80s Action TV Cliches
A.P. Barracuson and Seth Knightwynn
If you grew up in the 80s, you probably knew and Loved Knight Rider, Airwolf, The A-Team, Street Hawk, Blue Thunder and a host of other action TV shows that varied hugely in terms of quality.
These shows never took themselves seriously; they were fun entertainment first and foremost, and tended to do their job admirably in that regard. These shows filled our screens with stories but would, once in a while, trip over themselves by using ideas that had already been well-established as already past their prime.
This isn’t a complaint—some of the best episodes came from the worst ideas. Here are 5(ish) of the most overused clichés in 80s TV shows.
The evil twin
In almost every series that had an iconic symbol, there would be an equal and opposite version of it.
In Knight Rider they pulled the same thing twice. First they took the car, KITT, and introduced an earlier and more evil version, KARR. KARR was the first prototype that was programmed to protect itself, but also had the voice of Megatron, so someone in the research department definitely dropped the ball on that one. But the show didn’t stop there. It later decided that Michael Knight was equally iconic and we simply had to have more ‘Hoff.’ They made an evil twin version of him by creating a character with his face, who coincidentally, also had his exact same build and gait and was precisely the same age. Only an ‘evil’ mustache set them apart.
In Airwolf they introduced a second, more evil helicopter, camouflaged in bright red paint and armed with a laser for an extra degree of naughtiness. Because of the budget, there weren’t even any additional prop parts bolted on, so it was a plain and simple Bell 222 helicopter with a bad paint-job.
Ironically, the evil-twin episodes were usually the most fun, and the ones we all remember most fondly.
The call for diversity was well underway in the 80s but in a very different way. In modern times, characters are awkwardly shoe-horned in to further a political agenda, but back then it was just how things were.
Sometimes, it was done out of sheer desperation.
As a show began to slip into obscurity, they would quickly throw a new character into the mix, and it would usually be someone as different to the other characters as possible in the hope of engaging with a new segment of the audience.
It rarely worked.
In Airwolf, they added a woman, Caitlin, who started out as a police helicopter pilot and slowly became a member of the team. The integration was actually handled surprisingly well, with her earning their trust fairly slowly over a number of episodes. She actually added something to the show without feeling forced or awkward and became a welcome addition.
Knight Rider added RC3, a Black character who was awkwardly shoe-horned in as the driver of the truck, armed with a rubber assault-rifle (not a joke). He was less developed and just didn’t get enough screen-time to find his feet. It was a dumb decision because an additional action character undermined the whole concept of ‘one man can make a difference.’ But this addition was most likely a misguided attempt to seed a spin-off show and was a definite mark of desperation as the show began to suffer a significant reduction in viewing figures.
The A Team had a more difficult time with it. Legend has it that Mr T and George Peppard constantly bickered over who was the real star (when nobody really gave a damn) and the latter made it increasingly difficult for the female members of the cast. Amy, the first character bugged out fairly early, only to be replaced by exactly the same character with a different face. In the final season they added a new male character who brought absolutely nothing new—but again, it was already too late to save the show.
While not confined to 80s TV, this certainly happened often enough to be considered a cliché. Knight Rider took it to extremes once again, not only controlling Bonnie, the mechanic, but often having plots about reprogramming KITT into a shadow of his former self—often at the same time.
The A Team didn’t fall into this too far, but it dipped its toe into these murky waters by frequently scrambling BA’s brain to get him on aircraft. Those crazy guys!
Airwolf stayed mostly clear of this during it’s 3 year run but in the 4th season where the cast were replaced by a bunch of sock-puppets, they resorted to ‘The Puppet Master’ where they take over a character’s mind to steal the helicopter. Of course, by season 4 there was nobody left who cared.
Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Heart to Heart, Hawaii 5O, Viper, The Bionic Woman and about 60% of all Star Trek episodes did it.
Street Hawk didn’t run long enough to fall into this territory, but we all knew it was going to happen. My guess is that it would have been Jessie, by someone who wanted to steal the bike.
The desperation face-lift
This was usually the result of waning interest rather than the demands of the narrative, but it happened often enough to be considered normal.
Airwolf did it in the worst way possible, losing the entire cast of the original show after about 3 seasons. They didn’t have enough material for syndication so they created a 4th season, on a much lower budget with all of the stock footage of the helicopter, and actors they found begging for food round the back of Walmart. The 4th season was unwatchable garbage, but is widely considered superior to anything produced by Disney in the last decade. Or Warner Brothers. Or pretty much anyone in Hollywood.
Battlestar Galactica pulled the same stunt with, suspiciously, the same actor. They set the show on Earth to cut the budget and cut out every single thing about the original show—except the name.
Knight Rider had a pretty good stab at it. They had already updated the car’s dash, realising that the prop was dating faster than an aspiring Hollywood actress. They gave the car super-pursuit mode where panels popped out, making it faster in some unfathomable way; they turned the car into a convertible by pressing a huge white button that’s never visible on the dash from any other angle, and they introduced a new character and really just hoped for the best.
The A team probably did it best. They shifted the whole dynamic of the show to give the team an official position with the government, which added some narrative intrigue, which sadly, didn’t get a chance to mature.
Whenever new gimmicks are added, you can always tell that the grim reaper is coming to take your show to a better place in the afterlife of TV remakes and reboots.
A fact of life is that Hollywood is filled with flaky weirdos who barely function as humans. Not all of them have massive narcissistic personality disorders, and I’m sure that many don’t abuse any kinds of substances at all. I’m equally sure that everyone is treated completely fairly and that none of this is relevant in any way.
Bonnie vanished from Knight Rider to be replaced with a face painted on a plank of wood. Fans noticed the difference and demanded the return of a real, living and breathing actress. The same thing happened in Star Trek TNG where beloved character, Doctor Crusher was temporarily crushed and a character even less popular than her son filled in for her.
Results didn’t vary; nobody liked it.
Airwolf did this in the most extreme way. Legend has it that by the end of the 3rd season, Jan Michael Vincent was having significant substance issues and had to be held up by a rope to deliver his lines. Several episodes began shifting the focus to secondary characters, but it couldn’t save the show and it eventually folded.
The A Team was famously hard on actresses who left with alarming regularity. They were pursued by a military policeman who eventually also just lost interest and got switched out.
Whatever politics or issues went on behind the scenes, a new face is always a sign that something isn’t quite right somewhere.
A visit to Chinatown
At some point in every 80s TV show, there will be an episode where the heroes will go up against Chinese Triads, Samurais or Ninjas, which makes actually no sense. Generally there will be two factions fighting over a jade teapot, and our heroes will be drawn into a conflict they don’t fully understand.
It’s an unwritten law of the 80s that this has to happen, and even movie series aren’t safe from this powerful rule of thumb.
Knight Rider did it in the biggest, boldest style it could manage, in the hope of launching a spinoff show, which seemed to be a major obsession with them at the time.
Street Hawk lasted only 12 episodes in total but managed to obey the rules by cramming one in early.
Airwolf dabbled with the idea, introducing elements of it, but never quite going all in. Presumably, that’s the real reason why the show was cancelled.
The Incredible Hulk did it, Remington steel… The A Team did it multiple times.
While getting the facts firmly wrong, these episodes generally had a charming naivety to them. They came from a place that looked onto other cultures with fascination rather than a compulsion to make some kind of political point.
The dreaded reboot - copy & paste hell
As common as all these cliches might be, none is more pernicious, more vile and more awful than the encroaching shadow of the reboot.
It comes to the best and worst shows, and nothing is entirely safe.
The A Team escaped being turned into a Saturday morning cartoon by effectively being a Saturday morning cartoon with live actors, but a more mature, serious and grounded take eventually manifested itself as a movie. It ended up not being particularly mature, serious or grounded, which should have been ideal since that absolutely was exactly what we didn’t want. Sadly it wasn’t The A Team either and ended up looking like nothing more than a caricature of the old show, itself a caricature of ‘The Dirty Dozen’.
Knight Rider was rebooted for a new audience, forgetting exactly why the old audience lost interest. The one man making a difference was updated to ‘one man and an entire diverse team of utterly useless morons with the professionalism of a Democrat government.’ The iconic black Trans-Am was turned into the far less iconic Ford Mustang with the added benefit of popping-out guns and random nonsense whenever random nonsense was required. It combined the worst of the 80s shows with the worst that several decades of development had taught us.
It didn’t escape the first season, though we escaped a second.
And even before that, a failed Knight Rider 2000 pilot intrigued us all by taking the characters we loved and killing them off to replace them with an emotionally void female protagonist. There was a Knight Rider 2010 pilot that I don’t even want to talk about, and ‘Team Knight Rider’ that was like the unnatural result of a pairing of two species that don’t share quite enough genetic material to make this work.
The Bionic Woman, itself a spinoff of ‘The Bionic Man’ was rebooted, trying to recapture absolutely nothing of the essence of the original. It was destroyed by a very timely writer’s strike just as it seemed to be finding its robotic feet.
Airwolf escaped, but was already a blended mess of Blue Thunder and Firefox.
Battlestar Galactica did things the opposite way, taking the original series and re-imagining it for a more mature audience by writing exactly what a mature audience might actually watch. It was perfectly pitched at the original fans who had grown into the exact audience it was aimed at. While far from perfect, with the last season finding the crew sucked into an enormous black-hole of the creator’s ego, it did generally hit the mark. Star Trek was not as fortunate, with each copy of the copy getting further removed from the original.
So, while not an exhaustive list of 5 cliches (or even an actual list of 5 cliches) these are some of the things that we got used to seeing in our favourite shows. While not always perfect, not always even good, these are the things that defined some of our childhoods in the best possible way.
God bless the 80s!!
Many thanks for reading this article. We hope it was interesting, informative and entertaining. Follow us on social media or share our content on your own pages. It helps us grow so we can create more free content to help you.
Want a completely free trilogy inspired by the 80s?
A man with no memory. A woman with no social-skills. Another, much bigger man who likes punching things. FREE.