DISCOVER--the television series of Stephen J. Cannell

by jonabbott56 | created - 02 Jan 2013 | updated - 20 Jan 2016 | Public

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Stephen J. Cannell was the single most influential figure in populist action/adventure television. His fusion of the B-movie plots and values of 1940s pulps, westerns and cliffhanger serials to the post-Watergate cynicism of 1970s cinema refreshed popular culture, from the smart, wry humour of The Rockford Files to the comic-book exploits of The A-Team. Although he was so heavily copied that his innovations eventually became cliches themselves, his shows directly inspired such movie franchises as the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series. Today, there is nothing quite like them on television, yet during the 1980s, every adventure show either was a Cannell show, or was copying his style.

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1. The Rockford Files (1974–1980)

TV-PG | 50 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery

The cases of an easy going ex-convict turned private investigator.

Stars: James Garner, Noah Beery Jr., Joe Santos, Luis Delgado

Votes: 6,576

As the 1970s began, and several creative spirits began to reinvent certain film and TV genres that had stagnated or become outdated and redundant, western and detective cliches in particular were either swept away or parodied. The Rockford Files did a little of both for the private eye genre, starting out under the guidance of TV veteran and former pulp novelist Roy Huggins as a fairly straightforward contemporary detective series, set--as was the '70s style--in the sunlight. By the third season, writers such as Cannell, Juanita Bartlett, and David Chase (The Sopranos) had, with the willing collaboration of lead actor James Garner, while retaining the enjoyably convoluted plots, moved the series into the realm of satire and character comedy, zinging numerous well-deserving aspects of the 1970s in the process. 120 episodes, incorporating the pilot, and including several two-part stories and extra-length episodes.

2. Baretta (1975–1978)

TV-PG | 60 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery

The cases of maverick undercover New York City detective Tony Baretta (Robert Blake).

Stars: Robert Blake, Tom Ewell, Michael D. Roberts, Edward Grover

Votes: 1,993

81 episodes, no pilot.

3. City of Angels (1976– )

60 min | Crime, Drama

Weekly adventures of hard-boiled '30s detective Jake Axminster.

Stars: Wayne Rogers, Elaine Joyce, Clifton James, Philip Sterling

Votes: 71

Pilot and ten episodes; pilot sometimes incorporated into the series as a three-parter (!).

4. Black Sheep Squadron (1976–1978)

Not Rated | 60 min | Action, Adventure, Drama

The dramatized World War II adventures of U.S. Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington and his U.S. Marine Attack Squadron 214, (The Black Sheep Squadron).

Stars: Robert Conrad, Simon Oakland, Dana Elcar, Dirk Blocker

Votes: 2,231

Pilot and 34 episodes. Also known as Black Sheep Squadron, and briefly before that, Baa Baa Black Sheep. Pilot sometimes marketed as The Flying Misfits.

5. Richie Brockelman, Private Eye (1978)

60 min | Crime, Drama

A private detective in his early twenties uses his youthful looks to an advantage in his work.

Stars: Dennis Dugan, Robert Hogan, Barbara Bosson, John Randolph

Votes: 77

Five episodes and a pilot. Dennis Dugan's youthful investigator (first introduced as an irritant in The Rockford Files) was far too annoying to hold down this series about a nerdy amateur with Chandler and Spillane fantasies.

6. The Duke (1979– )

60 min | Drama, Crime

Ex-boxer Duke Ramsey becomes a Chicago private investigator.

Stars: Robert Conrad, Daphne Reid, Michael Baseleon, Jack Brickhouse

Votes: 14

Four episodes and a pilot. Encouraged by the moderate success of Black Sheep Squadron, Cannell and Conrad re-teamed for this rather dull and old-fashioned detective show. A major snooze.

7. Stone (1979–1980)

60 min | Drama

Sgt. Daniel Stone has been moonlighting as a writer and after he becomes a success with lots of fans, it leads to resentment on the force. Former friend Chief Paulson is among those unhappy, not so rookie Buck Rogers.

Stars: Dennis Weaver, Pat Hingle, Robert Weaver, Joby Baker

Votes: 15

Nine episodes and a pilot. After spending almost the entire 1970s in the Cannell-ish cowboy cop show McCloud, it was way too soon for Dennis Weaver to present himself to the public in a new cop series... especially one that wasn't anywhere near as good.

8. Tenspeed and Brown Shoe (1980– )

TV-PG | 60 min | Crime, Drama

A con-man and an accountant-wanna-be private eye team up to fight crime.

Stars: Ben Vereen, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Romanus, Larry Manetti

Votes: 361

Twelve episodes and a pilot. One of Cannell's personal favourites, this Rockfordian p.i. series was just a little too quirky to catch on with a large audience.

9. The Greatest American Hero (1981–1983)

TV-14 | 60 min | Adventure, Comedy, Sci-Fi

A teacher is asked to be a superhero using a special alien suit with powers he can barely understand or control.

Stars: William Katt, Connie Sellecca, Robert Culp, Michael Paré

Votes: 4,399

Pilot, 42 episodes, and a dismal reboot pilot. Cannell did for American television what Stan Lee did for American comics, and so his send-up of super-hero comics was always going to be interesting, at the very least. While the production values were poor, the cast was superb, and former Rockford writers ensured the scripts and satirical elements were up to scratch.

10. The Quest (1982)

60 min | Adventure, Comedy, Family

The sovereign state of Glendorra has a problem. It seems that through an old agreement with France, unless there's a monarch, the country would revert to France. And the king has no heirs. ... See full summary »

Stars: Perry King, Noah Beery Jr., Ray Vitte, Karen Austin

Votes: 26

Five episodes and a pilot. Almost immediately cancelled as soon as it went on the air, this was a brave attempt to do something different but still belongs in the WTF were they thinking column. At least it connected Cannell with Perry King for Riptide.

11. The A-Team (1983–1987)

TV-PG | 60 min | Action, Adventure, Crime

Four Vietnam vets, framed for a crime they didn't commit, help the innocent while on the run from the military.

Stars: George Peppard, Mr. T, Dwight Schultz, Dirk Benedict

Votes: 33,151

93 episodes and a pilot (with a different actor playing Face).

12. Hardcastle and McCormick (1983–1986)

60 min | Action, Crime, Drama

A retired judge and his last defendant follow up on cases that were dismissed due to technicalities.

Stars: Brian Keith, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Joe Santos, John Hancock

Votes: 2,252

65 episodes and a pilot. Ridiculous rubbish about a vigilante judge who forces a parolee to help him bring malcontents who have exploited the legal system to justice. The likeable cast made it work, and as the series wore on, the writers spent more time avoiding the premise than using it...

13. The Rousters (1983–1984)

60 min | Adventure

Wyatt Earp III is a bouncer for a small carnival which travels from town to town. He also works as a bounty hunter to keep his family's law enforcement legacy alive.

Stars: Chad Everett, Jim Varney, Mimi Rogers, Maxine Stuart

Votes: 45

Twelve episodes and a pilot. Cannell's attempt to do another A-Team. Never quite worked.

14. Riptide (1984–1986)

60 min | Action, Crime, Drama

The cases of a private investigations agency run by three Vietnam War veterans, armed with toughness, their own helicopter, and the third's technical ability.

Stars: Perry King, Joe Penny, Thom Bray, Jack Ging

Votes: 2,250

Pilot and 55 episodes.

15. Hunter (I) (1984–1991)

TV-PG | 48 min | Action, Crime, Drama

Rick Hunter is a renegade cop who bends the rules and takes justice into his own hands. Partnered with the equally stunning and rebellious Sgt. McCall, the tough-minded duo set out to crack down on L.A.'s slimiest criminals.

Stars: Fred Dryer, Stepfanie Kramer, Charles Hallahan, Perry Cook

Votes: 3,571

150 episodes and a pilot; several multi-part stories.

16. Stingray (1985–1989)

TV-14 | 48 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery

"Ray", a man of mystery, gets people out of trouble, asking for favors in return.

Stars: Nick Mancuso, James Handy, Barbara Williams, William S. Taylor

Votes: 637

Pilot and 23 episodes.

17. The Last Precinct (1986)

60 min | Comedy

Adam West plays the Captain of a police precinct. Unfortunately, the cops at this precinct are assorted goof-balls, misfits, and malcontents. Essentially, this was an attempt to make a TV ... See full summary »

Stars: Jonathan Perpich, Ernie Hudson, Wings Hauser, Randi Brooks

Votes: 36

Pilot and seven episodes.

18. 21 Jump Street (1987–1991)

TV-14 | 60 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery

The cases of an undercover police unit composed of young-looking officers specializing in youth crime.

Stars: Johnny Depp, Dustin Nguyen, Peter DeLuise, Holly Robinson Peete

Votes: 10,423

Pilot and 101 episodes.

19. Wiseguy (1987–2009)

TV-14 | 60 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery

Vinnie Terranova (Ken Wahl) does time in a New Jersey penitentiary to set up his undercover role as an Agent for the O.C.B. (Organized Crime Bureau) of the United States. His roots in a ... See full summary »

Stars: Jonathan Banks, Jim Byrnes, Ken Wahl, Dwight Koss

Votes: 1,969

Pilot, 72 episodes including double-length reboot, and later TV movie.

20. J.J. Starbuck (1987–1988)

60 min | Adventure

Texas billionaire J.J. Starbuck drives around the country in a 1961 Lincoln convertible, with horns on the hood, acting as a private detective solving crimes. He charms the police and ... See full summary »

Stars: Dale Robertson, Shawn Weatherly, Jimmy Dean, Ben Vereen

Votes: 40

Pilot and fifteen episodes.

21. Sonny Spoon (1988– )

60 min | Comedy, Crime, Mystery

A slick, street-smart private eye and top disguise artist solves various crimes with a little help from his friends and also takes care of his dad, a bar owner.

Stars: Mario Van Peebles, Terry Donahoe, Bob Wieland, Melvin Van Peebles

Votes: 83

Pilot and fourteen episodes.

22. Unsub (1989– )

60 min | Mystery, Thriller

A special team of FBI forensics experts investigates serial murderers and other unsolved violent crimes.

Stars: David Soul, Jennifer Hetrick, Joe Maruzzo, Richard Kind

Votes: 108

Seven episodes.

23. Top of the Hill (1989– )

60 min | Drama

Thomas Bell's father is a congressman but poor health forces him to resign, so Thomas decides to run for his father's vacated position and wins. Now he looks at things in black and white ... See full summary »

Stars: William Katt, Jordan Baker, Dick O'Neill, Robert Weaver

Votes: 11

Pilot and twelve episodes.

24. Booker (1989–1990)

60 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery

Dennis Booker, an ex-cop, is hired by the U.S. office of a large Japanese company to investigate some suspect insurance claims. He is very anti-authority, resents being told what to do, and... See full summary »

Stars: Richard Grieco, Marcia Strassman, Katie Rich, Carmen Argenziano

Votes: 669

22 episodes.

25. Broken Badges (1990– )

60 min | Crime, Drama

Jack Bowman is a cop from New Orleans who doesn't exactly play by the rules. When he is sent to California on a brief assignment, he is wrongfully blamed for something he didn't do. To get ... See full summary »

Stars: Miguel Ferrer, Eileen Davidson, Jay Johnson, Ernie Hudson

Votes: 47

Pilot and six episodes.

26. The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage (1991)

60 min | Adventure, Comedy, Crime

A notoriously greedy and corrupt blond Wall Street businessman hiding from the FBI on a Caribbean island run by a gaudy dictator teams up with the legendary ghost pirate Black Jack Savage to save 100 lives and avoid going to hell.

Stars: Daniel Hugh Kelly, Roma Downey, Bert Rosario, Steve Hytner

Votes: 70

Pilot and six episodes.

27. Scene of the Crime (1991– )

60 min | Drama, Mystery

An anthology mystery show presenting a stand-alone story each episode. The creative twist: each episode featured a regular cast in varying roles and billing.

Stars: Lisa Houle, Stephen McHattie, Maxine Miller, François Montagut

Votes: 36

23 episodes.

28. The Commish (1991–1996)

TV-14 | 60 min | Comedy, Crime, Drama

Slightly offbeat television police comedy-drama. Tony Scali is the Police Commissioner in a small town, where solutions to difficult situations often require considerable creativity. Tony's... See full summary »

Stars: Michael Chiklis, Theresa Saldana, Kaj-Erik Eriksen, Geoffrey Nauffts

Votes: 1,724

91 episodes incorporating pilot.

29. Street Justice (1991–1993)

44 min | Action, Adventure

Adam Beaudreaux was a soldier in Vietnam, when he got wounded. He was fortunate that a young boy named Grady Jameson, whose parents were missionaries, found him and got him to help. Years ... See full summary »

Stars: Carl Weathers, Bryan Genesse, Charlene Fernetz, Marcus Chong

Votes: 156

44 episodes, incorporating pilot.

30. Silk Stalkings (1991–1999)

TV-14 | 60 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery

"Cassy" St. John and Tom Ryan are the new duo in town. It is now their job to catch the killers of Palm Beach.

Stars: Rob Estes, Mitzi Kapture, Charlie Brill, Janet Gunn

Votes: 2,269

Pilot and 175 episodes.

31. Palace Guard (1991)

60 min | Action, Comedy

Tommy Logan is an expert jewel thief who has just gotten out jail. He is hired by Arturo Taft as a security expert for his hotels around the world. Christy Cooper is her boss, and she doesn't like it one bit.

Stars: D.W. Moffett, Marcy Walker, Tony Lo Bianco, Allen Garfield

Votes: 27

Pilot and seven episodes.

32. Renegade (1992–1997)

43 min | Action, Adventure, Crime

After crooked cop Lieutenant "Dutch" Dixon kills his girlfriend and frames him for murder, Reno Raines escapes from jail and goes on the run.

Stars: Lorenzo Lamas, Branscombe Richmond, Don LaFontaine, Kathleen Kinmont

Votes: 4,290

110 episodes.

33. The Hat Squad (1992–1993)

60 min | Crime, Drama

A cop and his wife adopt three young boys whose parents were cops and/or killed in the line of duty. The three boys became The Hat Squad, part of the police department that tries to track ... See full summary »

Stars: Don Michael Paul, Nestor Serrano, Billy Warlock, James Tolkan

Votes: 128

Pilot and twelve episodes.

34. Missing Persons (1993–1995)

120 min | Drama, Crime

Follows a special police department which deals with cases where people have disappeared.

Stars: Daniel J. Travanti, Erik King, Juan Ramírez, Frederick Weller

Votes: 54

Pilot and 16 episodes.

35. Cobra (1993–1994)

60 min | Action, Adventure

When the traditional judicial system fails, there is an alternative: a special government agency that focuses on the victims.

Stars: Michael Dudikoff, Allison Hossack, James Tolkan, Keegan MacIntosh

Votes: 452

22 episodes, incorporating pilot.

36. Traps (1994)

R | 96 min | Drama

The year is 1950 and an English couple, Louise and Michael, have arrived in French-occupied Indochina to cover a story on a French-owned rubber plantation. They are to be the guests of the ... See full summary »

Director: Pauline Chan | Stars: Saskia Reeves, Robert Reynolds, Sami Frey, Jacqueline McKenzie

Votes: 43

Five episodes.

37. Hawkeye (1994–1995)

60 min | Adventure

The further adventures based on characters created by James Fennimore Cooper. Hawkeye the woodsman meets a brave English woman trying to free her husband from the French. Set during the French and Indian War in the area of the Hudson Valley.

Stars: Lee Horsley, Lynda Carter, Rodney A. Grant, Garwin Sanford

Votes: 233

22 episodes incorporating pilot.

38. Marker (1995– )

60 min | Drama

Richard DeMorra has been estranged from his father, a self-made man with a fortune made in the rose growing business in Hawaii, for many years. When his father dies Richard returns home and... See full summary »

Stars: Richard Grieco, Andy Bumatai, Gates McFadden, Sholom Gelt

Votes: 88

Pilot and 12 episodes. a second shot for Richard Grieco.

Jon is not on Facebook, but can reply to comments here, at the base of this list.

Obsessed with the popular culture of the 1960s and surrounding decades, Jon Abbott has been writing about film and TV for over thirty years in around two dozen different publications, trade, populist, and specialist. He is the author of several books, including

Irwin Allen Television Productions 1964-1970, Stephen J. Cannell Television Productions: A History of All Series and Pilots, The Elvis Films, Cool TV of the 1960s: Three Shows That Changed the World, and Strange New World: Sex Films of the 1970s.

See his Amazon author's page, and his other lists on the IMDB, all under the pre-fix DISCOVER. ” - jonabbott56

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