The 90 Best TV Shows of the 1990s

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60-90-of-the-90s-3rd-Rock-from-the-Sun.jpg 60. 3rd Rock from the Sun
Years: 1996-2001
3rd Rock successfully took the Mork & Mindy premise and expanded it to an entire family unit of aliens who land on Earth and attempt to study mankind by blending in among them. There wasn’t much here that you would call “highbrow humor,” but the strong cast always made the best of things, especially Jonathan Lithgow as frenzied High Commander Dick Solomon and future A-lister Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tommy. Later seasons saw the aliens become more interested in their human lives than the mission at hand, and even had the bonus of appearances by the family’s supreme commander, “The Big Giant Head,” played by William Shatner. You gotta love the dual references to The Twilight Zone and its film adaptation that Shatner and Lithgow share in this scene.

59-90-of-the-90s-Beverly-Hills-90210.jpg 59. Beverly Hills, 90210
Years: 1990-2000
Between 90210 and its spin-off Melrose Place, the primetime soap opera exploded in a big way in the 1990s. This one was about a family of Minnesota transplants arriving in Beverly Hills and the West Coast culture shock they (especially the kids) receive upon arriving in high school. Also known as “that show Shannon Doherty was on and then disappeared from,” her departure as one of the principal characters, Brenda, was explained as “moving away to London.” She was replaced by Tiffani Thiessen, jumping ship from Saved by the Bell to play a girl with quite a lot more attitude than preppy Kelly Kapowski. Of all its actors, you’ve probably seen Ian Ziering most recently as professional shark slayer Fin Shepard, via Sharknado.

58-90-of-the-90s-Family-Matters.jpg 58. Family Matters
Years: 1989-1998
Family Matters is the perfect example of a show that would have been nothing special without a single exceptional character, but the really amazing thing is that this break-out character, Steve Urkel, wasn’t even part of the initial show design. Rather, he was simply intended to be a one-time appearance as a nerdy kid who took Laura out on a date, but the reception was so strong that he quickly became a regular cast member. By the end of the second season, this pastiche of nerd tropes had become possibly the most popular and quoted character on all of primetime television, and Family Matters may as well have been renamed The Urkel Show. (In fact, I vividly remember people mistakenly referring to the show as Urkel.) The show could be exceedingly goofy at times, especially from season five onward when Steve would occasionally use his scientific know-how to transform himself into suave alter-ego “Stefan” in an extended Nutty Professor tribute.

57-90-of-the-90s-Late-Night-with-Conan-O-Brien.jpg 57. Late Night With Conan O’Brien
Years: 1993-2009
Critics were not kind at all to Conan when the inexperienced writer of many a classic Simpsons episodes succeeded Dave Letterman as the host of Late Night in 1993, calling him awkward, geeky and untrained. O’Brien, however, grew quickly into one of television’s most respected talk show personalities. His Late Night was patently unlike the shows of Leno or Letterman, with a wilder, absurdist streak that focused more on comedic sketches than interview segments and weird, recurring characters like the infamous “masturbating bear,” among many others. There was more of a sense of originality and unique personality here, which flowed from O’Brien and his repartee with co-host/hype man Andy Richter, who left the show only to rejoin Conan when the show moved to TBS in 2010.

56-90-of-the-90s-Rugrats.jpg 56. Rugrats
Years: 1991-2004
I have absolutely no idea how this show managed to soldier on for 13 years through various specials and movies, but I can confirm that in the early 1990s, there were few things my grade school self enjoyed more than a big block of Rugrats on Nickelodeon. The adventures of Tommy, Chuckie and the rest were dependent on some spectacular voice acting and a unique, instantly recognizable animation style full of comically exaggerated, bizarrely shaped characters. Some of the episodes were almost epic in nature—I vividly recall “Touchdown Tommy,” which parodies the Super Bowl as the entire gang engages in a huge melee while fighting over the holy grail: A bottle full of chocolate milk. Also wonderful was Reptar, the irradiated dinosaur/Godzilla spoof adored by all the babies. (Believe it or not, the dinosaur was somehow voiced by Busta Rhymes in The Rugrats Movie.)

55-90-of-the-90s-Quantum-Leap.jpg 55. Quantum Leap
Years: 1989-1993
What a goofy show Quantum Leap truly was. Scott Bakula plays Dr. Sam Beckett, a physicist who becomes trapped in a morphing time loop after an experiment gone awry. In each episode, he leaps into the body of another person (man, woman or child) in a different historical time and must “put right what once went wrong” before jumping into a new body. It’s perfect episodic structure, and it allowed the sci-fi series to set each episode in literally any time period and setting it felt like taking on that week. Likewise, the body-jumping mechanic meant any number of guest stars could appear and Dr. Sam could go anywhere—he even leaps into the body of a chimpanzee in one episode. Despite the silly premise, though, the series actually had a surprising amount of heart as well, largely motivated by Beckett’s unfailing resolve to return to his own time and body and reclaim his own life and identity. In some respects, it’s like a time-traveling version of The Prisoner.

54-90-of-the-90s-Deep-Space-Nine.jpg 54. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Years: 1993-1999
Deep Space Nine was an experiment in a different type of Star Trek property, one not built around a spaceship/warship traveling and exploring the edges of the known universe. Rather, DS9 was an advanced but static outpost where emissaries of various alien races came to congregate, trade and conduct business. The show featured the first and still only black commander-in-chief as lead protagonist and was noted for the diversity of its alien cast and their well-defined characters. It also tackled topics of religion more effectively and extensively than any of the Star Trek series to date, as the Bajoran Wormhole near DS9 was integral to both the series’ plot and the religious beliefs of the Bajoran people, several of whom served as crew. It was never quite as popular as Next Generation, but that was a tough assignment to follow.

53-90-of-the-90s-Felicity.jpg 53. Felicity
Years: 1998-2002
Felicity was a show all about growing up in one’s college years and the transformation a young woman undergoes from bright-eyed high school graduate to fledgling adult. Keri Russell was stunning as the intelligent but impulsive Felicity, who follows her high school crush to college in New York and gets caught up in (surprise!) a love triangle. Ratings for the second season plunged precipitously right as Russell cut off her trademark, shoulder-length curls, which led to the assertion that Felicity’s haircut was among the most devastating in TV history. However, ratings recovered as her hair grew back in, and Russell won herself a Golden Globe. Still, it was a rather close shave.

52-90-of-the-90s-Ren-and-Stimpy.jpg 52. The Ren & Stimpy Show
Years: 1991-1995
Put simply, when Ren & Stimpy first hit the airwaves, pretty much everyone who saw it had to admit they’d never seen anything like it before. Like a nightmarish Ralph Steadman drawing come to life, it flew in like a bomb on Nickelodeon, completely unlike anything else they were airing at the time. Its frightening imagery, harsh language, toilet humor and out-of-nowhere sexual innuendo sent parents into fits, but its influence was equally pervasive. It’s hard to imagine a show like South Park coming along without a subversive cartoon such as Ren & Stimpy paving the way. It remains one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics.

51-90-of-the-90s-The-Real-World.jpg 51. The Real World
Years: 1992-Present
Yep, they’re still making The Real World—who knew? Back in the early ’90s, though, The Real World was appointment viewing for the MTV generation, those sarcastic Gen. Xers. As one of the progenitors of modern reality TV, it’s hard to overstate how influential The Real World is. It’s such a simple premise—gather together a bunch of attractive, crazy young people and make them live together in a house with cameras—but it signaled a massive shift in mainstream broadcasting as producers realized one didn’t need, say, “professional actors” or “stories” or “sets” in order to create a phenomena. All one needs, as it turns out, is a bunch of drunk, stupid young people making poor decisions to stay on the air for 29 seasons.

50-90-of-the-90s-Dexters-Lab.jpg 50. Dexter’s Laboratory
Years: 1996-2003
Dexter’s Laboratory is one of the crown jewels of Cartoon Network’s mid-’90s original series, created by visionary animator Genndy Tartakovsky, who would later go on to make the equally brilliant Samurai Jack. There was a freedom to this show, a sense that anything could and would happen in the boy genius/scientist’s realm, which is immediately implied by its classic, wordless opening sequence with its gothic, Danny Elfman-sounding music. Huge props also to Christine Cavanaugh, who provided the nasal, unexplainably accented voice of Dexter, which made him sound like a miniature, histrionic Peter Lorre. Her performance is a huge part of the show’s continued charm.

49-90-of-the-90s-Fresh-Prince-of-Bel-Air.jpg 49. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Years: 1990-1996
Most beloved opening theme song of the 1990s? Could very well be, judging from the response this one will get at literally any bar karaoke night—seriously, try it the next time you’re out on the town. Looking at this series in the context of 1990, it’s funny to think that Will Smith was already sort of viewed as a “has-been” in his music career, a guy desperately trying to stay relevant by joining a sitcom. Of course, he ultimately had the last laugh as the fish-out-of-water story of Fresh Prince became popular immediately and survives in syndication to this day. Smith went on to become Hollywood elite, and the rest of the country learned to dance The Carlton. Everyone wins.

48-90-of-the-90s-The-Powerpuff-Girls.jpg 48. The Powerpuff Girls
Years: 1998-2005
On first inspection The Powerpuff Girls seems like a show simply conceived as “superheroes for little girls,” but you’d find just as many men of all ages as part of its nostalgic fan base in 2014. It was almost like a ’60s-era Japanese “tokusatsu” superhero serial, with three precious, retro-looking girls fighting various supervillains or monsters of the week, but at the same time they also had to deal with issues faced by other young children such as, I shit you not, BEDWETTING in one episode. The series benefitted from a few great villains that ended up becoming as popular as the Powerpuff Girls themselves, primarily the simian Mojo JoJo and the bizarre hillbilly monster “Fuzzy Lumpkins.”

47-90-of-the-90s-Murphy-Brown.jpg 47. Murphy Brown
Years: 1988-1998
With quite a lot more backbone than most sitcoms, Murphy Brown was patently unafraid to wade into the current cultural and political discourse and take sides. The story of a hard-boiled, formerly alcoholic television reporter for a news magazine show, it was the role of a lifetime for Candice Bergen, who racked up Emmy’s and Golden Globes for the wry, often ruthless character. Murphy Brown even ended up in the news it so often mocked when Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the show’s depiction of single-parent households in a 1992 speech, leading to an entire episode dedicated toward refuting him. For a sitcom to take such an overt stance was practically unthinkable, but Murphy Brown was a program committed to its ideals as well as entertainment.

46-90-of-the-90s-Mad-About-You.jpg 46. Mad About You
Years: 1992-1999
Every sitcom invariably has some relationship humor in it, but Mad About You is like the ’90s personification of relationship humor. The marriage at its center between Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt begins in the newlywed stage when the two have still yet to discover each other’s flaws, and the audience is there for every painful and revelatory step along the way. It wasn’t always the most thrilling show, but neither is marriage. Mad About You was the kind of show you watched alongside your clucking spouse, pointing out how many of the same idiosyncrasies you shared—exactly how it was depicted on Seinfeld, by the way. Helen Hunt in particular really grew into her character over time, going on an unbroken streak of Emmy wins from 1996-1999.

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