Enter the 1980s, a glorious time filled with neon colors, new wave music, and family sitcoms as far as the eye could see. While the family sitcom wasn’t a novelty concept, by the dawn of the ’80s, the sub-genre got a sanitized makeover to fit the new, strange times.
Gone were family shows that showcased poverty and bigotry, and in its place were saccharine 80s family sitcoms focused more on the nuisance of family life, and mainstream issues that these shows managed to fix in a matter of a half-and-hour. As formulaic as most of these shows were, family sitcoms were must-see-TV, and these ’80s TV shows helped revitalize network television.
Updated on April 20, 2023, by Hannah Saab:
Family sitcoms are still in decline, but fans can always turn to the classics from the ’80s for some reliable entertainment. While some of these series haven’t aged well, there’s no denying their enduring legacy and influence on popular culture.
10 ‘Silver Spoons’ (1982 – 1987)
Premiering in 1982, Silver Spoons is a family sitcom that asked the question: “What would it be like to be raised by a manchild that made a fortune selling toys?”
The answer that primetime viewers got weekly, was it would be a very awesome childhood, complete with a toy train that takes them all over a giant mansion. Silver Spoons was the series that introduced the world to Alfonso Ribeiro (who first appeared in Season 3), who would go on to further cement his name in pop culture playing Carlton Banks in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in the ’90s.
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9 ‘Cheers’ (1982 – 1993)
Cheers is not your typical “family sitcom;” however, the gang that regularly patronized the Cheers bar near Boston Common was like a family, albeit, with a lot more alcohol involved.
Cheers helped launch multiple acting careers, including Ted Danson, Shelley Long, and Kelsey Grammer (who got his own Cheers spin-off series, Frasier, in the ’90s). It was the place where “everybody knows your name,” making it clear family wasn’t just who you were related to. Now among the nostalgic ’80s and ’90s TV shows, Cheers has a special place in fans’ hearts.
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8 ‘Mama’s Family’ (1983 – 1990)
In 1974, Vicky Lawrence put on a gray wig and dressed as a southern Mama on The Carol Burnett Show. Her skit as Thelma Mae Harper, aka, “Mama,” was so popular, that it warranted a spin-off series.
That came nine years later with Mama’s Family, which features Lawerence’s sharp-witted character as the matriarch of the dysfunctional Harper family on the show. Her sarcasm and sharp, hilarious zingers powered Mama’s Family for six seasons, which obtained popularity after it left NBC for syndication in 1986.
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7 ‘Family Matters’ (1989 – 1998)
Time for an honest take: Family Matters would have died a short death if it wasn’t for Steve Urkel (Jaleel White), the geeky next-door neighbor of the Winslows that captivated America as The Cosby Show was entering its sundown period. Beneath the surface, however, Family Matters was more than “Did I Do That?”
The sitcom touched on a variety of themes, and some of its “special episodes” remain some of the most impactful episodes ever produced on network television, ranging from Eddie Winslow (Darius McCrary) dealing with Chicago street gangs to Carl Winslow (Reginald VelJohnson) having to deal with racial bias within the Chicago Police force. While it hit peak ratings in the ’90s, Family Matters could have easily fitted in well with the other family sitcoms of the ’80s.
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6 ‘Punky Brewster’ (1984 – 1988)
When Punky Brewster premiered on NBC in 1984, the heartwarming family sitcom brought a dose of “Punky Power” to television sets everywhere. Punky (Soleil Moon Frye) was a child who, along with her dog, Brandon, was abandoned by her parents. Found by Henry Wernimont, he took Punky in and became her adoptive father.
Punky Brewster showcased on the screen how one can be at peace with being their free spirit, and while saccharine as with other ’80s family shows, Punky Brewster had a mojo that appeals to fans even to this day.
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5 ‘Alf’ (1986 – 1990)
Let’s set the scene: The location is the San Fernando Valley, and, out of nowhere, an alien crash lands into a family’s trash can and becomes one of the hottest characters on network television in the ’80s. That’s the trajectory of Alf, which ran for four seasons in the mid-’80s and is a cult classic among many who grew up in the era.
Alf (whose actual name was “Gordan Shumway”) was an enduring alien (except to cats, which was his delicacy) who had a sharp-witted tongue in his commentary on humankind. Alf’s run was a bit too short, but for the 102 episodes it was on the air, it carved itself a space in pop culture history.
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4 ‘Growing Pains’ (1985 – 1992)
In some ways, Growing Pains was a family sitcom perfectly made for the ’80s. The plot of the series went like this: Jason Seaver (Alan Thicke) moves his therapy practice home so that his wife, Maggie Seaver (Joanna Kerns), can go back to work after spending 15 years as a stay-at-home mom. He’s now in charge of three rambunctious kids: Mike (Kirk Cameron), the troublemaker and eldest of the Seaver kids, Carol (Tracey Gold), the smart one, and Ben (Jeremy Miller), who is sort of in-between but looks up to his brother
Like most family comedies in the ’80s, Growing Pains followed the traditional, sanitized path of solving typical family problems in under a half-and-hour; however, the show differentiated itself in that it showed a family that, on the surface, appeared to have things together, but was slightly dysfunctional at its core. But, as long as they had each other, they could get through anything.
3 ‘Family Ties’ (1982 – 1989)
Family Ties was a mirror image of what the ’80s came to be, both culturally and politically. By the time the show premiered on NBC in the fall of 1982, America was embracing the conservative politics and culture being cultivated by Ronald Regan, and no one loved it more than Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox).
Keaton a young Republican who had no problem wearing a tie and carrying a briefcase to school, espousing the virtues of the Republican Party, and showcasing his intellectual superiority. He used his love for conservatism as a rebellion against his former hippie parents, Steven and Elise Keaton; and while some of Alex’s stance would be a bit problematic in today’s culture, it was ripe for primetime comedy in the Cold War era. Family Ties made a star out of Fox, who would go on to star in blockbusters such as Back to the Future, and have his own, spiritual spinoff of Family Ties in the ’90s, Spin City.
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2 ‘Full House’ (1987 – 1995)
The premise of Full House is based on a somber plot: Danny Tanner (Bob Saget) was left to pick up the pieces and raise his three daughters after his wife was killed in a car accident. He then recruits his brother-in-law, Jesse (John Stamos), and his best friend, Joey (Dave Coulier), to help raise his kids, and the family hijinks ensue.
Full House has many iconic sitcom moments, from Jesse and Joey struggling to change Michelle’s diaper in the pilot to the family being forced to spend Christmas in an airport because of a blizzard. Some would say the show was a bit too cheesy, but that’s the beauty of Full House, a show that balanced comedy and drama perfectly on ABC for 8 seasons.
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1 ‘The Cosby Show’ (1984 – 1992)
Bill Cosby may be a disgraced figure today, but one can’t deny the impact The Cosby Show had on network television. It was must-see-TV before NBC popularized the phase in the ’90s, and was a rating savior on the network, which was languishing in third place behind CBS and ABC before the series premiered.
The Cosby Show also was the first to showcase the upward mobility of the Black family, with both the mother and the father having well-paying careers and the family living in an immaculate Brooklyn Brownstone. Not only that, but the show was hilarious week after week, providing plenty of iconic moments that will forever be etched in the memory of those who grew up watching the Huxtables every Thursday night.
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NEXT: ’80s Sitcoms That Are Still Hip Today