16 ’80s TV Shows You Definitely Forgot Existed
We forget about shows all the time. Remember Warrior Nun? Remember Fate: The Winx Saga? We don’t either, and we even watched one of them. The 1980s was an experimental time for television; the medium had matured into the dominant medium of the time, and all kinds of short-lived shows, often spun off of recent films or with sci-fi concepts, hit the airwaves for a few months here and there. Even if you were sitting there watching TV at the time, it would be hard to remember even a small fraction of them.
The shows listed below aired sometime between 1980 and 1989, with many of them being canceled before they were even allowed to finish their first season, leaving episodes unaired. Entries include a spin-off of one of our favorite sci-fi films of the 80s, a progenitor to one of HBO’s biggest shows, multiple shows about super-powered vehicles, and more. These aren’t so much “can’t miss” as they are “can’t find,” but they’re still worth remembering just for how utterly bonkers so many of them were.
Once you’ve waded through our list of these forgotten ’80s televisions shows, check out some of our other galleries, including ’80s movies you might have forgotten, best action movies of the ’80s, best science fiction of the ’80s, the often forgotten and trashiest horror of the ’80s, and of course the totally rad but forgotten cartoons of the ’80s. You’ll be surprised just how much crossover there is between some of these lists. For example, RoboCop is both a great sci-fi movie and a very questionable cartoon, and Starman worked better as a movie than it did as a television series.
Premiere Date:December 15, 1983
Episodes 12 (13 filmed)
Despite the name, Automan isn’t about a guy who turns into a car, nor is it about a guy who really likes cars. This is a Tron-inspired buddy-cop show about a guy named Walter who creates an AI hologram that can leave the bounds of its computer at night so that it can merge with Walter to fight crime. When outside the computer but not merged, the AI goes by Otto Mann. Preceding the equally cheesy buddy-cop show Mann & Machine by almost 10 years, the show didn’t run for very long, which is a shame because it featured a jet-black Lamborghini Countach covered in a grid of reflective tape to make it look like a wireframe–and it sounds awesome. Notably, Automan was created by Glen Larson, who also created the car-centric shows Knight Rider and Magnum, P.I., as well as Battlestar Galactica. Dude had a serious thing for superheroes whose power was “has a rad car.”
2. Breaking Away
Premier Date: November 29, 1980
Episodes: 7 (8 filmed)
Talk about a show with an expiration date and a weird concept. The year 1979 saw the release of the film Breaking Away, the story of a group of just-graduated Indiana teenagers, centered on bicycles and a climactic bike race. So what’s a producer to do but turn this extremely deep and expansive concept of a kid who loves Italian stuff and bike races into a prequel television show. It featured the same characters played by different actors and was set one year before the events of the film, meaning that even if the show was successful, they could only do so much with it. This short-lived series only had eight episodes, and only seven were aired.
3. Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future
Premiere Date: September 1, 1987
While many of these were prime-time shows aimed at adult viewers, Captain Power is much more like your standard Saturday Morning fare, even though it’s a live-action program. Most importantly, this one had a gimmick. Think Terminator For Kids–in the 22nd century, Captain Jonathan Power (no relation to Rex Power Colt) leads a group of fighters called the Soldiers of Tomorrow in a fight against the machines they lost to in the Metal Wars. The gimmick was that the toys featured light sensors that responded to flashes on the screen–for example, you could hold up your XT-7 fighter jet and get points for firing at targets while losing points for getting hit. This applied to live TV episodes and VHS releases alike. Unfortunately, the show’s storylines were too adult for Saturday mornings, and the action was too childish and toy-focused to appeal to adults and too violent for parents to want to show their kids. As a result, the show was canceled after one season, with 18 Season 2 scripts left unfilmed. Writers on the show included prolific sci-fi writer J. Michael Straczynski and Teen Titans creator (and comic book legend) Marv Wolfman.
4. Gung Ho
Premiere Date: December 5, 1986
While the 1980s was a time for TV shows about sci-fi cars and superheroes without costumes, it was also a time of anxiety for American workers as the Japanese economy expanded and Japanese investors were seen as an increasingly hostile force by Americans. The 1986 comedy film Gung Ho, starring Michael Keaton, told the story of a struggling Pennsylvania auto factory and its workers. Then, 1987 television series Gung Ho, starring Scott Bakula, continued that, using the same characters to mine essentially the same ideas for 30 minutes each week. The show only lasted for nine episodes across barely two months and was not renewed for a second season.
5. Jennifer Slept Here
Premiere Date: October 21, 1983
After an actress dies chasing an ice cream truck, a family moves into the house she still haunts. She makes herself visible to the family’s teenage son Joey–and only Joey. It’s another one of those 1980s shows whose main idea was that adults don’t listen to kids and their wacky stories. The show features storylines like the ghost, Jennifer, possessing Joey’s body and doing Karate to protect him from a bully, impressing girls with a seance, the return of a ghost fiance, and foiling an elaborate gambling scheme. Standard 1980s stuff.
Premiere Date: September 30, 1983
It’s easy to think that superheroes have only been popular for the last 10-15 years, but television has been flirting with heroes for decades–they just weren’t ready for colorful tights and body armor. Case in point: Manimal. The show follows Dr. Jonathan Chase, a man who can shapeshift into various animals, and who uses that ability to fight crime. The special effects for the transformations were designed by Stan Winston (Terminator, Aliens), and the score by Alan Silvestri (the Avengers films), but even those Hollywood legends couldn’t keep the show from living to the end of its first season–or from ending up on lots of “worst TV shows of all time” lists. At least this Glen Larson-created show didn’t have the good Doctor driving a special car.
7. Misfits of Science
Premiere Date: October 4, 1985
In the long legacy of ragtag bands of super powered individuals–X-Men, Doom Patrol, Heroes, Umbrella Academy–Misfits of Science follows a group of people with superpowers, including a shrinking man, an electric rockstar, a telekinetic teenager, and a guy named Ice Man who could freeze anything he touched but who would die if he got too warm. The show featured an early performance from Courteney Cox (Friends, Cougar Town). The Ice Man character disappeared after the pilot due to objections from Marvel. The show also had a weird opening theme that began with a guy kicking over a TV before cutting to the show’s theme song.
Premiere Date: September 1, 1986
Of all the John Carpenter movies to base a show on, ABC looked to Starman, the 1984 romantic drama telling the story of a woman falling in love with an alien who dies at the end of the movie. In this show, the alien comes back to life in a new body and travels with his son. It fits pretty squarely into that genre of 1980s shows like The Incredible Hulk and Knight Rider, where a fantastical character travels from town to town, helping someone and then departing.
9. Street Hawk
Premiere Date: January 4, 1985
Knight Rider featured a powerful sci-fi car. Airwolf had an attack copter. It was time for the off-road motorcycle to get its due. Cue Street Hawk. Jesse Mach is an ex-cop injured in the line of duty, and is recruited to test drive the Street Hawk, an “all-terrain attack motorcycle designed to fight urban crime, capable of incredible speeds up to 300 miles per hour, and immense firepower,” according to the show’s opening narration. Like most of the shows on this list, it lasted a single season and primarily followed the main character trying to balance his daily life with secretly fighting crime.
10. The Phoenix
Premiere Date: April 16, 1982
Extra-terrestrial being Bennu of the Golden Light is found in a sarcophagus in Peru and awakened after 40,000 years of sleep. He is pursued by another alien, Yago, as he tries to find his mate. This is one of the shortest shows on this list, having aired for barely a month before cancellation. The series is based on the idea presented in the book Chariots of the Gods that suggests aliens visited Earth tens of thousands of years ago and directly or indirectly inspired or created many of our ancient wonders. So it’s basically like Prometheus, right?
11. Three’s a Crowd
Premiere Date: September 25, 1984
Did you know that the classic sitcom Three’s Company had a spin-off series titled Three’s a Crowd? It’s also based on a completely unrelated British show. Executives had been trying to adapt Robin’s Nest for American television for some time, and finally happened upon a possible working formula by taking John Ritter and his Three’s Company character, Jack Ritter, into a spin-off series about him and his late-seasons love interest Vicky and her meddling rich father. Incredibly, the show began airing just a week after Three’s Company ended. Both shows were hurt by airing at the same time as the A-Team and the powerhouse personality of Mr. T.
12. Tucker’s Witch
Premiere Date: October 6, 1982
Episodes: 11 (plus Cattrall’s pilot)
This series was originally set to star Kim Cattrall (Sex in the City, Big Trouble in Little China) and was titled The Good Witch of Laurel Canyon, but a scene in the movie Porky’s caused the network to demand her replacement. Instead, the show ended up starring Catherine Hicks (7th Heaven) and Tim Matheson as a married P.I. couple, in which Hicks was, as the title suggests, a witch. The show didn’t last long–Cattrall’s pilot never aired, and the show was initially pitted against two popular shows, Quincy M.E. and Dynasty, and–unsurprisingly–never gained traction.
Premiere Date: October 3, 1982
Shows about correcting the time stream–or not screwing it up–seem to be pretty timeless, pun intended. Whether it’s Doctor Who or Legends of Tomorrow, someone is always un-breaking time. In 1982, it was up to Voyagers! to nudge time back into place. A young man named Jeffrey from 1982 with detailed knowledge of history accidentally gets pulled along by an irresponsible time traveler named Phinneas Bogg, and the two work together to keep time in order and get the boy back home. The show had an educational bent to it, with each episode ending with a call to action for viewers to head to their local library to read up on the historical elements. In the first episode, young Jeffrey helps Phinneas ensure that baby Moses makes his way down the Nile river.
14. Wizards and Warriors
Premiere Date: February 26, 1983
Extremely expensive shows with medieval settings aren’t a product of just the 2010s. Decades before viewers would enter Westeros for the first time, Wizards and Warriors brought the land of Aparens to life for the then-massive budget of $1 million per episode (about $3 million in future bucks). Similar to the plot of the Witcher, the story revolved around long-warring nations that employed wizards to do their work.
15. Beyond Westworld
Premiere Date: March 5, 1980
Episodes: 3 (plus 2 unaired)
Michael Crichton’s test run for Jurassic Park was Westworld, the 1973 film in which malfunctioning androids hunt unsuspecting parkgoers. The film was successful with critics and audiences alike and spawned a sequel and a television show. It wasn’t HBO’s Westworld, though. Instead, it was 1980’s Beyond Westworld, which continued the story of the first film; the security chief Delos tries to stop scientist Simon Quaid from using Westworld’s robots to take over the world. Only three of the five filmed episodes aired before the show was canceled due to low ratings.
16. Out of this World
Premiere Date: September 17, 1987
By far the longest-running show on this list, this show has nonetheless been lost to time. Despite lots of negative reviews, it ran for four seasons and revolved around Evie Garland, a teenage girl who finds out from her mother, Donna, that her father, Troy, was an alien from Antares Prime. Evie would try to use her alien abilities to give herself a leg up in social situations, with things often going wrong. She would often end up consulting her father–voiced by Burt Reynolds–by talking to him through a glowing cube that sat on her dresser. Reynolds appeared in a cliffhanger at the end of Season 4, at which point the show was not renewed. Oops.