1980s Cop Shows: Be Careful Out There

The eighties were a time of big hair, shoulder pads … and television police. It was a loud, brash decade that somehow featured some of the wildest looks and sounds we’ve ever known, but also a strong dip into conservative nostalgia (thanks, Ronald Reagan). And nowhere did those two extremes collide more intensely (if fictionally) than in these classic 1980s cop shows.

Hill Street Blues

Hill Street Blues aired from 1981 to 1987. The show revolves around a police station, with the various officers and detectives responding to emergencies in their own unique ways while engaging with each other’s personal lives on-call – or off-.

Set in an unnamed city, the show is able to portray a wide range of incidents and crimes.

The series ran for seven seasons on NBC, totaling 146 episodes.

Miami Vice

Miami Vice aired from 1984 to 1990. The show is set in Miami, Florida and follows two vice detectives working undercover; one handling drug enforcement operations with specialized tactical equipment, the other involved in high-risk sting operations targeting organized crime figures.

Starring Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas as the show’s two leading men, Miami Vice was noted for its heavy use of 1980s pop culture references.

The opening sequence featured an original score by Jan Hammer (later known for his work on “Miami Vice” theme) backed by a medley of songs that alluded to then-current musical trends in hip hop, heavy metal, pop and new wave.

The show also had a distinctive visual style with innovative use of lighting techniques to give the Miami locales an exotic flavor and making extensive use of video effects such as fish-eye lens long shots for dramatic emphasis.

Miami Vice is noted for its iconic fashion sense and coolness – epitomized by the show’s two lead characters, who were both sharply dressed in stylish 1980s attire.

The stars of Miami Vice became fashion icons and international sex symbols: they appeared on the covers of numerous magazines such as “TV Guide”, “People” and “Rolling Stone”.

The series ran for five seasons on NBC totaling 112 episodes.

Cagney & Lacey

Cagney & Lacey is a police procedural about two female New York City patrol officers. It was one of the first television series to show women in nontraditional roles as law enforcement officials.

The setting is New York City, and the premise deals with their professional lives and personal struggles. The characters are strong-willed women who thrive — though with plenty of backlash — in a male-dominated profession.

The characters generally were not portrayed as on their show. The characters are dressed plainly, with short hair cuts that would fit right into most police departments nationwide.

Cagney & Lacey ran from March 25, 1982- May 16, 1988.

T. J. Hooker

T. J. Hooker was set in Los Angeles and starred William Shatner. The show follows the exploits of Officer T. J. Hooker, a tough veteran cop who takes an eager recruit under his wing to teach them about police work in one of America’s most dangerous cities

Ran from March 13, 1982- May 28, 1986.

21 Jump Street

Set in the 1980s, it follows two young undercover police officers as they graduated from college and try to find a balance between their personal lives and careers. The show ran for five seasons (from 1987-1991).

This show gave the world our first extended look at Johnny Depp’s acting talents, as he played the bad boy undercover cop, Officer Tom Hanson.

Barney Miller

Barney Miller was set in the New York City Police Department’s 12th Precinct. It starred Hal Linden and Ron Glass as two of the precinct’s detectives. Though usually remembered as a 1970s staple, the show extended well into the 1980s, with a full run lasting from 1975 through 1982.

In the Heat of the Night

This show starred Carroll O’Connor as the tough, veteran police chief who runs a small Southern town’s all-white police force. It aired from 1988 to 1992 on NBC, then from 1992 to 1995 on CBS.

(Like 1980s Cop Shows? Then you might like our article on TV Lawyers from the 70s and 80s, click here. Or how about TV Shows from the 50s, click here.)

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