Breaking the Law: Police Procedurals in the 80s

When we think about the 80s, one of our entertainment favorites are the police procedural shows of that era. Today we fondly remember things like European styling, “teenage” cops, male and female detective pairs, and a crime-solving mystery writer. These were the shows that bring the 80s back to life for us.

Remington Steele

Remington Steele was a television series co-created by Robert Butler and Michael Gleason. The series, starring Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan, was broadcast on NBC from 1982 to 1987. The series blended romantic comedy, drama, and police procedural. The show’s premise was a woman named Laura Holt starts a detective agency, only to find that no one wants to hire a woman, no matter how qualified she is. She then invents a fictitious male superior she names “Remington Steele” as a creative solution to her dilemma. Enter Pierce Brosnan’s character, a former thief and con man (whose real name even he proves not to know and is never revealed), who assumes the identity of Remington Steele. Of course, a power struggle ensues between Laura and Steele as to who is really in charge, while the two carry on a casual flirtatious romantic relationship. In having a very strong female lead character, the series explored women finally coming to the forefront on television. In a 2005 interview regarding the many women who have approached her to thank her for her contribution, Zimbalist said “They are extraordinary women…. They are interesting. They do interesting things. They are smart. They’re independent. They’re sort of, what my character was – and I meet them all the time.” Interestingly, Brosnan and Zimbalist have admitted some level of personal conflict in press interviews during and since, attributing some of it to the stress of long working hours, while also maintaining that it did not damage their ability to work together. In retrospect, that factor worked to enhance the sexual tension the characters were supposed to feel towards each other. The series was cancelled at the end of the 1985–86 television season, although it still had a 28% share of the audience in its time slot. Eventually, they were renewed 2 months later, but both stars had already accepted movie roles. To accommodate the stars, the network opted for a final abbreviated fifth season consisting of six hours of made-for-TV films.

Miami Vice

When you think of sultry hot summers, fast cars, and white Italian leisure suits, Miami Vice immediately springs to mind. Unlike standard police procedurals, the show drew heavily upon 80s New Wave culture and songs. The show became noted for its integration of music and visual effects. People Magazine stated that Miami Vice was the “first show to look really new and different since color TV was invented”. The series ran for only five seasons on NBC from 1984 to 1989 and starred Don Johnson as James “Sonny” Crockett and Philip Michael Thomas as Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs. Legend has it that the then-head of NBC’s Entertainment Division, Brandon Tartikoff, wrote a brainstorming memo that simply read “MTV cops”, and later presented it to series creator Anthony Yerkovich. Yerkovich, however, counters that he devised the concept after learning about asset forfeiture statutes that allowed law enforcement agencies to confiscate the property of drug dealers for official use. The initial idea was for a movie about a pair of vice cops in Miami. Yerkovich was immediately drawn to South Florida as a setting for his new-style police show, then turned out a script for a two-hour pilot, titled Gold Coast, but it was later renamed Miami Vice. The choice of music and cinematography borrowed heavily from the emerging New Wave scene of the early 80s. In fact, while other television shows used made-for-TV music, Miami Vice would spend $10,000 or more per episode to buy the rights of existing songs to use in the show, which in turn led to a huge boost for many up and coming artists. Everyone wanted their music featured on Miami Vice. Additionally, the clothes worn on Miami Vice had a significant influence on men’s fashion. They popularized, if not invented, the “T-shirt under Armani jacket” style, and also spread the appeal of Italian men’s fashion throughout the United States. Always mindful of the continuity in fashion, in an average episode, Crockett and Tubbs wore five to eight outfits, appearing in shades of pink, blue, green, peach, fuchsia, and the show’s other “approved” colors. This trend helped mold the fashions of the later 80s with designers like Kenneth Cole, Gianni Versace, and Hugo Boss. One super cool factoid: The scripts were loosely based on actual crimes that occurred in Miami over the years.

21 Jump Street

By 1987, every network was searching for a series to equal the popularity of Miami Vice, and Fox seemed to find its niche’ with 21 Jump Street. The premise of the show was a squad of youthful-looking undercover police officers who investigated crimes in high schools, colleges, and other teenage venues. The show was a huge hit for the fledgling Fox network and was created to attract the huge age 30 and under market.  The show’s plots covered issues such as alcoholism, hate crimes, drug abuse, homophobia, AIDS, child abuse and sexual promiscuity. Each problem was often solved by the end of the hour-long episode, giving an implicit moral statement about the impact of the show’s focus on a particular issue. When the show originally aired, some episodes were followed immediately by PSA’s featuring cast members. While the series provided a spark to Johnny Depp’s ascending acting career, it also garnered him national recognition as a teen idol, which he hated.  In spite of this, he continued on the series under his contract. Eventually, he was released from his contract after the fourth season, as was Dustin Nguyen. The show also ended at that point, making a brief attempt at a spin-off starring Richard Grieco, however, that derivative only lasted 1 season.

Murder, She Wrote

CBS gave us Murder, She Wrote. The brilliant and sophisticated series with the most longevity of the shows mentioned in this article; it aired for 12 seasons from 1984 to 1996. The marvelous Angela Lansbury played mystery writer and amateur detective, Jessica Fletcher, for the entire run of the very popular show. The show’s premise revolved around the day-to-day life of Fletcher, a childless, widowed, retired English teacher in Cabot Cove who becomes a successful mystery writer. As a writer, she is more perceptive than most, and by carefully piecing the clues together and asking astute questions, she always manages to trap the real murderer. In fact, if Cabot Cove existed in real life, it would top the FBI’s national crime statistics in numerous categories, with some analysis suggesting that the homicide rate in Cabot Cove exceeds even that of the real-life murder capital of the world.

We picked four series’ we thought you might enjoy, but there are a few more great police procedural shows in the 80s and 90s, and so little time and room to talk about them all. There might just have to be another article to further explore the police shows of the era. Until then, cheers!

 Tami Danielson is the main in-house blogger and Director of operations for Pop-Daze. She was raised in California and Florida and currently resides in Oregon. Tami has written for a variety of periodicals and has provided digital marketing services for a number of artists. She can be reached at