I was born in 1986, which I would argue essentially makes me the quintessential ’90s child, coming into the decade as a four-year-old making some of my first television memories and leaving it as a jaded 14-year-old, certain that The Simpsons probably had “a season or two left, at best.” But one thing is certain: I watched a whole lot of TV.
In that decade, I watched some of the best shows, such as the aforementioned Simpsons in its heyday, and I watched some absolute dreck—I’m talking Street Sharks and SWAT Kats-type stuff here. (Do you even realize how many terrible animated shows there were featuring anthropomorphic animals in the ’90s? I suspect that you do not.)
It was a decade of wholesome family sitcoms and subversive cartoons that flew under the radar and straight into cult fame. Sincerity seemed to rule the airwaves as the ’90s opened, gradually replaced by a sense of cynical, defeatist satire as the decade progressed. It was a transformative period for so many televised genre programs, from science fiction and mystery to horror and absurdist humor. The ’90s came in with dayglo excess and left in a flannel daze, bemoaning the death of grunge and the incoming and clearly unavoidable disaster of Y2K.
Here, then, is a ranking of the top 90 shows of the 1990s.
90. Murder, She Wrote
A favorite of the “senior citizen solves mysteries” genre in the same vein as Columbo, Murder, She Wrote actually has a bit more in common with the work of Agatha Christie and particularly her brilliant spinster, Miss Marple. Granted, Angela Lansbury was only in her 60s for most of the show’s long, 12-year run, racking up Golden Globe and Emmy nominations all the while. Really, the most remarkable thing about Murder, She Wrote is the way that murder literally follows Jessica Fletcher around everywhere she goes. Any locale this woman visits is immediately stalked by death, moments after her arrival. It’s like she emits some kind of magnetic field that causes people to act out their darkest urges.
89. Unsolved Mysteries
Just thinking of the opening music from Unsolved Mysteries sends a chill down my spine—this was undoubtedly the most frightening theme song my grade school self had ever heard. Its accompaniment was the steely voice of Robert Stack, who would reel off quite the list of disturbing “mysteries” each week, from unsolved crime cases and conspiracy theories to terrifying dips into the supernatural. That was the bizarre thing about the show—it could go from a story about long-lost twins somehow finding their way back together into a segment about demonic possession or alien abduction at the drop of a hat. It was a staple of both NBC and then CBS for years before somehow ending up on Lifetime of all places before Stack’s death in 2003.
88. Dawson’s Creek
The late 1990s saw a large boom in the teen drama subgenre, of which Dawson’s Creek was certainly one of the prototypical examples. It was very much in the same vein as some of its contemporaries, with a cast of attractive young kids, although it was set apart somewhat by its pretty New England surroundings. The scripts by series creator Kevin Williamson caught some early flack before the series had even premiered for their perceived “raciness” and frank discussion of teen sexuality, but time has been kind to memories of the show’s legacy. And James Van Der Beek of course remains a total dreamboat to this day.
87. Walker, Texas Ranger
It’s tough to name any show of the 1990s more fun to ironically watch in 2014 than a vintage episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. I mean really, what other shows have inspired Conan O’Brien to install a level on his desk and show contextless clips over the course of several years—and that was the most requested Late Night skit series of all time, by the way. The individual moments are so incredible that it’s not even necessary to watch the episodes—you can just enjoy the snippet of an old man in a wheelchair being pushed down the stairs into a pool , completely out of context. Or Walker telling a young Haley Joel Osment that he has AIDS. Or Walker jumping through a man’s car windshield:. Or perhaps the thrilling conclusion to the greatest Walker clip of all time—I won’t spoil this one for you.
86. The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.
Bruce Campbell is an actor who never truly received a chance at the starring roles he deserved, and The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. is some of the better evidence that we all missed out on a guy who could have been much more than just a cult favorite in movies like The Evil Dead. Ostensibly a western, there are so many other genres wrapped into Brisco’s adventures, from time travel to experimentation with steampunk technology. It may have even inspired some Venture Brothers episodes, seeing as a good number of episodes revolve around a mysterious artifact from the future called “the orb.” Critical praise was strong for the show, but like so many others on Fox, the ratings didn’t hold up and The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. was filed squarely into the “cult” folder after its cancellation after one season.
Before Mayim Bialik was sucked into the CBS comedy void that is The Big Bang Theory, she was the early ’90s star of Blossom. The story of a precocious teenager growing up with her musician father and annoying brothers, she became an icon as the “goofy girl” with weird fashion, particularly the big, floppy hats that became her calling card. Today, the show is often remembered as one of the leading innovators of the “very special episode” format, which was already well established by shows such as Diff’rent Strokes but expanded into an art form by Blossom. Examples on Blossom include the time her best friend Six (that’s her name, yes) is dating an older man who turns out to be married, or the traumatic occasion of Blossom’s first period. Sometimes it seemed like every other Blossom episode was “very special.”
A lot of people, Martin Lawrence included, probably thought this would be the peak of the former stand-up’s career in comedy, but they were simply unaware that he would one day make Big Momma’s House. Set in direct opposition to the dominance of NBC’s “Must See TV” block on Thursday nights, Martin became a counterbalance, a story set in urban Detroit with a largely black cast. A bit of a blowhard and a paper tiger, Martin is a funny guy who likes to act tough, but is secretly a softy on the inside, a characteristic only rarely seen by his more serious, long-suffering girlfriend, Gina. The show had a bit of an odd conclusion, as a sexual harassment lawsuit from Tisha Campbell resulted in her being absent through a good portion of the final season. She eventually settled and filmed three final episodes under the stipulation that she wouldn’t appear in any scenes with Lawrence, which certainly sounds like it must have been awkward to witness.
It’s sort of hard to make Wings sound thrilling, but that’s okay because it was always a gentle, sort of stuffy sitcom, albeit one with good performances. You can sum it up in one short sentence: A pair of brothers live in Nantucket and operate a small, one-plane airline. In the vein of Cheers (it was produced by the same people), the stories revolve around the colorful cast of characters who hang around the airport, such as cellist Helen Hackett or Italian-American stereotype Antonio V. Scarpacci, amusingly played by Tony Shalhoub. The brothers, Joe and Brian Hackett, basically have the classic Abbott and Costello dynamic going, with Tim Daly playing the straight man and Steven Weber playing his free-wheeling, womanizing foil.
82. Full House
Full House is probably the quintessential sappy family sitcom of the ’90s, the kind of show that was the butt of jokes from every late-night comedian who thought he was somehow skewering polite society by making fun of its cheesiness or adorable kid actors. The story of a widowed father raising his three daughters in San Francisco with the help of his brother-in-law and goofy best friend, it was pure sap, but a guilty pleasure for plenty of viewers who wouldn’t have watched anything else in the same genre. It offered a little something for everyone—kids liked the silly voices and characters of Joey, women liked the beefcake that was John Stamos, and families liked the cute kids, especially Michelle, who was turned into a marketing empire by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. But even more than Michelle, what says “’90s” more than Stephanie Tanner leading a dance party to Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch?
Even more so than in the golden age of the WWF in the late ’80s, the late ’90s was the most popular and relevant that pro wrestling has ever been on a national scale. Good things arose from the competition between Ted Turner’s WCW and Vince McMahon’s WWF and the so-called “Monday Night Wars” that resulted, as the quest for ratings drove creativity and some of the most popular characters of all time, including Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Goldberg, Sting and more. The single biggest heel turn in history took place July 6, 1996 when Hulk Hogan did the unthinkable and became a villain, forming the New World Order in WCW and ushering in several of the most exciting, over-the-top and influential years the wrestling world has ever seen. WWF, meanwhile, kicked off its own “Attitude Era,” still considered the high-water mark for pro wrestling as a whole.
80. seaQuest DSV
It’s easy to sort of deride seaQuest DSV as essentially “Star Trek underwater,” but in its earlier episodes that comparison was only half right. Roy Scheider of Jaws fame starred as the captain of a research and diplomatic envoy vessel in a future where depletion of the Earth’s resources has led to the only cities remaining underwater, where they harvest the bounty of the ocean. As the show progressed to a second season, the sci-fi elements grew stronger with the discovery of aliens and various “monster of the week” episodes in the vein of those types of Star Trek or X-Files episodes. Scheider was particularly unhappy about the direction the show was heading and stepped down before the third season, which was oddly set 10 years further into the future. Michael Ironside replaced him and played the new, more militaristic captain, but ratings were bad, dooming one of network TV’s quirkier series.
79. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
Ah, Hercules. This syndicated show was some truly excellent TV comfort food—put it on in the background and devote roughly 25 percent of your attention to it while doing something more important. Plots were minimalistic, but the action was cheesy and fun, although somehow still less over the top than say, Walker, Texas Ranger. The writers clearly didn’t care whatsoever about long-term plots or even keeping their mythologies straight—every other episode would lift random fixtures of Egyptian, Asian and European mythology right alongside the “Greek stuff.” None of that mattered—it was understood you were watching simply for the bromance between Kevin Sorbo as Hercules and Michael Hurst as his nephew/sidekick Iolaus. Check your brain at the door and let 30 minutes roll by.
78. The Tick: The Animated Series
It’s easy to imagine the average viewer being completely perplexed by The Tick the first time they laid eyes on the animated series. Its satire of both animated children’s TV shows and comic book superheroes came totally out of left field—the one similar parody from the time period I can think of is the occasional character “Really Really Big Man” from Rocko’s Modern Life. The Tick, though, was a full-time satirist, a possibly insane, blue man-child who possessed super strength but a lack of any common sense, and powerful abilities that literally increased or decreased depending on how “dramatic” his surroundings were. As a Saturday morning cartoon it was only mildly successful before blossoming into a cult hit on Comedy Central re-runs. The subsequent 2001 live-action series returned to Fox but ran for only nine episodes, proving that The Tick was probably best left to a more colorful atmosphere.
The 1990s seemed to be just jam-packed full of sitcoms like Coach, these genial programs about harried parents dealing with kids and family life, only defined by their unique locations. What mattered was each show’s cast, and Craig T. Nelson, as later evidenced by The Incredibles, was pretty much born to be the harried father. Here, he coached a prestigious college football team at the fictional “Minnesota State” before moving on to the NFL, but even more than the team, his challenges typically revolved around wrangling his college-aged daughter or sorting out disputes between other teachers or members of his staff. Like any of these shows, you had yourself a few goofball comic relief characters who existed just to give out-of-nowhere monologues like this one.
Dinosaurs was a truly bizarre concept, a puppet show about anthropomorphic dino-humans in flannel, living a Flintstones-type existence in lower-middle class suburbia. To some viewers, it seemed moronic, what with Baby Sinclair’s antics, singing and slapstick humor, but it was simultaneously capable of being both a sincere political platform and a biting parody of TV’s shallowness. I mean, just look at the absurdity of the fourth wall-breaking going on here. It was also notable for having the most depressing conclusion this side of ALF, which heavily implied that all of the dinosaur characters we’d come to know and love over the course of four seasons were going to freeze to death and go extinct. I’m not sure how this came as a shock—they’re dinosaurs, after all. But still, genocide is a rough way to end a sitcom.