Rewind to ’86: The Five TV Shows That Captured the Heart of a Decade 

today8 May 2024

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Rewind to ’86: The Five TV Shows That Captured the Heart of a Decade 

 In 1986, television was not just a medium; it was the cultural hearth around which families gathered, ideas sparked, and society found its reflection. This was a year when TV screens were ablaze with stories that shaped and mirrored the complexities of American life. The airwaves were dominated by a diverse array of narratives that went on to become more than shows—they became phenomena that captivated millions, defined entertainment, and broke ground on social issues. 

From the heartwarming family rooms of “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties” to the laughter and camaraderie within “Cheers,” the intriguing mysteries of “Murder, She Wrote,” and the pioneering spirit of “The Golden Girls,” each show was a thread in the fabric of 1986’s pop culture tapestry. They topped ratings charts and sparked conversations in living rooms and water coolers alike, challenging viewers to see the world and its changing values through a new lens. These iconic series not only represented the era’s ethos but actively participated in the evolution of society’s narratives. They didn’t just capture the spirit of the times; they helped to steer it, leaving an indelible mark on the television landscape that is felt even to this day. 


The Cosby Show: Redefining Family Television 

“The Cosby Show” entered the living rooms of America with a refreshing and revolutionary portrayal of the African American experience. Premiering in 1984, it had by 1986 firmly established itself as a cultural staple, shattering stereotypes by showcasing the Huxtables—a successful, loving, and affluent African American family. With its comedic take on everyday life, the show offered a groundbreaking narrative that shifted the television landscape. 

The show’s strength lay in the Huxtable family, led by the affable Heathcliff Huxtable, a doctor played by Bill Cosby, and his wife Clair, a lawyer portrayed with grace and wit by Phylicia Rashad. The dynamic of their five children, ranging from the whimsical Rudy, brought to life by Keshia Knight Pulliam, to the ever-striving Sondra, played by Sabrina Le Beauf, offered a broad canvas of storylines and personalities. Together, they created an on-screen chemistry that resonated authenticity and warmth. 

In 1986, “The Cosby Show” was in its third season, exploring themes from the trials of young love to the challenges of parenting. Episodes like “Golden Anniversary,” where the family prepares an elaborate performance for their grandparents’ wedding anniversary, encapsulated the series’ blend of humor and heart. The season also tackled social issues subtly woven into the fabric of the show, like in “The March,” which addressed civil rights and American history. 

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At a time when the media often depicted African American families through the lens of socio-economic struggle, “The Cosby Show” painted a different picture—one of success, aspirations, and relatable family life. It steered the conversation around race and family towards a more inclusive and positive narrative and played a part in opening the doors for a more diverse representation on television. 

The legacy of “The Cosby Show” is multifaceted. It set a precedent for how African American families could be portrayed in media, and its success proved there was a significant audience for such content. The show’s cultural impact was profound, offering a new perspective on race, family, and middle-class life in America. It influenced a generation of television programming and remains a benchmark for series that seek to entertain while portraying underrepresented segments of society. Despite the controversies surrounding Bill Cosby in recent years, the show’s contributions to changing the television landscape are an integral part of its legacy. 


Family Ties: Bridging the Generational Divide 

In an era when America grappled with shifting cultural and political landscapes, “Family Ties” emerged as a prime-time mirror to the nation’s evolving household dynamics. The show, set against the backdrop of the Reagan years, juxtaposed the liberal baby boomer sensibilities of Steven and Elyse Keaton with the conservative ambitions of their children, particularly their son, Alex P. Keaton. The Keatons embodied the generational gap of the 1980s, with storylines that often centered around the collision of old and new American values within the walls of a suburban Ohio home. 

The series was anchored by Michael J. Fox’s portrayal of Alex, whose precocious conservatism and unapologetic ambition contrasted with his parents’ flower-child ideals. The heartfelt performance of Meredith Baxter as Elyse and Michael Gross as Steven added depth to the familial debates, balancing their nurturing instincts with their own moral and political compasses. Justine Bateman and Tina Yothers, as Mallory and Jennifer, rounded out the Keaton clan, contributing to the diversity of perspectives and the rich familial tapestry that “Family Ties” showcased. 

1986 marked the show’s fifth season, which included memorable episodes like “A Keaton Christmas Carol,” a riff on the Dickens classic that cleverly explored Alex’s materialistic tendencies. Another standout was “Band on the Run,” which humorously pitted the desire for individual expression against the challenges of teamwork and collaboration. 

“Family Ties” adeptly wove contemporary issues into its familial fabric, addressing topics from women’s rights and environmental concerns to the rising tide of corporate culture. It didn’t shy away from the friction of opposing ideologies, instead embracing it to deliver poignant, sometimes laugh-out-loud, lessons in understanding and coexistence. 

The show enjoyed robust ratings, often finding itself in the top ten of the Nielsen charts. The 1986 season continued to captivate audiences, offering both escapism and a platform for reflection. Its critical reception was bolstered by Michael J. Fox’s Emmy win for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, underscoring the show’s quality and the performances that made it resonate with a cross-generational viewership. “Family Ties” didn’t just capture the spirit of the ’80s; it offered a timeless look at the enduring bonds and trials of the American family. 

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Cheers: The Quintessential American Sitcom 

Nestled in the heart of Boston, “Cheers” was the beloved bar where “everybody knows your name,” and which, since its debut in 1982, quickly became America’s most cherished watering hole. This ensemble sitcom, centered around the lives of the bar’s staff and patrons, was a staple of the 1980s television scene. It stood out for its clever writing, endearing characters, and the feeling of camaraderie it fostered, both on-screen and off. 

The charm of “Cheers” lay in its ensemble cast of lovable, quirky characters. Ted Danson starred as Sam Malone, the womanizing bartender and former baseball player, with Rhea Perlman as the feisty waitress Carla Tortelli. Norm Peterson, played by George Wendt, and Cliff Clavin, portrayed by John Ratzenberger, were bar-stool fixtures offering comedic observations on life’s absurdities. Shelley Long’s Diane Chambers provided the intellectual counterpoint to Sam’s laid-back demeanor, creating a dynamic that fueled much of the show’s humor and heart. Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier Crane and Woody Harrelson’s Woody Boyd added further depth and laughter to the Cheers family. 

During its fifth season in 1986, “Cheers” continued to find humor in life’s highs and lows. Notable plotlines included Sam and Diane’s tumultuous relationship, which had fans rooting for their favorite couple amidst the comedic turmoil. The episode “Thanksgiving Orphans” became an instant classic, featuring an impromptu and disastrous Thanksgiving dinner that ended in an all-out food fight, symbolizing the show’s ability to turn everyday situations into memorable moments. 

“Cheers” transcended the boundaries of the sitcom genre to become a cultural phenomenon. It showcased the diversity of American life through the lens of a Boston bar, and its mix of humor and humanity struck a chord with viewers nationwide. The show’s depiction of friendship and community reflected the zeitgeist of the 1980s and provided a comforting, consistent presence. 

The legacy of “Cheers” is evident in the sitcom landscape that followed. Its success paved the way for series like “Frasier,” one of the most successful spin-offs in television history. “Cheers” was a trendsetter in creating a sense of place that viewers wanted to return to week after week. Its balance of witty dialogue, character development, and comedic timing remains a master class for television writers and producers, ensuring that the laughter and legacy of this iconic show will echo in the halls of American pop culture for generations to come. 

Murder, She Wrote: The Sleuth of Prime Time 

“Murder, She Wrote” captivated audiences with its blend of mystery and charm, establishing itself as a Sunday night staple. The series, which debuted in 1984, featured the inimitable Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, a sharp-witted, bicycle-riding mystery writer turned amateur detective. Set in the seemingly tranquil town of Cabot Cove, Maine, the series was a weekly invitation to viewers to test their wits against an array of puzzles and murders. 

Angela Lansbury’s portrayal of Jessica Fletcher was the heart of the show. Her character, with an uncanny knack for solving crimes that baffled law enforcement, became an iconic figure in the genre. Lansbury’s Fletcher was kind, intelligent, and resourceful, qualities that made her relatable and loved by audiences. The supporting cast of characters, including Tom Bosley as Sheriff Amos Tupper and William Windom as Dr. Seth Hazlitt, provided the perfect foil to Jessica’s investigations, often adding humor and a dose of skepticism to the mix. 

The show’s third season in 1986 continued to deliver clever and compelling stories. Episodes like “Magnum on Ice,” which featured a crossover with “Magnum, P.I.,” delighted fans of both series. “Deadline for Murder,” where Jessica goes toe-to-toe with a ruthless newspaper tycoon, showcased the show’s ability to intertwine personal stakes with engrossing mystery. 

“Murder, She Wrote” rejuvenated the whodunit genre for television. At a time when crime shows often focused on hard-boiled detectives and gritty realism, Jessica Fletcher’s genteel approach to sleuthing brought a refreshing change. The series celebrated the intellect and intuition, laying the groundwork for future shows that would blend crime-solving with character-driven storytelling. 

The series and its star garnered critical acclaim, with Angela Lansbury earning a place in the pantheon of beloved TV actors. She received several Emmy Award nominations for her role, while the show itself was lauded for its writing and longevity. Lansbury’s Golden Globe wins for Best Performance by an Actress solidified her and the show’s place in television history. “Murder, She Wrote” remained a top-rated show throughout its twelve-year run, a testament to its enduring appeal and the enchanting world of Cabot Cove that kept audiences returning for a dose of mystery. 


Breaking Boundaries: The Golden Girls and Their Lasting Legacy 

“The Golden Girls” was a television trailblazer that turned the spotlight on a demographic often overlooked by Hollywood: older women. With wit, warmth, and a dose of sass, the show followed the lives of four single women sharing a home in Miami, tackling the golden years with humor and grace. Premiering in 1985, by 1986, the sitcom had not only amassed a loyal following but had also changed the narrative around aging, proving that life, indeed, could begin anew at any age. 


The remarkable chemistry among the main cast was the linchpin of the show’s success. Bea Arthur’s Dorothy Zbornak was the dry, sarcastic substitute teacher with a heart of gold. Rue McClanahan’s portrayal of the vivacious and flirtatious Blanche Devereaux brought southern charm and sexuality to the forefront. Betty White’s Rose Nylund, the naïve and sweet-natured storyteller from St. Olaf, Minnesota, contrasted brilliantly with the worldly wise and often hilariously blunt Sophia Petrillo, played by Estelle Getty. Together, they formed an endearing and formidable quartet that redefined friendship on television. 

The second season, airing in 1986, brought fans closer to the quartet with episodes that showcased their backstories and deepened their bond. In “Isn’t it Romantic,” the show delved into themes of love and acceptance, featuring a storyline where Dorothy’s friend reveals she is a lesbian and has feelings for Rose, handling the subject matter with tact and heart. “Big Daddy’s Little Lady” offered laughs and lessons as Blanche grapples with her father’s engagement to a younger woman. 

“The Golden Girls” approached topics such as aging, sexuality, and friendship with groundbreaking candor. It addressed the trials and triumphs of the senior years without patronizing, from the excitement of dating to the reality of health issues, thereby challenging the stereotypes associated with older age. The show was unafraid to handle topics like same-sex relationships, ageism, and even AIDS with a progressive attitude that was rare for its time. 

The show’s cultural impact has been profound, earning a place in the annals of television history. Its honest portrayal of the lives of older women won it critical acclaim and a devoted fan base. Awards were numerous, including several Emmys and Golden Globes, affirming its quality and significance. The show’s frank discussion of issues previously considered taboo for the silver screen opened doors for more honest storytelling in television, with “The Golden Girls” fondly remembered as pioneers who brightened the landscape of prime-time TV with their golden humor and hearts. 


1986—A Year of Transformative Television 

The television landscape of 1986 was rich with narratives that not only entertained but also mirrored and molded societal discourse. Shows like “The Cosby Show,” “Family Ties,” “Cheers,” “Murder, She Wrote,” and “The Golden Girls” each carved their own niche while collectively enriching the cultural fabric of the era. These series brought diversity to the screen in various forms—from family dynamics and political beliefs to discussions of age and the complexities of life itself. 

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These programs shared a common thread: they were groundbreaking in their storytelling and unafraid to tackle issues that were relevant to their times. “The Cosby Show” redefined racial representation, “Family Ties” highlighted the generational divide during a politically conservative era, “Cheers” celebrated camaraderie in diversity, “Murder, She Wrote” challenged ageist stereotypes, and “The Golden Girls” boldly narrated the lives of older women with humor and poignancy. 


The legacy of 1986 set a formidable stage for future television programming, proving that the medium could be both reflective and directive in cultural conversations. The popularity and critical acclaim of these shows helped to pave the way for more daring and diverse content, inspiring a generation of writers and creators to push the boundaries of what TV could achieve. As a result, 1986 stands as a pivotal year that not only captured the imagination of viewers across the globe but also sparked significant changes in how stories were told and received in the years that followed. 




Written by: Brandon Lawson