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.

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1. Strike Force



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



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



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



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.

Image: The Everett Collection

5. The Last Precinct



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.

Image: The Everett Collection

6. Heart of the City



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

Image: The Everett Collection

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



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



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



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

SEE MORE: 5 forgotten fantasy TV shows of the 1980s


Wizards, witches and Snow White just couldn't click with audiences. READ MORE

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RedSamRackham 16 months ago
* I liked Last Precinct and felt network failed to give it a fair chance! Had some great comedy characters!
DerekBird 34 months ago
I remember 6 of them even though the only one I watched was MacGruder and Loud. Kathryn Harrold. I may have watched Strike Force also but I'm not sure.
Patricia 34 months ago
Love, love loved Crime Story.
WonderGeorge Patricia 10 months ago
So did I, Patricia - I loved it mostly because of the time setting of the series, starting in Chicago, in 1963; for the record, I entered the world on March 7, 1963; on that same day, the Pan Am Building in New York opened to the public.
copeknight 46 months ago
Crime Story was amazing, but it never should have left Chicago, and it should have stayed serialized. You missed the funniest cop comedy ever though: ABC's Sledge Hammer!
MichaelSmith 52 months ago
I noticed there was no room on the list for Lady Blue.
cassidydiva 61 months ago
What about David Cassidy Man Undercover? https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077001/
MarkSpeck cassidydiva 52 months ago
'70's show. The article is about '80's shows.
Delmo 62 months ago
Loved "Strike Force"! You forgot "Private Eye", a short-lived series that aired after Miami Vice(it was created by Anthony Yerkovich, the creator of MV)that took place in '50s Los Angeles starring Michael Woods and a young Josh Brolin as his sidekick. Only 12 episodes.
MarkSpeck Delmo 52 months ago
It was also the only TV show I know of to feature a soundtrack by New Wave pioneer Joe Jackson!
EllisClevenger 63 months ago
No, it wasn't being moved on the schedule that killed 'Crime Story'.
As long as it had that gritty realism, it did fine.
The move to Las Vegas is what killed it.
After the move, it went downhill, fast.
Even an atomic explosion couldn't fix it.
Amalthea 64 months ago
I remember most of these! I wasn't really into cop shows, but some of them were compelling enough to see. I definitely remember enjoying "Hooperman", "Ohara" and especially "Crime Story"...but "Hollywood Beat" was terrible.
gatxer 64 months ago
Is it good or bad that I remember watching almost all of these....the oldest rookie being my Favorite.
Mark 68 months ago
Crime Story...the real-life crime stuff didn't end with Dennis Farina. One of the show's co-creators was Chuck Adamson, Farina's boss on the Chicago force. Even Chicago crooks got in on the act...real-life reformed jewel thief John Santucci played Pauli Taglia, Ray Luca's flunky on the show. Santucci's recurring character was so popular that he was made a full-fledged regular for the second season.
WonderGeorge Mark 10 months ago
That's appropriate, Mark - Chicago natives being given their chance as acting talent.
Mark 68 months ago
The trouble with Ohara was the producers kept changing the premise...when it debuted, Ohara was a member of a special police force (and a very ethnically diverse one, too, with a black and a Hispanic in addition to Ohara). That didn't work, so they scrapped everyone but Morita, brought in Robert Clohessy from the later Hill Street Blues cast, and made them FBI agents. When they noticed that premise wasn't working, they moved Morita and Clohessy to a private detective setting. All this in the span of one and a half seasons!
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