memories of the ’80s – Alf

Aliens returned as a humourous theme to 1980s sitcoms with the debut of Alf.

Short for alien life form, the series Alf was created by Paul Fusco and Tom Patchett. The series revolved around Alf, who had landed on Earth from the planet Melmac, arriving on the garage of the Tanner Family.

Deciding to hide Alf rather than let him be captured by the US military, the family allows him to stay, and then they learn his home planet has been destroyed by a nuclear bomb.

Alf decides to stay with the Tanner family, learning the ways of Earth. He is a troublemaker, a slob and eats constantly, but the family learns to deal with him and keep him a secret, despite the nosy Ochmonek neighbours who claim to spot something or someone but can never really be sure what they’re seeing next door.

Alf’s character is the comedian – he has all the one liners and draws attention to himself all the time, but at the same time is sympathetic to the family, likes to learn about humans and helps the family whenever he can.

Fusco portrayed Alf, and revolved everything around him, which didn’t capture viewers right away when the series debuted in 1986, but by the second season, the rating increased to place the NBC series at number 10.

Merchandise was popular from the series – with all the typical kids’ items from posters to lunchboxes as well as comic books based on Alf series by Marvel Comics.

A prequel series for kids was created for Saturday mornings: ALF – The Animated Series, showcasing the character on Melmac.

For the actors, the series was difficult as the main character who got all the focus was a puppet and the focus was always on Fusco and Patchett, the coproducer, writer and creator.

After four seasons, the series ratings had slipped and the show was cancelled by NBC, but the pop culture influence of an alien puppet was seen everywhere in the late 1980s.

memories of the ’70s – Mork & Mindy

Anything is plausible for a sitcom, and in the 1970s, it meant a couple who represented Earth and Space in the half hour series Mork & Mindy.

The character of Mork, played by Robin Williams, first debuted on Garry Marshall’s flagship show Happy Days, as a resident of Ork who tries to bring Richie back to his home planet as a specimen, but is foiled by Fonzie.

Impressed by Williams dedication to his character and crazy antics as a comedian, Marshall created this series, with Mork transplated to Earth in the 1970s by his handler Orson, to observe humans.

He befriends Mindy (Pam Dawber) one night when she is stranded and when she learns he is an alien, she decides to take care of him and lets him live in her attic as she deals with his interests and exploration in Boulder, Colorado.

Each episode brought wacky, bizarre and frenetic humour from Williams, who made Mork as off the wall as possible, yet made viewers sympathetic to someone who doesn’t understand the society and its rules.

Mork ends up working with Mindy at her Dad’s music store, who tolerates Mork and becomes friends with Mindy’s music student Eugene. Thanks to his creative mind, Williams created many unique attributes of Mork, including his greeting – “nanu nanu”, the accompanying hand gesture and his rainbow suspenders.

Debuting in September 1978, the series was popular with viewers, hitting number three in the Nielsen ratings after Laverne & Shirley and Three’s Company, and in front of Happy Days, who were at #4. All of these shows were on ABC, the leading network in the late 1970s.

The series was nominated for two Emmy Awards for its inaugaral season and in season two added new characters, but by the third season were losing viewers and the quirkiness of the show. In season four the network married Mork and Mindy, and added more guest stars, but was cancelled at the end of the season.

The pop culture influences were fast and furious thanks to Mork’s distinct habits and although the series wasn’t watched by many after the first two seasons, including this writer, the creativity and craziness of Robin Williams was always remembered to have started with Mork from Ork.

memories of the ’80s – Designing Women

These southern ladies showed their feisty, funny selves in a unique ensemble comedy of the 1980s: Designing Women.

Created by Linda Bloodworth Thomason, the series focused on four women: Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter) the elder, elegant liberal sister to Suzanne Sugarbaker (Delta Burke) the flashy former Miss Georgia beauty queen, who start a interior design firm. Mary Jo (Annie Potts) is a recent divorcee and designer, while Charlene (Jean Smart) is the office manager and the dumb blonde of the group.

Debuting in September 1986, the series focused on the relationships of the four women, and used comedy to show the bonds as well as the unique characteristics of being different kinds of Southern ladies.

As Suzanne marries, divorces and remarries, her sister Julia and Mary Jo deal with family, friends, boyfriends and clients, and Charlene shows off her lack of smarts, but also her loyalty. Meshach Taylor portrayed Anthony, an ex-con who becomes the only man among the women and an employee of Sugarbaker Designs.

Notable reoccurring husbands/exhusbands/boyfriends were played by Gerald McRaney, Hal Holbrook, Scott Bakula and Douglas Barr.

Although the series never achieved top 10 ratings, it was a viewer favourite and when CBS moved it around and then attempted to cancel it, viewers wrote in to save the show, returning it to the Monday night line-up and landing the show in the top 20.

But in the early 1990s, the viewers slowly disappeared and the show was cancelled in 1993.

This first series by Linda Bloodworth-Thomas led to several more series, all focusing on the southern US and its unique characters, which is what made this show a viewer favourite. These four ladies were never to be ignored, embracing the 1980s in its style and at times, over the top approach to life.

memories of the ’70s – Rhoda

Brash, outspoken and an independent woman, this gal pal of Mary’s became the focus of a spin-off in the sitcom Rhoda.

Starring Valerie Harper, the half hour comedy was taken from her character as one of Mary Richard’s gal pals on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where she was very popular with viewers as the outspoken neighbour from New York City.

Launched in 1974 on CBS TV, Rhoda Morgenstern goes back to her native NYC on holiday, spending time with her sister Brenda (Julie Kavner). She meets Joe (David Groh), a recently divorced Dad, who at the end of her two week holiday asks her stay in New York City. 

The debut episode of Rhoda is the only first episode of a series ever to have hit number one in the Nielsen ratings, besting Monday Night Football for the record.

Initially Rhoda lives with Brenda, dates Joe and babysits his son, as well as dealing her Mother (Nancy Walker). She then moves in with her parents, but realizes that won’t work and then decides to live with Joe.

But the two of them decide to get married, and the hour-long wedding episode became the most-watched television episode until 1977, when mini-series Roots aired. It also became the second most watched episode of all time in television at the time, after the birth of Little Ricky on I Love Lucy.

Fans were so excited for Rhoda and Joe, they hosted parties to celebrate and watch the episode and gifts were sent to CBS to the fictional couple.

For the next couple of seasons, the viewers loved the married life of Rhoda and Joe, but the writers weren’t as thrilled. Deciding to upset the apple cart, Joe was shown less and less in the series and then the couple was separated. Eventually the couple divorced, with the focus back on insecure single gal Rhoda, her sister Brenda and her parents.

Viewers kept with Rhoda, but by the fifth season, the obsession was gone. CBS moved the show to another time slot and then cancelled the series in 1978 in mid-season.

I remember watching Rhoda all the time – especially to see her relationship with her sister Brenda, who was insecure and a self-doubter. It fascinated me as I didn’t have a sister.

But although the series was cancelled, Valerie Harper’s portrayal of a single woman and the trials of tribulations of being an independent woman in the 1970s was an accurate, comedic showing of the change in women’s reality and portrayal on television.

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.