The 10 Best CBS Sitcoms of the 1980s

Even John Hughes would be hard pressed to write a more accurate portrayal of '80s high school.
Even John Hughes would be hard pressed to write a more accurate portrayal of '80s high school.

On an episode of The Simpsons, Bart tried to explain primetime television comedy promotions to his sister, "Lis, when you get a little older, you'll learn that Friday's just another day between NBC's must-see Thursday and CBS's Saturday night crap-o-rama." Much like ABC, CBS enjoyed a terrifically successful run of comedies in the 1970s highlighted by one of the top sitcoms of all time, All in the Family. But, by the '80s, they had fallen well behind NBC and its powerful lineup of shows. In fact, most of their best shows including the majority on this list aired in the first half of this decade.

Even so, there are some very good programs among CBS's offerings including an attempt to extend greatness, a brilliant show about a different broadcast medium and one that was more successful in syndication than on the network.

Note that to qualify for the list, shows had to have spent the bulk of their lifespan in the decade of the '80s, which disqualifies sitcoms like M*A*S*H, One Day at a Time (barely) and Murphy Brown .

10. Private Benjamin (1981-1983)

Premise: Like the film, spoiled rich girl enlists and grows a pair.

CBS had a run of shows in the early '80s spun off from films trying to capitalize on what had been a pretty successful approach to programming. After all, M*A*S*H alone had become the most popular sitcom in the history of the network. So, in similar fashion to M*A*S*H CBS brought along a couple of the film's stars in Eileen Brennan and Hal Williams to try and make it a hit. Unfortunately, the star they most needed was Goldie Hawn. It also didn't help that the movie was more about escaping the confines of a an overly controlled life than sinking further into it.

9. Charles in Charge (1984-1985)

Premise: College kid entrusted with the lives of prepubescent girls.

After Happy Days ended and Joanie Love Chachi flopped, Scott Baio became one of the hottest commodities in entertainment. So, when CBS landed him for this show about a college student who takes on the role of male nanny, it was disappointing when it became a ratings bust. But it makes this list because despite being canceled after its first season, it became a syndication hit two years later and ran for 126 episodes. Never mind the oddity of a college student taking care of teen girls including a very young future Baywatch babe Nicole Eggert, or the decidedly creepy theme song.

8. Kate & Allie (1984-1989)

Premise: Single moms merge families, but aren't lesbians.

It's really incredible that original Not Ready for Primetime Player Jane Curtain didn't get more quality roles after leaving Saturday Night Live, on the big screen or the little one. Her most successful effort was this CBS joint co-starring Susan St. James about a pair of childhood friends, recently divorced, living in New York who decide to raise their families together. This is one of five of these ten shows featuring strong female characters in the lead roles.

7. Square Pegs (1982-1983)

Premise: Dorky high school girls riff on every '80s trend and cliche.

If someone was cryogenically frozen Austin Powers style in the '70s, awakened in the '90s and needed a television show to explain what high school was like during the decade they missed to them, this would be it. In addition to introducing the world to Sarah Jessica Parker and Jami Gertz, it managed to encapsulate the high school experience in the era of parachute pants and new wave music. If you don't have access to the John Hughes canon, this should suffice right down to the theme song by The Waitresses.

6. Archie Bunker's Place (1979-1983)

Premise: After Edith and Gloria, Archie plays dad to teen and runs a bar.

It's never easy to bid farewell to a successful show, particularly when it was one of the most critically acclaimed and financially successful series in the history of television. But, as with most networks, CBS didn't want to let go of All in the Family. It had already spun off The Jeffersons, Gloria and Maude which gave birth to Good Times. Even with that track record, the network tried to prolong the run of Archie Bunker by giving him a bar and ultimately making him a widower. If nothing else, it kept one of the best TV characters of all time alive a little longer and provided one of the more stirring performances from its star Caroll O'Connor when his wife, Edith, dies of a stroke.  

5. Designing Women (1986-1993)

Premise: Indignant southern belles don't take any crap.

Think of Julia Sugarbaker as the anti-Archie Bunker or the southern Maude. The tough, liberally minded and politically outspoken (even in her deep southern drawl) interior designer didn't take crap from anyone and she was surrounded by equally interesting and dynamic women including Delta Burke, Annie Potts (fresh off Ghostbusters) and Jean Smart, all of whom held their own. Truthfully, this was not the funniest show, but it was well written and consistent. Plus, it featured Meshach Taylor, who spent one offseason as the flamboyant Hollywood window dresser in the classic '80s comedy fim Mannequin.

4. Newhart (1982-1990)

Premise: Couple who opens bed and breakfast are forced to deal with oddball townsfolk.

Bob Newhart, like Ted Knight, remains one of the most underrated comedic actors of all time. His signature hyper dry delivery and Droopy Dawg have been on display in a variety of roles since the '60s. Newhart, not to be confused with his successful '70s sitcom The Bob Newhart Show, probably wasn't his best work, but it hung around eight years thanks mainly to the odd cast of characters surrounding him including brothers Larry, Darryl and the other brother, Darryl. But, the show did deliver the greatest series ending episode in the history of comedy TV.

3. Alice (1976-1985)

Premise: Singer stranded in Phoenix on her way to LA ends up as a diner waitress.

Linda Lavin has had tremendous success on Broadway, but she is best known as Alice, the lounge singer turned waitress. No one seemed to care much that her character in the show gave up her dreams of show biz stardom to work for Mel Sharples, an irascible fry cook boss and diner owner, but it made for some funny television. Polly Holiday became the de facto star of the show as Flo, the feisty truck stop waitress with the signature catch phrase "Kiss my grits." But Lavin was the show's center and the series was a bonafide hit for CBS for 10 years.

2. The Jeffersons (1975-1985)

Premise: Family moves on up from the poorhouse to the penthouse.

It could be argued that this spinoff of All in the Family is among the funniest television sitcoms of all time. Certainly, George Jefferson and family maid Florence Johnston, are two of the most hilarious characters ever created. From the moment George, 'Ouise and family moved on up into that "deluxe apartment in the sky," The Jeffersons became a huge comedy hit for CBS. It also turned the tables on the typically poor African American family motif and set the stage for shows like The Cosby Show.

WKRP in Cincinnati Opening Song & Credits from Neil Gronowetter on Vimeo.

1. WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-1982)

Premise: Lovable band of lunatics run a rock and roll radio station in, well, you know.

It is hard to imagine there was a more hysterical moment in the decade of 1980s television than the scene in the Thanksgiving episode of this sitcom set inside a rock and roll radio station. From "news man" Les Nessman's recounting of turkeys being dropped from a station helicopter to the befuddled station owner Arthur Carlson's now famous one-liner, "As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly," it was a brilliant moment in TV history. Sadly, a show that delivered quite a few moments of brilliance could never be seen the same way in syndication. Loaded with classic rock and pop songs of the late '70s and early '80s, the network simply could not afford to pay the music royalties to artists like Foreigner and Pink Floyd required to keep the episodes complete. As a result, the DVDs of the show have filler music in place of the hits. Because the music was another character on the series, it just isn't the same. Hopefully, one day it can be resolved and those who missed it the first time around can see the show in its full glory. Until then, the laughs are still worth it though you can find an original episode or two online.

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