10 forgotten cop shows of the 1980s

Not even Marshal Matt Dillon and Mr. Miyagi could turn these into hits.

Image: The Everett Collection

Cops, doctors, lawyers and cowboys are the backbone of television drama. It's hard to throw a dart at a TV Guide page and not hit a show about one of these professions. 

In the Eighties, the police genre evolved and expended greatly. Two shows in particular, Miami Vice and Hill Street Blues, redefined the cop show, pushing the boundaries of style and narrative. Meanwhile, In the Heat of the Night explored issues of the day with its stellar cast.

Elsewhere, Police Squad! and Sledge Hammer! boldly spoofed the genre with exclamation points. Cagney & Lacey developed strong female leads. Hunter and TJ Hooker cranked up the stunts and car chases.

To understand just how much the cop show evolved in the 1980s, consider this: Hawaii Five-O was wrapping up at the start of the decade. Ten years later, Cop Rock turned the genre into a musical.

In between, there were dozens of failed, fleeting or just plain forgotten shows. Here are some of our favorites.

1. Strike Force

1981–82

Robert Stack was no stranger to violent television. Circa 1960, he was starring in The Untouchables, the T-Men vs. Mobsters classic that was described by the National Association for Better Radio and Television as "not fit for the television screen." Strike Force was similar in many ways, from its premise to the public outcry. Stack, headlining as SCPD Det. Capt. Frank Murphy, led a ragtag team of specialists. They were a quirky bunch. Nevertheless, some labeled Strike Force "the most violent show in American TV history." Certainly, that is no longer the case.

Image: The Everett Collection

2. McClain's Law

1981–82

Before John McClane was swinging from skyscrapers in Die Hard, Jim McClain was keeping detective work old-school on McClain's Law. Former Gunsmoke star James Arness brought his Matt Dillon swagger to the role, playing a cop who comes out of retirement to avenge the murder of a friend. The grizzled veteran, who packed a Smith & Wesson .44, even had to go through training again. It would be Arness' final TV series.

Image: The Everett Collection

3. MacGruder and Loud

1985

Aaron Spelling was a hitmaker. The television creator was hot off successes like Charlie's Angels, The Love Boat and Dynasty. ABC easily greenlit his latest series, about two romantically involved cops who must keep their love a secret from their superiors. The network even pushed MacGruder and Loud hard, showcasing it after the Super Bowl. So many promos ran during the game, that Johnny Carson cracked, "Did you see that new show, Frequent and Loud?" It lasted 14 episodes.

Image: The Everett Collection

4. Hollywood Beat

1985

In the wake of Miami Vice, which plowed through the competition like a cigarette boat, networks attempted to clone the show. Hollywood Beat was one such knock-off, which packed hip cops, pop music, trendy fashion, neon and car chases in a more lighthearted hour. Natalie Cole belted the theme song over a bed of bouncy synthesizers.

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5. The Last Precinct

1986

Stephen J. Cannell — the brain behind The Rockford Files, The A-Team, The Greatest American Hero and 21 Jump Street — also had a cushy post–Super Bowl spot to promote his latest creation. The action producer tried his hand at comedy, casting TV legend Adam West and recent Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson for this Police Academy–ish sitcom. After the Fridge and the rest of the Chicago Bears crushed the Patriots in Super Bowl XX, NBC premiered the show. It held up as well as New England's defense, lasting a mere two months.

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6. Heart of the City

1986–87

TV cops could take down drug lords in the 1980s, but they did not fare well against The Golden Girls. NBC premiered this show opposite Dorothy, Blanche and the gang, and it was drubbed. A drama about a cop father who must raise his two teenage children after his wife's murder, Heart of the City gave Christina Applegate her first major role. This show's failure freed her up for her breakthrough, Married… with Children

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7. Ohara

Most people knew Pat Morita from sitcoms. He was Sam Pak on M*A*S*H, Arnold on Happy Days, Ah Chew on Sanford and Son. The Karate Kid changed all that, turning the veteran actor into a kick-butt, if secretly warm-hearted, action hero. Ohara gave him a chance to star, playing a Japanese-American police lieutenant in L.A. who uses meditation and martial arts in lieu of a gun. Brandon Lee, son of Bruce, appeared in an episode — his only role on television as a villain.

Image: The Everett Collection

8. Crime Story

1986-88

Scheduling is everything. How does a show go from 30 million viewers to a footnote in TV history? Time slots. After Miami Vice, Michael Mann had carte blanche from the studios. His next major television project was this, a brilliant, complex crime series set in Chicago. Dennis Farina, a former Chicago P.D. cop and film consultant, took the lead role, adding a heightened level of realism. A host of rising guest stars — Deborah Harry, Julia Roberts, Ving Rhames, Christian Slater, David Hyde Pierce, Stanley Tucci and Gary Sinise all appeared — setting the mold for prestige television. You can trace The Sopranos back to here, in a sense. Heck, even Miles Davis made an appearance. Alas… NBC moved the series opposite ABC's Moonlighting, a juggernaut with Bruce Willis, and Crime Story reached an abrupt ending.

Image: The Everett Collection

9. Hooperman

1987–89

Hooperman was not the first series to balance comedy and drama — heck, M*A*S*H had just wrapped up a few years earlier — but it does have the distinction of being the first show to be dubbed a "dramedy." Television critics came up with the term to describe this series featuring former Three's Company star John Ritter. The pedigree was strong (and we're not talking about the Jack Russell terrier), with creators Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher, the duo behind L.A. Law. However, the show was pitted against the likes of Magnum, P.I. and Highway to Heaven and never gained a solid footing. It lasted 42 episodes.

Image: The Everett Collection

10. The Oldest Rookie

1987–88

Like McClain's Law, The Oldest Rookie centered around an aging law-enforcement man with an itch to get back in the street. In this case, Paul Sorvino portrayed a pencil pusher who goes from desk to patrol, teaming with a young partner. A few years later, Sorvino would step into the lead in Perry Mason mystery movies, following the death of Raymond Burr.

Image: The Everett Collection

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