The Most Cringeworthy TV Shows Of The 1980s
By Sarah Norman | October 19, 2023
Ah, the 1980s, a decade that gave us Rubik's Cubes, neon leg warmers, and some of the most cringe-worthy television shows ever concocted. For those who lived through it, these shows are a nostalgic trip down the rabbit hole of shoulder pads, mullets, and laugh tracks that were a bit too enthusiastic. But for those who didn't witness the '80s firsthand, get ready to dive into a world of TV oddities that feel like fever dreams and make you question the very fabric of the space-time continuum. From "Charles in Charge" to "Small Wonder," and obscurities like "Misfits of Science" and "The Phoenix," this gallery is a cringe-worthy time capsule you won't want to miss. So whether you're here for the nostalgia or simply to satisfy your curiosity about these '80s TV abominations, let's journey together through the worst the era had to offer. Click on to see the "best" of the worst!
"Manimal," a television debacle from the 1980s, is an unforgettable testament to the era's penchant for absurd genre-bending experiments. Hitting the screens in 1983, this gem of a show tracked the misadventures of Dr. Jonathan Chase, a man so mysterious and wealthy that even his ability to morph into various animals couldn't save the day. While the premise might have raised an eyebrow or two, "Manimal" spectacularly crashed and burned in execution. Its special effects were as convincing as a cardboard cutout, and the plotlines could have been written by a bot on autopilot. Despite its undoubtedly tiny but fervent fanbase, "Manimal" stumbled through eight episodes before mercifully being put out of its misery. It now stands as a remarkable relic of a bygone era, celebrated more for its audacious missteps than any lasting impact on the annals of television history.
The Powers of Matthew Star
Oh, "The Powers of Matthew Star," that jewel of absurdity from the '80s. With Peter Barton as the intergalactic prince-slash-high school student, Matthew "E'Hawke" Star, who knew fighting crime while juggling algebra homework could be so outlandishly entertaining? And let's not forget his girlfriend, Pam, played by Amy Steel, who must have had the patience of a saint to put up with all the extraterrestrial drama. Of course, it wouldn't be complete without Louis Gossett Jr. as Walt "D'Hai" Shepherd, the guardian with a baffling name. This series was like a masterclass in how to take a potentially intriguing concept and then completely botch it with convoluted storytelling and execution that left viewers scratching their heads. "The Powers of Matthew Star" proved that even a captivating idea can get lost in the murky waters of befuddling plots and lackluster execution, ensuring its swift demise after a single, head-scratching season.
You remember "Small Wonder," right? The series where a brilliant robotics engineer decided the best way to navigate the trials of parenthood was to create a lifelike android daughter named Vicki. Because, you know, who needs to go through the inconvenience of childbirth when you can build your offspring from nuts, bolts, and a dash of misplaced ingenuity?
While the '80s were indeed a time of technological marvels, the idea of a mechanical child lurking in your family photos was, well, let's say, a tad bizarre. Vicki's robotic stiffness didn't exactly help matters, making her about as relatable as a toaster with pigtails. Sure, "Small Wonder" had its moments of unintentional hilarity, but embracing this peculiar premise was like trying to hug a laptop—it just didn't quite compute for most viewers.
"Q.E.D.," the failed 1980s TV show, sounds like a quirky concoction of misplaced brilliance and dubious plotlines. Sam Waterston stars as Quentin E. Deverille, an American professor laughed out of Harvard for daring to dream of transmitting pictures and sound through the air in 1912—a time when people were still figuring out telephones. He packs up his absurd ambition and heads to England, hoping to find a more receptive audience but ends up fighting crime instead. With a trusty butler, a resourceful secretary, and an arch-villain named Dr. Stefan Kilkiss, it's a head-spinning blend of invention and improbability. While "Q.E.D." might not have won any awards for historical accuracy or compelling storytelling, it might just serve as an amusing binge-watch for those in need of an offbeat, sick-day distraction.
The television series "AKA Pablo" appeared to have all the right ingredients for success, with acclaimed producer Norman Lear at the helm and the talented Latino stand-up comic Paul Rodriguez in the lead role. However, despite its promising start, the show was a colossal failure. The series aimed to provide a platform for Latino representation in American television, but it struggled to find its footing. With only six episodes aired before its cancellation, "AKA Pablo" fell short of expectations. Its inability to resonate with a wider audience may have been due to issues with the show's humor or its inability to find a broad appeal, ultimately rendering it a missed opportunity in the realm of diverse representation on television.
Life With Lucy
"Life With Lucy" marked the ill-fated end to Lucille Ball's illustrious television career. Notably, it was the only one of her sitcoms that did not air on CBS, and it became her final project before her passing in 1989. Unfortunately, the series was plagued by a lackluster reception, both in terms of ratings and critical acclaim. Only eight out of the 13 episodes produced were aired before ABC pulled the plug, a stark departure from Ball's history of television successes. The show's inability to capture the magic of her earlier work left both Ball and her fans deeply disappointed. It was reported that she was devastated by the show's failure, which led her to abandon any future attempts at another series or feature film, marking the end of an era in television history.
She's the Sheriff
"She's The Sheriff," the much-hyped return of Suzanne Somers after the glory days of "Three's Company." It was supposed to be NBC's savior in their "Prime Time Begins at 7:30" campaign, a valiant effort to rescue viewers from the clutches of game shows and reruns. But let's face it, the only thing this experiment rescued was a few wasted time slots. Despite snagging a second season, it was shuffled off to the weekend graveyard, signaling the show's impending doom. Apparently, even Suzanne Somers couldn't sprinkle enough stardust on this dud to make it fly. "She's The Sheriff" was a stark reminder that even the most beloved stars can't always salvage a sinking ship in the cutthroat world of television.
Ace Crawford, Private Eye
"Ace Crawford, Private Eye" was a short-lived and quirky television series that attempted to parody the "hard-boiled detective" genre. Lasting just five episodes, the show's brief run left many scratching their heads as to why it failed to connect with viewers. Perhaps it was too high-concept or simply too silly for its time, as it attempted to blend humor with the detective genre in an era when viewers may have been seeking more serious fare. Whatever the reason, the series ultimately flopped, serving as a reminder that not all attempts at subverting established genres can find success, even if they bring a unique and playful twist to the table.
"Beyond Westworld" is a masterclass in squandering potential. Here was a chance to expand on the intriguing world of "Westworld" from that '73 film, and they fumbled it spectacularly. It's not like they had the budget to match the original's grandeur; instead, they brought us a watered-down version of sophistication and technology that was more "Westworld on a shoestring." And who could forget those heady concepts that felt like they were competing for a PhD thesis rather than primetime viewers' attention spans? Clearly, the folks behind "Beyond Westworld" missed the memo that TV audiences wanted immediate gratification, not a slow, thoughtful journey into cerebral sci-fi. With budget constraints and a total misalignment with what viewers wanted, it's no wonder this show met its inevitable demise.
Woof, "Concrete Cowboys" is the epitome of a show that never quite made it out of the starting gate. Even the return of Jerry Reed couldn't save this trainwreck, which lasted a whopping seven whole episodes – a Herculean feat in itself. It's no wonder it got the axe so unceremoniously.
Who could blame the viewers for not recognizing this forgettable mess? The premise, or whatever you could call it, was as memorable as last week's expired milk in the fridge. Two cowboys in a beat-up camper gambling their way through life – now there's a recipe for success. Or not. "Concrete Cowboys" might as well have been a mirage, fading into obscurity faster than you can say "What's this show even about again?" It's almost impressive how a series can fail so spectacularly to connect with an audience that couldn't even remember the film it was supposedly based on.
Misfits of Science
"Misfits of Science," the 1985 television series that ambitiously combined comedy, fantasy, and science fiction, failed to find its footing with viewers. The show's premise, a group of individuals with superpowers brought together by their unique abilities, was intriguing, but it struggled to strike the right balance between campy humor and compelling storytelling. Dean Paul Martin, son of the legendary Dean Martin, played the role of Dr. Billy Hayes, the team's leader without superpowers. While the series aimed for a tongue-in-cheek approach, it couldn't compete with the more serious offerings of its time, particularly its unfortunate timeslot opposite the immensely popular "Dallas." The result was a short-lived and forgotten show that, despite its quirky premise, couldn't quite capture the audience's imagination in the competitive landscape of 1980s television.
The Nutt House
"The Nutt House," a short-lived 1980s TV show co-created by the comedic genius Mel Brooks and Alan Spencer, had all the comedic pedigree one could ask for. Premiering on NBC in September 1989, the series was set in the once-elegant, now-dilapidated Nutt House hotel and was staffed by a colorful cast of eccentric characters.
Cloris Leachman took on the dual role of the hotel's owner, Edwina Nutt, and the head housekeeper, Ms. Frick, while Harvey Korman played the beleaguered manager, Reginald T. Turkington. Despite receiving positive reviews for its zany humor and talented cast, the show couldn't find its audience and was abruptly canceled after just a month, from September 20 to October 25, 1989. While it had the right comedic ingredients, "The Nutt House" sadly remains a forgotten would-be gem in the world of television comedy.
For those of you who missed it (i.e. everyone), "The Phoenix" was spectacular flameout of a superhero show. Airing for a mere blip on the TV radar from March 19 to April 16, 1982, it was an experiment in how not to make a superhero series. Judson Scott, our extraterrestrial savior Bennu of the Golden Light, woke up from his cosmic nap in Peru with a resume full of noble virtues – he was socially responsible, non-violent, and even had an eco-friendly vibe going for him. His superpowers came courtesy of a Phoenix amulet that apparently moonlighted as a solar panel. His grand mission? Finding his long-lost mate, Mira. Too bad the showrunners managed to film just a fraction of the episodes they had planned, leaving viewers with a storyline as incomplete as Bennu's search for love. "The Phoenix" might have been ahead of its time, but let's be real, it was just plain ahead of any coherent plot or narrative structure.
Charles in Charge
"Charles in Charge," a 1980s TV show, followed the quirky premise of a college student named Charles, played by Scott Baio, who took on the role of a live-in babysitter for a family. Alongside his goofy friend Buddy, portrayed by Willie Aames, Charles navigated the challenges of hanging out with younger kids for some inexplicable reason. Despite its five-season run and a considerable number of episodes in syndication, the show hasn't aged well in the collective memory and is often regarded as a cultural joke rather than a fondly remembered classic.
Its peculiar premise and perhaps the changing cultural norms around adults interacting with children likely contributed to its fading popularity, turning it into a quirky footnote in the annals of '80s television.
"Webster," the 1980s TV show, attempted to blend a mix of controversial themes with a familiar formula inspired by the success of "Diff'rent Strokes." The premise of a retired football player and his wife adopting a young boy who was the son of the father's former teammate, killed in an accident, was indeed unconventional for its time. While it sought to explore complex issues of race, family dynamics, and grief, watching it today can feel misguided at best. The show seemed to struggle with finding a balanced tone, often veering between heartwarming moments and attempts at humor that sometimes fell flat. While it did have its moments of charm and genuine emotion, "Webster" remains a reminder of the challenges in addressing sensitive topics within the confines of a sitcom, especially when compared to the more successful and nuanced approach of its predecessor, "Diff'rent Strokes."
We Got It Made
"We Got It Made," the 1983 TV show, initially starred Teri Copley as a young woman working as a maid for two bachelors in New York City. Despite a promising premise, the series struggled to find its footing and was canceled after just one season. In a bid to salvage the concept, the show was retooled and re-premiered in 1987 with the same title but a slightly altered premise, retaining only two of the original cast members. Unfortunately, this second attempt failed to garner any significant success or critical acclaim, airing only in syndication during its second season. The show's persistent critical panning and inability to resonate with audiences ultimately marked its legacy as a short-lived and unsuccessful television venture in the 1980s.
"Automan," the '80s TV show that tried to be more than it really was. Desi Arnaz, Jr. stepped into the shoes of Walter Nebicher, a computer guru with dreams of becoming a cop, and introduced us to the magical world of holographic heroism with Otto J. Mann. Too bad Walter's computer tricks couldn't conjure up a clear identity or a compelling plot. It's not like "Scarecrow and Mrs. King" or "TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes" were setting the world on fire, but even they looked like Shakespearean masterpieces compared to this head-scratcher. "Automan" limped along for 13 episodes, with the 14th wisely locked away forever, leaving us all wondering what it was trying to achieve and why we bothered in the first place.
"B.A.D. Cats" (Burglary Auto Detail, Commercial Auto Thefts) was a short-lived crime drama from the 1980s that failed to make a lasting impact on television. Starring Asher Brauner as Nick Donovan and Steve Hanks as Ocee James, two former race car drivers recruited by the LAPD for their exceptional driving abilities, the show attempted to introduce a new twist to the crime-fighting genre. Alongside them was Michelle Pfeiffer as Officer Samantha "Sunshine" Jensen. Despite its promising premise, "B.A.D. Cats" struggled to gain traction with audiences and was canceled after airing just six episodes, leaving four episodes unaired. The series' throwback style to 1970s crime dramas may have felt out of touch with the evolving tastes of viewers in the 1980s, contributing to its swift demise and fading into obscurity.
"Blacke's Magic," a 1980s TV series, attempted a unique blend of magic and crime-solving but ultimately failed to capture viewers' interest. Starring Hal Linden as Alexander Blacke, a retired magician who reluctantly returns to solving crimes after a near-death experience, the show introduced an unusual partnership with his con man father, Leonard, portrayed by Harry Morgan. Together, they used their combined skills in sleight of hand and deception to crack even the most perplexing cases. However, the premise, while intriguing on paper, struggled to find its footing and felt rather absurd to some viewers, contributing to its demise. With a run of only 13 episodes that aired from January to May 1986, "Blacke's Magic" failed to resonate with audiences and faded into obscurity as a peculiar and ultimately unsuccessful venture in the realm of crime drama.
"Breaking Away," the 1980s TV series inspired by the 1979 movie of the same name, featured Shaun Cassidy in the lead role of Dave Stohler, a passionate bicycle racer. Although Shaun Cassidy had achieved teen idol status with "The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries," the show faced several challenges that ultimately led to its downfall. The 1980 Screen Actors Guild strike delayed production until the fall, affecting its momentum. Despite significant promotion by ABC, the series struggled to attract viewers once it hit the airwaves. After airing just seven of the eight filmed episodes, "Breaking Away" was pulled from the schedule, running from November 29, 1980, to January 10, 1981. Some critics argue that the show may have been overly self-important, failing to recognize its status as a schlocky primetime series, which likely contributed to its lackluster performance and ultimate failure.
The Devlin Connection
"The Devlin Connection," a 1980s TV show, featured Hollywood icon Rock Hudson alongside Jack Scalia in a private detective series that failed to find its footing. Airing on NBC for a mere 13 episodes from October 2 to December 25, 1982, the show followed Brian Devlin (Rock Hudson), a retired military intelligence officer who discovers he has a grown son, Nick Corsello (Jack Scalia), working as a struggling private detective. While the premise of a father-son detective duo had potential, the series struggled to stand out in a crowded TV landscape. Hindered by production delays caused by a screenwriters strike and Hudson's heart surgery, "The Devlin Connection" got off to a sluggish start and never fully realized its characters' potential.
Hudson himself expressed disappointment in the show's lack of development for the father-son dynamic and the absence of comedic elements, ultimately expressing relief when the series was canceled, acknowledging its lack of excitement and missed opportunities when it came to building up the character.
Fathers and Sons
"Fathers and Sons," a short-lived 1980s sitcom, featured former football player Merlin Olsen as Buddy Landau, an enthusiastic sports lover who takes on the role of coaching his son, Lanny, and his baseball team. However, the twist in the show was that Lanny had no natural talent for the sport and was participating solely to please his dad. Airing for just four episodes on NBC from April 6 to May 4, 1986, "Fathers and Sons" attempted to generate comedy through the interactions between Buddy and the players on his son's team.
The series seemed to draw inspiration from the classic sports comedy "The Bad News Bears," but it lacked the boldness and edge to fully commit to a similar style, likely aiming for a more "family-friendly" approach, which ultimately hindered its appeal and led to its quick demise.
"Gung Ho," the small-screen reincarnation of the 1986 cinematic 'masterpiece,' had all the allure of a rusty car on a used car lot. With Scott Bakula playing the charismatic Hunt Stevenson, viewers were treated to the riveting saga of an auto plant in the bustling metropolis of Hadleyville, Pennsylvania, because nothing says 'must-watch TV' like the gritty world of car manufacturing, right? Assan Motors, a Japanese company, swoops in to manage the plant, sparking what the creators thought was comedic gold: the clash of cultures! Oh, the hilarity that ensues when you pit American workers against their Japanese counterparts. But alas, this show might as well have handed viewers a one-way ticket to 'Depression-ville,' with its attempts at addressing globalization and job displacement. Finding that elusive sweet spot between comedy and social commentary? Well, let's just say they might as well have been searching for the Holy Grail. "Gung Ho" aired from December 5, 1986, to June 27, 1987, before slipping into the annals of TV's forgotten treasures.
"Hardball," a short-lived 1980s cop show, struggled to leave a lasting impression despite its promising premise. The series followed plainclothes cop Charlie "C.B." Battles, played by John Ashton, a seasoned veteran of the force who was given the ultimatum to retire or partner with the young and brash Joe "Kaz" Kaczierowski, portrayed by Richard Tyson.
With distinctly different approaches to enforcing the law, their contrasting styles often clashed. Unfortunately, "Hardball" failed to make a mark primarily because it seemed to be riding on the coattails of successful films like "48 Hours" and "Beverly Hills Cop" without bringing anything genuinely innovative to the cop show genre.
This lack of originality and failure to offer a fresh take ultimately led to the show's short run, lasting for only 18 episodes from September 21, 1989, to June 29, 1990.
"Helltown," the 1980s TV series starring Robert Blake as Father Noah "Hardstep" Rivers, faced an uphill battle from the start. Set in a tough East LA neighborhood, the show followed the exploits of the street-smart priest as he navigated the challenges of his parish at St. Dominic's.
Unfortunately, "Helltown" suffered from several factors that contributed to its failure. The character of Father Noah Rivers was often perceived as a rehash of Blake's famous cop role in "Baretta" from the 1970s, making it difficult for the audience to see anything new in his portrayal. Additionally, airing on NBC against the popular "Dynasty" on ABC put it at a significant disadvantage in terms of viewership. This combination of factors led to a short-lived run of just 15 episodes, airing from September 4, 1985, to December 25, 1985, and ultimately, "Helltown" disappeared into obscurity.
"The Highwayman," an adventure series that aired on NBC in 1988, struggled to find its place in the world of television. Starring Sam Jones, known for his role in "Flash Gordon," as the titular character, a US Marshal in a futuristic setting, the show aimed to blend elements of "Mad Max" and "Knight Rider." Critics and viewers found it challenging to connect with a series that appeared to be chasing the success of two vastly different types of science fiction. "The Highwayman" faced budget constraints that hindered its ability to fully realize its futuristic vision, ultimately contributing to its short run, airing from March 4, 1988, to May 6, 1988. In hindsight, the series might have fared better by exploring a more unique and innovative concept instead of attempting to emulate the success of established franchises.
The Last Precinct
"The Last Precinct," a short-lived TV series from the 1980s, struggled to find its audience and make a lasting impact. Airing on NBC from April 11, 1986, to May 30, 1986, the show was widely perceived as an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the "Police Academy" movies on the big screen. The 56th Precinct, humorously known as The Last Precinct, served as a repository for LAPD officers who seemed ill-suited for law enforcement careers. While the series featured a diverse and quirky cast of characters, including Jonathan Perpich as Price Pascall, Ernie Hudson as Sgt. "Night Train" Lane, and Adam West as Capt. Robert Wright, it never managed to resonate with viewers. The show's attempt to replicate the success of the "Police Academy" films, which were already losing steam in popularity by 1986, combined with stiff competition from the ratings powerhouse "Dallas," ultimately led to its quick demise and failure to gain traction with audiences.
"Maggie Briggs," a short-lived TV series co-created by Suzanne Pleshette, faced challenges that prevented it from resonating with viewers. Airing on CBS from March 4, 1984, to April 15, 1984, the show centered around the character Maggie Briggs, portrayed by Suzanne Pleshette, who worked for the financially struggling New York Examiner. The newspaper's attempt to revamp its image with a new feature called Modern Living led to Maggie being assigned to write lighter, fluffier pieces, a departure from her usual hard-hitting human interest stories. Unfortunately, the series struggled to connect with the audience, as the concept of a journalist grappling with a change in her career focus didn't capture viewers' interest.
While future TV programs found ways to successfully explore similar themes, "Maggie Briggs" failed to strike a chord with audiences, ultimately contributing to its short-lived run and lack of enduring appeal.
The 1980s TV show "Nero Wolfe" had the potential to be a unique addition to the detective genre, with William Conrad portraying the reclusive and orchid-loving detective Nero Wolfe, based on Rex Stout's iconic character. Lee Horsley played his able-bodied assistant, Archie Goodwin. Conrad, known for his distinctive voice, embraced the role as he relished playing a detective who delegated the legwork to others. However, the show struggled to find its audience, particularly in an era when viewers were accustomed to high-action series like "The Dukes of Hazzard." Audiences seemed less interested in a detective who primarily sat around admiring orchids, which ultimately contributed to the series' downfall. Airing on NBC from January 16, 1981, to August 25, 1981, "Nero Wolfe" failed to gain traction and became a short-lived footnote in the world of television detective dramas.
"Private Eye," the 1987 TV series set in 1950s Hollywood, could have been something special, but it seemed to suffer from a case of budgetary amnesia. With a whopping $6.5 million spent on the pilot alone to recreate the '50s ambiance with cars, clothes, and sets, it was clear that they were trying to buy their way into success. Unfortunately, even with an $18 million budget for the remaining 11 episodes, the show couldn't quite crack the code of creating a compelling narrative or attracting a dedicated audience. Despite the familiar "good cop gone private detective" trope and the presence of future star Josh Brolin, "Private Eye" failed to live up to its potential, ultimately proving that money can't always buy success in the world of television.