In his excellent book 'The Revolution Was Televised,' Alan Sepinwall argues that the last 15 years have seen a thrilling renaissance in TV drama. He makes a good point - citing the work of visionary writers like Matthew Weiner, David Chase, Joss Whedon and David Simon, in ushering in a new era of small screen artistry. The 1980's, on the other hand, told a very different story. Far from a golden age of TV, this was a time when shows were built around shallow characterisations and derivative concepts that could be recycled week in, week out.
Today’s shows offer fantastic actresses like Glenn Close, Laura Linney and Edie Falco rich, meaty and complex characters that root the drama in reality. But it’s not so long ago that women were relegated to the glamorous sidekick role, popping up week after week in yet another contrived cheesecake scenario. And yet, despite all efforts to render them entirely inconsequential, many of these women managed to leave an indelible impression on a generation of male viewers. They might not have made the grade as proto-feminist role models, but their sharp-witted, seductive and sassy performances ensured they’d be remembered long after their respective shows were forgotten. Here’s my tribute to 10 of the very best.
April Curtis, played by Rebecca Holden in Knight Rider
Filling the shapely jump-suit vacated by Kirstie Alley-clone Bonnie Barstow, Rebecca Holden popped up in season two of Knight Rider to fiddle under Michael Knight’s bonnet. Usually, attractive women don’t fare too well when locked in the back of an articulated lorry, but April Curtis was a woman firmly in control.
With flaming locks of auburn hair (apologies to Dolly Parton) and glasses designed expressly for removing in moments of sexual tension, April knew how to rev an engine, and may have single-handedly encouraged a generation of women to consider a career in engineering. Most importantly, she could see right through Michael’s villainous twin Garthe, happily kicking him and his pointy beard into touch.
Diana Prince/Wonder Woman played by Lynda Carter
Let’s face it - the superhero game has always been one massive sausage fest. So in the late 70's, we were all thankful for strapping Amazonian Diana Prince and her lasso-wielding alter ego. In her calf-high boots and bedazzled granny pants, Lynda Carter was such an intoxicating heroine that we never even stopped to question the logic of her flying an invisible jet in which she remained steadfastly visible.
The Wonder Woman TV show tinkered with the comic format, changing Diana’s day job from nurse to Naval petty officer, for instance. They also added a small but potent explosion, every time she spun around and removed her clothes. But I’ll leave you to add your own punchline to that one.
Phylicia Rashad as Clair Huxtable in The Cosby Show
When it came to 1980s prime-time TV, African-American women were pretty thin on the ground, apart from the occasional appearance as a take-no-bullshit judge on a legal drama. Thankfully, there was one notable exception, in the immaculately groomed form of Phylicia Rashad - for my money the quintessential TV MILF.
Smart, sophisticated and stern, she was the firm but fair mother of five, as well as a successful lawyer. Unfazed by her husband’s incessant gurning and chunky sweaters, she could get a conviction overturned in the time it took Cliff to tell another tiresome anecdote about pocket-money. At the time, I always marvelled at how Clair’s useless son Theo managed to entice so many of his school friends to visit him at home. Now, I think I’m beginning to understand why they were lining up down the street.
Pamela Hensley as C.J. Parsons on Matt Houston.
Sensing that the power of Magnum P.I.’s appeal lay in Tom Selleck’s lustrous lip-warmer, the powers-that-be at ABC were quick to commission an homage of their own. Matt Houston told the tale of a moustachioed billionaire playboy who filled his empty days as a private investigator.
Aiding him in his louche lifestyle was his attorney C.J., with her open blouses, scalded red cheeks and enormous feathered hair that looked as if she rode to work on top of a runaway fire engine. The perfect combination of brains and beauty, C.J. possessed an early Apple computer that, despite having the memory of a pocket calculator, held a database with information on every person that ever lived. So not only was she a great crime-solver, she even invented Facebook.
Heather Thomas as Jody Banks on The Fall Guy
Few shows in the 1980's were as ruggedly, unapologetically masculine as The Fall Guy. Despite feeling like it was cobbled together from a bunch of outtakes from all those late 70's Hal Needham movies, The Fall Guy gave Lee Majors another massive TV hit. But while he and Douglas Barr were busy indulging in their May-to-December bromance, the camera was busy ogling fellow stunt pro Jody Banks.
Although she could roll a car or dive onto a pile of boxes with the best of them, Jody’s real skill was doing it all in a skimpy bikini. Hell, this is a woman who’d apply for a bank loan in a two-piece bathing suit. The formula obviously worked, since Heather went on to be the pin-up queen of the decade, appearing in more bikini scenes than any other prime time actress. Say what you like about feminism, but I bet Germaine Greer never rode a motorbike over five buses in her knickers.
Robey as Micki Foster in Friday The 13th The Series
In the late 80's, Paramount was keen to exploit its most lucrative franchise - the low budget slasher series Friday the 13th. Rejecting everything but the name, canny producers developed a threat-of-the-week concept involving the reclamation of cursed antiques by a couple of cousins who inherit an antique shop from their devil-dealing uncle. Although the show was a ratings hit at the time, it’s now best viewed as a camp curiosity - filled with odd exposition, inexplicable character motivations and terrible effects work.
For most fans of the show, the standout highlight was redheaded Robey – the mononymous former rockstar and future Countess of Burford. Sporting a breathtaking array of hairdos that would have required planning permission and some major structural underpinning, Robey brought an incongruous touch of big city glamour to a show about possessed scalpels and magical teacups. She was also a fan of gigantic ear-rings that, at times, looked more elaborate than the mystical trinkets that she and her cousin were attempting to reclaim.
Heather Locklear as Stacy Sheridan in TJ Hooker
TV cop shows have always been rigidly formulaic. And there’s no greater certainty than the fact that the comely, attractive young trainee officer will, at some point, have to back-comb her hair, daub herself in garish makeup and patrol the streets as an undercover prostitute. But during the 80's, no-one did it better, or more often, than Stacy Sheridan on T.J. Hooker.
Despite being the daughter of the police chief, Stacy was itching to get out from behind the station desk, if only so she could show off her legs in a pair of hotpants. Heather Locklear has been a glamorous fixture on TV for three decades now, and has barely aged a day in all that time. Come to think of it, the hair hasn’t changed either.
Erin Gray as Wilma Deering in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
In the post-Star Wars rush to commission new sci-fi properties, it was hardly surprising that studios would return to the serial cliffhangers that had inspired Lucas’ burgeoning franchise in the first place.
Equally unsurprising, was the fact that the tough, no-nonsense Colonel Wilma Deering would quickly soften into a sexy, flirtatious foil for our barrel-chested hero. Even so, it must have been hard for former model to convey her character’s military seniority, wearing a purple one-piece that Katie Price might reject as being a little too clingy.
Stefanie Powers as Jennifer Hart in Hart to Hart
There was a time when it seemed as though every other show on TV was about glamorous one-percenters solving crimes in their spare time, because they had fuck all else to do. And Hart to Hart was no exception.
When he and his fabulous wife weren’t busy clinking Champagne glasses on their private jet, Jonathan and Jennifer Hart amused themselves by getting involved in international espionage. Such larks - these days, they’d just head out under cover of darkness and shoot homeless people. Nonetheless, at the ripe old age of 37, Stefanie Powers had a kind of lived-in glamour, and kept herself looking effortlessly windswept by never putting up the roof on her Mercedes convertible.
Jane Badler as Diana in V
It may have started out as an exceptional sci-fi allegory about the insidious rise of Nazism, but V soon descended into a trashy spacey soap opera - imagine Alexis and Crystal throwing blue milk in each other’s faces. Chief culprit for the increasingly campy tone was Jane Badler, who played the visitors’ improbably glamorous Chief Science Officer with lip-smacking relish.
As the eye make-up and hair got ever more ridiculous, so too did the performance, until she was devouring the scenery as if it was just another guinea pig. At one point Diana was forced into an arranged marriage with Charles, the Leader of the Visitors, by which point the audience had stopped caring. According to Wikipedia, Diana was intended as an analogue of Josef Mengele, although I doubt he could have carried off a negligee with shoulder pads.