memories of the ’80s – Family Ties

For the 1980s, one family represented the changes in society and tried to make us laugh as well as address social issues in the series Family Ties.

Created by Gary David Goldberg, Family Ties starred Meredith Baxter Birney and Michael Gross as 1960s peace-loving liberal hippies, who in the 1980s are now parents living in Columbus, Ohio raising their three kids.

Their children are young Jennifer (Tina Yothers), self-centered Mallory (Justine Bateman, and Republican capitalist teenager Alex (Michael J. Fox).

The half hour sitcom debuted in 1982 on NBC TV, showcasing the cultural and generational divide between the liberal parents and the consumer driven, money-obsessed kids.

Mallory and Alex epitomized the 1980s, with their ideals driven by the belief in Reagonomics of the time period, while the parents represented the ideals of the past and their younger sister acting as the go-between in generations.

The initial idea of the show was to focus on the parents, but test audiences reacted well to Fox’s Alex P. Keaton and the focus was shifted more to his role in the family and how he relates to his siblings and parents as the oldest child, becoming a man and embracing his conservative ideals.

By its third season, Family Ties was in the top five of television, with all the actors now bonified stars. Michael J. Fox was routinely lauded for his role as Alex, winning the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series three times in a row from 1986-1988.

The series touched on teen situations, showing the different responses of these kids versus their parents in the 1980s as society embraced excess but also dealt with old issues like aging, addiction, sexuality and relationships.

Many actors were seen on this series including Courtney Cox, Tom Hanks, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Wheaton, Christina Applegate, Daniel Baldwin, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Hank Azaria.

With its continued stereotypical liberal vs conservative beliefs, Family Ties was a favourite of mine and many viewers, and by the end of its seventh and last season, the series ended with the end of the decade, with the characters moving onto their next lives in real life and tv land.

memories of the ’70s – Taxi

For tv viewers of the late 1970s, a unique sitcom came to the airwaves – all about  New York City cabbies called Taxi.

Created by James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, David Davis and Ed Weinberger, Taxi was about the characters who ran the Sunshine Taxi Company in NYC.

Many of the cast of characters considered their jobs temporary, but it was an ongoing love-hat with driving a cab and reporting to their dispatcher, Louie de Palma, played by Danny Devito.

Judd Hirsch played Alex Rieger, the thoughtful driver who looked at his job as a career, unlike his cohorts Elaine (Marilu Henner), Tony (Tony Danza), Iggy (Christopher Lloyd), Bobby (Jeff Conaway) and Latka (Andy Kaufman.

Each episode showed the reality of their unsatisfying lives, and the dream of becoming better and having it disappear – like losing a boxing match, an acting role a or a better job opportunity. The ensemble was a snapshot of the working man and woman.

Lloyd’s Iggy, a burnt out hippie/minister and Kaufman’s innocent mechanic Latka added a strange comic addition to the more conventional roles played by Henner, Danza, Conaway and Hirsch, while Devito’s dispatcher was a mean, crazy and odd man who acted out from the safety of his office/cage.

Debuting on ABC in 1978, the series may have a a half hour of laughs, but tackled serious storylines such as divorce, sexual harassment, drug addiction, alcoholism, blindness, obesity, gambling addiction and bisexuality, reflecting the reality of a changing society and the vices and dangers of a big city.

The series was a tv viewer favourite and an award favourite, nominated for 31 Emmy awards, and winning 18, including Outstanding Comedy Series in 1979. The series was also nominated for 25 Golden Globe Awards and was chosen by TV Guide as one of the 50 Greatest TV shows of all time.

After four seasons, the series moved to rival network NBC, but then was cancelled after its fifth year, with many of its main characters wanting to move on as well as the storylines not being as popular with viewers.

As a snapshot of changing society, it may have been all about the laughs, but for me and many viewers, it was a half hour of comedy and society commentary.

memories of the ’80s – Cheers

Cheers intro logo.jpgDespite its humble beginnings, this tv series soon became a national addiction to see what was going on in the cosy Boston bar of Cheers.

Created by James Burrows, Les Charles and Glen Charles, the series was set in a Boston bar, where the characters were the bar staff and a few patrons. Debuting on CBS in September 1982, the show had a terrible first season and came in second to last in the overall ratings, almost causing it to be cancelled.

The producers and writers reworked the half hour sitcom and the inclusion of a couple of new characters gave Cheers a new life, and the fanbase started to form around its unique group of people.

The bar was owner by Sam Malone (Ted Danson) a former baseball player, well known ladies man, and bartender, who was helped by Coach (Nicolas Collasanto) a kind yet gullible man, Carla (Rhea Perlman) a smartass waitress/housewife and Diane (Shelley Long), a know-it-all waitress/graduate student.

Their regulars included Norm (George Wendt), an accountant, and Cliff (John Ratzenberger) a postal worker, who added their wit and wisdom to the daily conversations and goings on at the bar.

The interplay of dialogue was what captured viewers, as those who were smart seemed ignorant of the real world, while those who were perceived as not smart knew more about the world.

The tv show’s theme song “Where Everybody Know Your Name” was written and performed by Gary Portnoy.

The blue collar vs white collar backdrop, mixed in humour, oddball characters, fan worship of Sam and targeting Diane for her smartypants behaviour was a regular concoction for each episode.

After the death of Nicolas Collasanto in season three, the character of Coach was also written out because of death, and Woody (played by Woody Harrelson) was added, a somewhat dim young bartender/actor, as well as eventually including Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammar), a psychiatrist and highly intelligent friend of Diane’s and Dr. Lilith Sternin (Bebe Neuwirth), fellow psychiatrist, and finally Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) as a businesswoman brought in to save the bar.

Cheers became one of those shows that developed a cult following, with many knowing the intricacies of the relationships, the catchphrases (the bar would always yell out Norm’s name when he arrived) and the love affairs of the infamous Sam Malone.

Despite humble beginnings, it ended up as a top 10 series for the rest of its run, earning 28 Emmy Awards ( a past record of 117 nominations)  and having one of the highest ratings overall for its last episode in May 1993.

Successful for 11 seasons, the series ended in the following decade, still popular, but its first years, with the snappy dialogue of Sam, Coach, Carla, Diane, Norm and Cliff, is still television humour at its finest.

memories of the ’80s – Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer

In the 1980s, the hardboiled detective of the 1940s came back to the small screen in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.

First conceived by Spillane in his first detective novel I The Jury published in 1947, Mike Hammer had an illustrious career in print before becoming a character on the small screen, as one of Spillane’s major characters.

Mike Hammer first came to television in the late 1950s, with Darren McGavin playing Mike Hammer. In the mid 1980s, Mike Hammer was brought back to television with Stacy Keach as the private detective uncovering mysteries for clients in New York City.

The reintroduction began with two CBS tv movies – Murder Me, Murder You and More than Murder.

Although set in contemporary time, the film noir elements were used in the tv scripts, with the main character always wearing a wrinkled suit, fedora and trench coat. Hammer was a guy’s guy, and far from being politically-correct.

Unlike the contemporary detectives on television, Hammer smoked, was often shown in bed with a new lady friend, and didn’t mind using his gun Betsy – a Colt ’45 – when needed.

Lindsay Bloom was Hammer’s secretary Velda, Don Stroud as Capt. Chambers, Kent Williams as ADA Lawrence Barrington and Donna Denton as The Face, a mysterious woman, were regular episodic characters.

But filming of the second season was interrupted when Stacy Keach, in England to star in a mini-series,was arrested for cocaine possession. Convicted and incarcerated for nine months, Keach was released after six months, and the series had been cancelled.

An additional tv movie with Keach as Hammer – The Return of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer – lured back original fans, leading to the subsequent series The New Mike Hammer, starring Keach but with a new cast of characters. But this version didn’t keep fans interested and the series was cancelled after one year in 1986.

I remember occasionally watching this series, but not liking the film noir elements at the time, which as I grew older, I began to appreciate much more. But I do remember Keach’s arrest and conviction, which made news around the world.

A series that may have had a good life on television had its time cut short, but remembered for its stylish take on the 1940s circa the 1980s.

memories of the ’70s – Cannon

In the early 1970s, being a private detective meant you were not the standard – and another character that perfectly fit that description was Cannon.

Portrayed by William Conrad, Cannon, a former police detective, became a private detective after his wife and son died in a car accident.

The series was launched by being introduced by another popular detective series, Barnaby Jones, with its first two episodes.

Conrad was well-known to viewers after playing Marshall Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke and being the voice on The Fugitive as well on Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Conrad’s Cannon was tough, smart-talking and had high-class tastes, including his prize possesssion, a 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III, which had a car phone, a rarity for this time period. He loved food and was a big guy, figuring out the mysteries of deaths, disappearances and all kinds of stories for clients in southern California.

Not afraid to fight, Cannon often used judo or karate moves against a foe – and when that didn’t work, he even used his large stomach, or his ’38 special revolver.

Cannon had some particularly unique quotes – “OK, sir, I’ll take your case and investigate what happened…But just remember, the truth is like rain — it doesn’t care who gets wet” or another gem “I‘ll have to think about it…You see, I’ve never been retained by a dead man before.”

 The series was produced by Quinn Martin, who had also brought The Streets of San Francisco and Barnaby Jones to the small screen. Airing on CBS, the series debuted in September 1971.

Nominated for an Emmy for best actor in 1973 and 1974, William Conrad’s popularity grew with the second and third seasons, as the ratings increased, pushing the show from #29 in the Nielsen ratings in its first year to top 10 in 1973/1974.

At the same time, tie-in novels were published in the United States and the United Kingdom, the first two written by Richard Gallagher and the rest of the series by Douglas Enefer.

For this young girl, I remember asking my Dad if he was going to watch the Fat Man – which was my nickname for Cannon.

Instead of the slick perfect looking people of television today, Cannon looked like he would be my neighbour, although the one with the car everyone coveted and the occasional dangerous glint in his eye.

By spring 1976 the series had lost its lustre with viewers and was cancelled. But the presence of another odd character as a private detective confirmed the stereotype once again.

memories of the ’80s – The Facts of Life

The 1980s started with the view of teen life according to girls at a private school: The Facts of Life.

A spinoff of sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, the show initially was the move of The Drummond Family housekeeper Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Rae) to work at a girls’ school attended by Kimberly Drummond, but her character was never shown in the new series.

Initially the series had seven main characters of students – Blair, Natalie, Tootie, Molly, Cindy, Sue Anne and Nancy. Each one had her own flair and focus, as they dealt with school and life at the Eastland School.  The series debuted in 1979 on NBC.

In the second year, the show was reworked, focusing on Mrs. Garrett and four students: Blair, Natalie, Tootie and new girl Jo. Because of a major infraction, the girls are forced to share a room next door to Mrs. Garrett and work in the cafeteria.

Each character had her own back story – Blair was a from a very wealthy family and was vain, while Tootie was African-American and the youngest, Natalie was the chubby and funny girl while Jo was a tough girl from the wrong side of the tracks who made it to the school on scholarship.

There were several reccuring characters in the series, including Blair’s cousin Geri, Miko, Boots, “Shoplifter” Kelly, and Princess Alexandra, all of which were girls who showed the main characters their strengths or weaknesses in addressing all kinds of issues from prejudice to peer pressure. Another notable character was George, played by George Clooney, a handyman at the school.

Despite its slow move with the ratings, this show became one of the top ranked sitcoms on NBC, finding its audience and by 1982, spawned a special with the girls going to Paris. Several spinoffs from the series were attempted, but nothing found its audience. I was a regular watcher of the series, liking Jo for her tough character and plain-talking spirit.

After eight seasons, the show had exhausted its storylines and its characters were now not in school – and the series was ended. But for its time in the 1980s, this show was popular, not just because of its silly humour and crazy antics of teen girls, but because with subtle humour it dealt with the pressures of being a teen girl – from sexuality to getting older to school stress.

memories of the ’70s – The Kids of Degrassi Street

Inspired by the changing culture of teenagers in multicultural Toronto in the late 1970s, producer Linda Schuyler created a series that established a new view of kids and teens on television: The Kids of Degrassi Street.

Debuting on the CBC in September 1979, The Kids of Degrassi Street were loosely connected to a series of afterschool specials and focused on teens’ life – friendships, relationships, divorce, drugs, school politics and anything and everything.

Filmed in downtown Toronto, the realistic view of their world was layered into everything – from the depiction on the small screen, everyone looked like they could live next door, a decided move away from depicting the characters as perfect and pretty.

Each half hour focused on an issue – whether it was coping with school stresses or trying to figure out a new relationship. This series depicted life as it was, without sugar coating or making it always finish neatly by the end of the half hour.

All the characters lived on Degrassi Street and attended the same school – there were the older ones: Noel, Catherine, Chuck and Tina or the younger ones: Lisa, Griff, Connie, Pete, Rachel and Casey. The show began airing on PBS in the United States, finding an equally interested audience of kids and teens south of the border.

I remember seeing a few episodes and it made me curious about the city of Toronto – wondering how big the city was and all the different people who lived there.

In the next decade this series expanded – not only in scope, but in popularity beyond the borders of Canada with Degrassi Junior High. The kids may have changed and grown a bit older, but the series’ intent to show the changing life of an urban kid and teen stayed the same.

memories of the ’80s – Beauty and the Beast

In the late 1980s, this classic French fairytale was shown in a new way with the television series Beauty and the Beast.

Starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton, the series was set in New York City.

Hamilton played Catherine Chandler, a NY district attorney who finds out she has a guardian angel in the form of Ron Perlman, who plays Vincent, a man/creature of the underground in this hour long drama.

Chandler’s character is beaten and left for dead in Central Park and found by Vincent, a man who resembles a lion.

Through their relationship, Chandler learns of about a whole other level of her city, where a underground group of people live in tunnels and survive on the streets. She promises to keep the secrets of Vincent and his friends in Tunnel World, and find out why she was attacked.

The first season focused on unveiling why Catherine had been a victim of this crime and the relationship between her and Vincent, who lives in the shadows. Unlike the traditional storyline, Vincent as the beast, doesn’t transform into a human ideal of male beauty, but continues to be the beast, showing his inner strength and qualities.

In season two, the side character of Tunnel World are shown more – to see how they ended up in this community and by season three,  because Linda Hamilton was pregnant and wanted to leave the series, the show creators developed a major change in the storyline. Catherine is kidnapped by the head of an evil crime syndicate, gives birth to Vincent’s son, dies and Vincent is left to search for his missing child.

The drama of this series led it to become a cult favourite – and when the relationship of Catherine and Vincent was ended on screen, it soon lost ratings and was cancelled by CBS.

But as a series, its fairytale romance became a favourite of viewers, and in 2012, is being resurrected for the small screen once more.

memories of the ’70s – Fantasy Island

In the late 1970s, a concept for a new television series was born out of two television movies, depicting a place where your questions and concerns could be answered: Fantasy Island.

Starring Ricardo Montalban and Herve Villechaize, the first television movie aired in 1977, with Montalban as Mr. Roarke, the owner of a private Pacific Ocean island, where people came to live out their fantasies for a high price.

Villechaize played Tattoo, the sidekick of Mr. Roarke who would announce the arrival of guests with the call “De plane, de plane” in his unique French accent.

Produced by the successful Aaron Spelling, the two movies were a hit – gaining good review and large viewing audiences.

Each guest paid US$50,000 to have their fantasy revealed, but Mr. Roarke would also guide them in life lessons, in order to become better people and learn about themselves. In the follow up television film, Return to Fantasy Island, more is revealed about the enigmatic Mr. Roarke, who may be immortal or at least could time travel.

The success of the two television movies led to the launch of the series on ABC TV in 1979, with each episode showing three guest stars what path they would take – and when chosen, the fantasy had to be completed, no matter the fear or dislike of the the guest for how their fantasy was unfolding.

The series ended in 1984, as viewers didn’t like the changes to the series, especially the removal of Villechaize and the replacement with a butler named Lawrence.

I watched this series (which was a solid Saturday night hit for ABC) in tandem with Love Boat, both shows revealing the hidden lives of the guests who would arrive. It was silly and odd, but an hour of discovery for the characters and viewers.

memories of the ’80s – Max Headroom

In the mid 1980s, technology created a new tv fixation – Max Headroom.

Beginning as the host of a Brit music tv show, Max Headroom was the creation of George Stone, Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton.

Portrayed by actor Matt Frewer, Max was supposed to be the world’s first computer-generated tv host – although it technically wasn’t true.

Thanks to hours of makeup, a fibreglass mould as his suit and Ray Ban sunglasses, Max Headroom was only shown from the shoulders up, usually with a simple graphic image behind him.

His voice would go up and down, creating an odd speech pattern. And he became a star.

His odd humour and strange presence seemed to strike a chord with tv viewers on Britain’s Channel 4 as he made fun of the typical tv hosts and was sarcastic in his commentary. His music show became a cult hit, with viewers increasing by twofold thanks to Max Headroom.

Exported to the North American market in Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, a television movie in 1985, the character’s odd style caught the eye of viewers on the other side of the Atlantic.

In 1986, the tv series debuted, which lasted two seasons on ABC. The hour long show was set in a world dominated by tv networks, but couldn’t make it through a second season thanks to the strength of CBS series Dallas and NBC series Miami Vice.

I remember seeing this character and wondering why anyone would watch this series. I saw the promos, but never was lured to actually watch any of the tv series, although I saw plenty of Max Headroom thanks to tv commercials and the use of the character in a music video by the band Art of Noise.

After the cancellation of the series, there were rumours of a film, but the character quietly disappeared into the ether of 1980s pop culture, an character that tried to be ahead of the current technology, yet ended up being a brief flash in the timeline.