Were 80s action shows actually rubbish?

Rob turns a few sacred cows - from Airwolf to the A-Team - into hamburger meat...

After a hard day at work, I recently sat down with a few pints and a few mates to discuss the important things in life… covering such highbrow topics as whether the Atari ST or the Amiga was better, whether Thor or Superman would win in a fight, and how great imported US telly was, back when we were kids. However, it was pointed out that TV is now is better than it’s ever been, and the glut of good shows coming in from the States makes it difficult to commit to watching them all. We’ve never had it so good! With that in mind, the sheen seems to have come off those glorious 80s imports – when you look back, without all the fond memories clouding your view, is it possible that those 80s action shows weren’t really that good?

This train of thought has been lingering for a few days, backed up this weekend when I was flicking through obscure Sky channels and came across something called D-MAX. It seems to show nothing but Airwolf, Hulk and Knight Rider repeats, and after watching for a few hours (it was a slow Saturday…) I began to come around to my friends’ way of thinking. TV in the 80s was, in all honesty, actually pretty rubbish.

Take, for example, Airwolf. The show I caught had Stringfellow Hawk tootling around his cabin before being visited by Archangel told to sort some stuff out. He and Dom get into Airwolf, employ a lot of stock footage to sort said stuff out, and then finish off with a moral. The end. Repeat 25 times, and you’ve got a whole season.

Same deal with The Hulk, too, one of the many hobo-based shows from the era (Hulk, Kung-Fu, and, erm, The Littlest Hobo). David Banner takes a dead-end job, witnesses something untoward, hulks out (once at the beginning and once at the end) and that’s it. The reason, I guess, for these formulaic shows was that they cost a lot, and the money-shots, such as they were (showing the Hulk onscreen, explosions in A-Team, slow-mo Bionic Man action, the General Lee jumping over something or Blue Thunder blowing stuff up) were the whole reason for watching. The action was the main focus, and the other 40-odd minutes were just filler; as kids, we fell for it hook, line and sinker every week. We’d wait, Knight Rider car or Steve Austin toy in had, for the good bits – but why did we keep coming back every week?

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Well, I can think of a few reasons. One is that there were only five channels to choose from, and it was slim pickings – either an episode of A-Team, Knight Rider, etc, or switching over to The Antiques Roadshow or Songs of Praise. Another is that we didn’t expect much, and were happy to be entertained with anything even slightly action-oriented (remember, this was a time before the Internet, DVD, and computer gaming of any great significances, so we were amused by a lot less back then).

With hindsight, it’s easy to dismiss these shows as crude and lacking imagination. We’ve been spoiled by a smorgasbord of superb telly, and our standards have changed – we expect quality each and every time. (Think: the slating of Heroes season 2, even though it was excellent!) By today’s standards, the average 80s adventures of Magnum, Street Hawk or Automan are dated and weak. But they still deserve our love, because they’re a fundamental part of our cultural history – as much as concrete-based playgrounds, the Beano/Dandy war, or ZX Spectrums. We should collectively be thanking Donald S. Bellasario, Stephen J. Cannell, Frank Lupo and Ken Johnson for bringing these shows to screen, to allow us to escape into a land of fantasy – even if they were written to a formula. It’s only because of these TV pioneers that we even have the likes of Lost, Heroes, and all the other superb shows we enjoy today.