The 90 Best TV Shows of the 1990s

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75-90-of-the-90s-The-Magic-School-Bus.jpg 75. The Magic School Bus
Years: 1994-1997
“Reckless endangerment, the series!” But seriously, Ms. Frizzle has what, eight or nine kids in her class, tops, right? Is it safe to assume that all the other students were say, eaten by dinosaurs while time traveling or absorbed by white blood cells while fighting viruses inside Ralphie? In all seriousness, The Magic School Bus is one of this decade’s most entertaining children’s shows that somehow manages to be genuinely educational as well. Ms. Frizzle is the perfect agent of chaos, and armed with a bus capable of seemingly anything, there was nothing she couldn’t teach these kids. I just found myself wondering if their parents ever had to sign any permission slips for their children to be exploring deep space or the interior of an active volcano.

74-90-of-the-90s-Space-Ghost-Coast-to-Coast.jpg 74. Space Ghost Coast to Coast
Years: 1994-2004
The ’90s were a crazy, transitional period for Cartoon Network, which came into the decade showing classic Hannah Barbera and Warner Brothers cartoons as their main content blocks and left it with their flagship evening program, Adult Swim, more or less fully formed. I vividly remember watching reruns the original 1960s Space Ghost series, but ’90s audiences couldn’t have imagined that someone would think to recycle this unimportant character into a new show, Space Ghost Coast to Coast. A rather brilliant parody of both late-night TV talk shows and radio programs in the vein of Coast to Coast A.M., it began as a pretty deadpan parody and grew increasingly absurd over the course of 10 full seasons, until the moronic, catlike monster man called Brak had practically become the Adult Swim mascot, getting a spin-off of his own. His musical segments are still among the weirder pieces of material Adult Swim has ever aired, which is saying something.

73-90-of-the-90s-Babylon-5.jpg 73. Babylon 5
Years: 1994-1998
Babylon 5 was certainly one of the decade’s most mature science fiction series, set in a universe where man has taken to the stars and come together with other spacefaring races to build a massive space station for trade, diplomacy and cultural exchange. A rare example of a series that carried out the exact number of seasons (five) it initially planned, it was as such well-planned from the start and featured deep continuity. Compared to the various Star Trek series of the decade, it most closely resembled Deep Space Nine, which aired its pilot only weeks before Babylon 5 debuted. Unsurprisingly, there were myriad accusations out there of which show had the more original idea, but despite lacking the prestige of the Star Trek name, Babylon 5 more than managed to hold its own.

72-90-of-the-90s-The-Adventures-of-Pete-&-Pete.jpg 72. The Adventures of Pete & Pete
Years: 1993-1996
Few children’s comedies of the ’90s are more fondly recalled today than Pete & Pete, the story of two identically named brothers living in small town USA. Solidly in the absurdist camp, stories often revolved around the charismatic Little Pete’s schemes and Big Pete’s attempts to get his brother out of trouble. To look at the show, you’d halfway expect something serious like The Wonder Years, but Fred Savage never had a “personal superhero” called “Artie, the Strongest Man in the World” as Little Pete does for no particular reason. The series was critically acclaimed but lasted for only three seasons, though it is still remembered as one of Nickelodeon’s most charming and best-written live action series.

71-90-of-the-90s-Dr-Katz-Professional-Therapist.jpg 71. Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist
Years: 1995-1999
The concept behind Dr. Katz is a pretty lazy one—a crudely drawn psychiatrist listens to a procession of stand-up comedians do their typical material and offers his professional opinion. One can imagine a Comedy Central staffer just saying to his boss, “Hey, we’ve got a lot of comedy tape in the back, maybe we can make a show with the audio?” Upon closer inspection though, the character of Dr. Katz ends up being fleshed out pretty well as a stressed but well-intentioned guy who is legitimately trying to help his patients. Most importantly, the show gave early exposure to plenty of significant comedians, including Louie C.K., Jon Stewart, Bobcat Goldthwait, Jim Gaffigan, Dave Chappelle, David Cross and Mitch Hedberg, among many others.

70-90-of-the-90s-Star-Trek-Voyager.jpg 70. Star Trek: Voyager
Years: 1995-2001
Including all three Star Trek series of the 1990s on this list kind of seems like a lot, but you just can’t hold any of them in abeyance. Voyager has a particularly cool initial premise—after a freak accident, the ship is stranded 75,000 light years from home, and even with access to warp drive, its crew is facing an estimated 75-year trip to friendly space. This essentially gave the writers a blank check to embrace any part of the Star Trek mythos they wanted, because any time a new alien species was introduced it was always simply a denizen of the uncharted space lanes where they were traveling. Likewise, there was always a driving plot point available in their quest to get home—how will the crew try to shorten the journey or take a short cut this week? Unlike so many other Star Trek series that were about exploration, this one was the inverse—exploration gone awry.

69-90-of-the-90s-The-Critic.jpg 69. The Critic
Years: 1994-1995
Movie parody humor is a pretty narrow venue because it assumes the viewer is as big a film geek as the writers, and it was likely this that kept The Critic from more long-term success. The show really had a lot going for it—Jon Lovitz was perfect in the role, and it was a completely fresh take on a career that few had ever put a comic spin on before. Today, the character is probably remembered for his Simpsons crossover as much as anything, but for a few years The Critic was as funny as anything on TV. The cameos by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (voicing themselves) were particularly hilarious, even devoting an entire episode to the two breaking up and courting Lovitz’s Jay Sherman as possible replacements.

68-90-of-the-90s-Stargate-SG-1.jpg 68. Stargate SG-1
Years: 1997-2007
The Stargate movie was really a perfect choice to spin off into a sci-fi series because the Stargate itself is quite the piece of deus ex machina—it can transport people all over the galaxy to different planets, so there was always somewhere new and strange to visit, even over the course of 10 seasons and 214 episodes. MacGyver himself, Richard Dean Anderson, takes over the role that Kurt Russell played in the film, but the greatest role is probably Teal’c, the “warrior race” alien (let’s be honest, they were thinking “Klingon”) with a rather disturbing biological secret: He’s an incubator to a parasitic monster that gives him enhanced abilities but will one day kill him. Just hearing him talk about the sentient worm in his “abdominal pouch” made for some great, icky sci-fi moments.

67-90-of-the-90s-Will-and-Grace.jpg 67. Will & Grace
Years: 1998-2006
Will & Grace remains a pivotal show for gay culture and the presentation of gay characters on a sitcom, the most successful show of its time to feature gay lead characters in anything but the “wacky best friend” role. It received an absurd 83 Emmy nominations throughout its run, and each of the four main stars won an individual Emmy, making it one of only three sitcoms to achieve that feat. The stories weren’t really anything you hadn’t seen before, revolving around life and love in New York City, but the places they were coming from (gay culture/Jewish culture) were refreshingly new to many more conservative Americans. For plenty of Bible Belters, Will & Grace was likely the first television exposure they had to characters of this nature.

66-90-of-the-90s-Saved-by-the-Bell.jpg 66. Saved by the Bell
Years: 1989-1993
The definitive high school sitcom of the early 1990s, Saved by the Bell reflects the day-glo colors of the era perfectly. As a central character, Zack Morris is like a slightly preppier version of Ferris Bueller, a schemer and philanderer with no shortage of friends. Everyone on the show perfectly falls into their tropes of the era, whether it’s “perfect girl” Kelly Kapowski, braniac Jessie Spano, jock A.C. Slater or weirdo geek Screech Powers. The latter is one of the ’90s more instantly recognizable characters, a sort of “white Steve Urkel” who never took over his show the way Urkel quickly commandeered Family Matters. One of the nice things about Saved by the Bell is that it felt like a truly ensemble comedy—everybody got their little moments to shine with regularity, except perhaps for Tiffani Amber Thiessen, who was mostly there to be the archetypal idea of 1991 hotness.

65-90-of-the-90s-Daria.jpg 65. Daria
Years: 1997-2002
Significantly more influential than one would have expected from a Beavis and Butt-head spin-off, Daria is without a doubt the defining show of angsty teens of the late ’90s who couldn’t quite get over the death of grunge. It’s a paean to the lazy, the slackers, the cynical and the sarcastic, as Daria and her friend Jane bemoaned the plight of a broken society by watching tabloid shows with titles like Sick, Sad World. Its fatalism was deep, dark and often hilarious, and one got the sense that few shows have ever actually captured the zeitgeist of their subjects more accurately. Every teen who ever shrugged their shoulders and sighed in frustration after being asked how their day at school was by Mom was clearly thinking, ‘My life is just like Daria.’

64-90-of-the-90s-Designing-Women.jpg 64. Designing Women
Years: 1986-1993
A pretty progressive show when it began in the late ’80s, Designing Women is about the interpersonal relationships and business dealings of a group of young women running an interior design firm. Running back to back with Murphy Brown for CBS during much of its run, it was thematically similar in its strong, opinionated female characters. Unusually, there was also a single, black male character in the office—although the show still fell into the racial trap of making him an ex-con (even if it was a crime he didn’t commit). It could be a topical comedy at times, with episodes about issues such as AIDS and spousal abuse, but it’s perhaps best remembered today for the angry, in-your-face speeches delivered by Dixie Carter’s character Julia. It’s pretty over-the-top stuff.

63-90-of-the-90s-The Drew Carey Show.jpg 63. The Drew Carey Show
Years: 1995-2004
The Drew Carey Show was a pretty classic example of your “everyman” sitcom, with a funnyman star who plays an average, unexceptional guy surrounded by a gaggle of goofy friends, a nemesis (the frightful Mimi) and a love interest who is three or four notches more attractive than he is (Christa Miller). Many of the plots revolve around the hapless hero’s dating life, and the show just sort of manages to coast by on the likability of Carey and a few strong supporting performances by actors like Ryan Stiles and Diedrich Bader. That’s all it took to become one of the longer-running sitcoms of its decade, with 233 episodes. That and the theme song, “Cleveland Rocks.”

62-90-of-the-90s-Xena.jpg 62. Xena: Warrior Princess
Years: 1995-2001
The rare case of a spin-off that exceeds the original, Xena: Warrior Princess was certainly a deeper show than Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, although that’s not saying much. Lucy Lawless was the main reason why, a certifiable badass with an awesome, chakram-like weapon that seemed to delight in defying every known law of motion. The series also became massively popular among the gay community for the perceived lesbian relationship or subtext between Xena and her companion, Gabrielle, played by Renee O’Connor. The sexuality of the characters was intentionally left ambiguous, but with this many kisses shared between the two, it’s a little hard to argue against the shipping fan-fiction community. Fun fact: Xena fans popularized the term “altfic” to describe same-sex romantic/erotic fan fiction.

61-90-of-the-90s-Animaniacs.jpg 61. Animaniacs
Years: 1993-1998
Animaniacs is unlike anything that came before or has really come again since, a series that truly blended sophomoric, silly humor with surprising wit and even some educational aspects. Also remembered for giving birth to Pinky and the Brain as supporting characters, Animaniacs functioned as a sketch show of sorts, with segments that touched on the legacy of cartooning, reveled in slapstick violence or were simply absurd for the sake of absurd—it was hard to ever know what you were going to get. The songs are the undeniable highlight, startlingly brilliant in their conception and performed with deftness by all three voice actors. Wakko’s song about state capitols set to the tune of “Turkey in the Straw” is particularly well remembered, but that’s nothing compared to the complexity of Yakko’s “Nations of the World” number.

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