In some ways, the state of action on TV has never been better. Shows like The Mandalorian, The Witcher, and Stranger Things pile on the action with massive setpieces and blockbuster movie budgets, and they’re endlessly entertaining. But for fans of pure action, something about them feels a bit off. Between the mostly serial nature of these series, their film-quality production values, and their nerdy genre settings, the action often takes a backseat. No one would describe these series as “action first.” They’re basically sci-fi and fantasy movies that have broken up into TV episodes. There’s action, but the focus is mainly on mythology, characters, and world-building. The truth is, action TV’s heyday has long gone, as the genre reached its peak during the 1980s. Play your preferred nostalgic ’80s song in your head here.
Throughout modern history, movies have influenced what is popular on TV. The reason why shows like Stranger Things and The Mandalorian are popular is because science-fiction and nerd culture have come to dominate the box office over the past decade. The same was true of Westerns in the ’50 and ’60s, and it was true in the ’80s with action films. Non-genre action movies had their moment in the 1980s, and the genre hasn’t been able to find the same kind of success since. In 1985, Rambo II placed second at the box office for the year. Second! That is unimaginable today. Last year’s Rambo: Last Blood finished 62nd at the box office for the year. It also made over $200 million less than Rambo II made in 1985, and that’s without accounting for inflation. Action movies were big business in the 1980s, and the same was true for action TV in the decade.
When thinking of ’80s television, it’s hard not to picture the action TV shows of the day. Shows like Magnum P.I., Knight Rider, The A-Team, MacGyver, and Miami Vice all left a massive impact on pop culture that is still felt today. And each of these shows, no matter how different they were from each other, all featured a few of the same key features that helped make them so impactful.
The Cool Lead
In each of the five series mentioned, the lead character or characters are cooler than cool. Tom Selleck’s Magnum could charm his way out of any situation, David Hasselhoff’s Michael Knight was shrouded in mystery, Richard Dean Anderson’s MacGyver could turn any household item into a survival device, Don Johnson’s Crockett and Philip Michael Thomas’ Tubbs could blend in seamlessly with Miami’s elite, and Mr. T’s Baracus could conceivably beat up anyone on TV. These were guys you wanted to hang out with and wanted to root for, which made their exploits that much more watchable.
All of these shows had style in spades. From Magnum’s killer mustache and carefree Hawaiian style to Knight’s slick black leather jacket. Mr. T’s look as Baracus, with his mohawk and gold chains, has been imitated often but never duplicated, and even MacGyver managed to make his mullet look badass (at the time, anyway). Then there’s Miami Vice, a show that was invented purely to be stylish. From its music to the pastel sports jackets and T-shirt combos of its characters, the series helped set the tone for men’s fashion in the ’80s.
A good action series is only as good as its vehicles, and the action series of the ’80s had some great ones. Magnum drove a red Ferrari 308, one of the best-looking Ferraris ever made. Miami Vice featured just about every flashy car of the day, along with their iconic 400+ horsepower Scarab powerboats. Members of the A-Team rode around in a Chevy Corvette and literally the coolest van ever… when they weren’t flying around on a helicopter, that is. MacGyver kept things utilitarian with his various Jeeps and vintage pick-up truck, and then there’s Knight Rider. KITT, the suped-up talking Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am, was the true star of the series, outfitted with gadgets and features that people still long for in their cars today. It didn’t hurt that the all-black pony car looked cool as hell, either.
One feature of today’s “peak TV” era has been a focus on serialization. TV shows are now viewed like massive movies that unfold over many episodes, making them perfect for binging. But back in the ’80s, there was no such thing as binging. TV shows had to be able to tell a complete story in their allotted runtime, and action series were no different. Most episodes of these series are able to stand alone, with many featuring one-off bad guys that the heroes must dispose of within 45 minutes. There’s usually at least one chase scene and fight scene thrown in per episode, and it was a great formula that worked well for many years. Maybe someday these types of shows will come back in vogue, but until that day comes, we can always watch ’80s reruns.
CHARGE! is about to make it a lot easier to get your ’80s action TV fix. Beginning on April 6, we’ll be airing both Magnum P.I. and Knight Rider every weekday, so grow a mustache, throw on a Hawaiian shirt, and polish up the Trans Am now.