something did not blow up. Despite this, I don't remember ever seeing anyone get killed. In all, I have to say that the show was great fun with catchy intro music.
The Equalizer (1985 - 1989)
Easily one of my favorite crime dramas of the 80s, this show was popular because not only did the good guys win most of the time, they truly went all out in the pursuit of justice. The series ran for 4 seasons and 88 episodes, starring Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, a former secret agent from the U.S. Government Intelligence. With his experience, top-level connections and mercenary hook-ups, there was nothing that McCall was not willing to take on or able to overcome. If you want to see a series with a fantastic hero, The Equalizer is your show.
The Fall Guy (1981 - 1986)
The Fall Guy was not strictly a detective show, but nevertheless featured ample investigation and undercover work. Cult Seavers (Lee Majors), is a Hollywood stunt man who works as a bounty hunter for extra money on the side. Douglas Barr, Heather Thomas and Markie Post rounded out the supporting cast and they were great at the job. The show featured a lot of special effects and high-flying stunts, which made it stand out from the rest of the shows from the period. This show was always a pleasure to watch, partially because so many stars made cameo appearances during the series. It ran for 5 seasons and 113 episodes.
VEGA$ (1978 - 1981)
Once again starring the wonderful Robert Urich, this time as Private Investigator Dan Tanna, VEGA$ ran for 3 seasons and 69 episodes. Featuring the bright lights of Vegas, the show focused on mysteries in and around the city. Like the city itself, it sometimes bordered on the ridiculous, but the investigative work was solid. Did I mention it starred Robert Urich?
List of Shows with Title, Actors, and Years on Air
Years on Air
21 Jump Street
Holly Robinson Peete, Johnny Depp, Peter DeLuise, Dustin Nguyen
Cagney and Lacey
Tyne Daly, Sharon Gless
John Forsythe, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, David Doyle
Larry Wilcox, Erick Estrada
Hardcastle and McCormick
Brian Keith, David Hugh Kelly
Hart to Hart
Robert Wagner, Stefanie Powers
Hill Street Blues
Daniel J. Travanti, Michael Warren
Fred Dryer, Stepfanie Kramer
Jake and the Fatman
William Conrad, Joe Penny
Tom Selleck, John Hillerman
Lee Horsley, Pamela Hensley
Bruce Willis, Cybil Shepherd
Murder, She Wrote
Pierce Brosnan, Stephanie Zimbalist
Perry King, Joe Penny, Thom Bray
Simon & Simon
Gerald McRaney, Jameson Parker
David Rasche, Anne-Marie Martin
Spenser: For Hire
Robert Urich, Avery Brooks
William Shatner, Heather Locklear
George Peppard, Dwight Schultz, Dirk Benedict, Mr. T.
The Fall Guy
Lee Majors, Douglas Barr, Heather Thomas, Markie Post
The Bottom Line
The 80s were so chock-full of crime dramas, cop, and detective shows that you could almost earn a diploma in criminology just by watching television. Many of these shows were what we would call cheesy by today's standards, but they were fun, quirky and even sometimes managed to pull on the heartstrings.
Having two older brothers, I grew up watching either science fiction or crime dramas and action shows. Many of my personal heroes came from the characters in some of the shows you have seen here.
I hope that you enjoyed this list as much as I did putting it together!