45. Melrose Place
Soap operas show up in some capacity in every decade, but the ’90s was when they really went prime time. Spinning off from Beverly Hills 90210 (some folks don’t remember that most of the 90210 characters appear in season one), Melrose Place was originally supposed to be a different kind of a show that would follow all the different characters in an apartment building, with self-contained episodes that would focus on one resident at a time and wrap up by the end of the show. It could have been an interesting format, but it proved unpopular, and the storylines gradually changed to reflect the more prominent soap operas of its days. Once Heather Locklear’s character Amanda Woodward became a series regular in season two, the show hit its stride and became one of Fox’s mainstays for the rest of the decade.
44. Picket Fences
One of the quirkier dramedies of the ’90s, Picket Fences was often a show seemingly on the verge of cancellation, despite strong critical praise. Taking place in the small town of Rome, Wis., it followed a sheriff played by Tom Skerritt who generally found himself investigating situations well outside the normal purview of rural police work. It featured some funny supporting performances, especially from Fyvush Finkel as Jewish lawyer Douglas Wambaugh, but of all its little eccentricities I most enjoyed the bizarre fates suffered by the town’s mayors. The show went through seven different mayors over the course of four seasons—they essentially had the lifespans of Spinal Tap drummers. Methods of demise included shooting, decapitation and spontaneous human combustion.
43. Law & Order
Law & Order, the show that ran for 456 episodes and spawned no fewer than four additional spin-offs in its wake. The original is of course the best and most classic of the series, one of the all-time influential police procedurals/court shows and one of the longest-running live action series of all time—it practically made the faces of Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterson synonymous with the show. It stayed relevant when it could by writing episodes structured around court cases that had just been in the headlines, and the characters built such legacies that they became ripe for parody. Case in point: Waterson appeared as a “compensated endorser” on one of the greatest SNL parody commercials of the 1990s, using his serious persona to shill for “Old Glory Robot Insurance.”
42. Chicago Hope
Sometimes, a show is doomed from the very start to play second fiddle, and when you’re a medical drama premiering within a day of the first episode of ER, you are that second fiddle. Chicago Hope had plenty going for it, though, from the presence of Mandy “Inigo Montoya” Patinkin to strong critical support. Unfortunately, it went up directly against ER in its first season timeslot and lost in the ratings pretty handily. It remained a moderately successful show for CBS in other timeslots while Christine Lahti and Peter Berg settled in as series regulars and fan favorites. Ultimately though, Chicago Hope is remembered as a good drama that was just the second best hospital show of the ’90s.
41. The Wonder Years
It’s a little odd to think of The Wonder Years as an ’80s or ’90s show specifically because it was set in a perfectly evoked 1960s, but at the same time, just hearing Joe Cocker’s take on “With a Little Help From My Friends” immediately makes me think of watching the show with my family in my childhood living room. The show featured some of the best-developed characters of any sitcom, especially owing to the trademark narration by Daniel Stern, which examined all the events with the knowledge of age. An episode like “My Father’s Office” is still a beautiful thing and such an identifiable nugget of childhood—the realization that one’s father is just a man and a worker bee, rather than a patriarch in all aspects of his life. The Wonder Years was filled with those kinds of revelations.
40. Married…with Children
Each era has its “low-brow classic” show, and for the late ’80s and most of the ’90s, that show was Married…with Children. Unlike Ed O’Neil’s current stint on Modern Family, there’s really no wit or morals to be had here, just a crass commentary on the state of the lower-class American family in the early ’90s. Al Bundy is a simple man, and he has few redeeming characteristics: He’s cheap, he’s a loser, he’s a depressed would-be philanderer, but damn if people couldn’t identify with the sad sack and his quest to simply put meals on the table with enough money left over for beer. It’s the kind of show that received heaping amounts of scorn from the literati for its entire run but is remembered today with fondness by just about anyone who wanted to kill a half hour on a Sunday night with a few harmless laughs.
39. L.A. Law
L.A. Law was sort like Law & Order with a sense of humor. Deftly combining drama and comedy, often within the same episode, it made a star of Corbin Bernson in particular as the womanizing divorce attorney, Arnie Becker. But really, everyone on this show was either womanizing or—maninizing?—and the various infidelities between cast members was one of the main factors that kept it going. It could also be very topical at times, though, most notably in 1992 when a series of episodes tackled the ongoing race riots centered around the beating of Rodney King. Eight years after the show ended, the characters got one final send-off in a 2002 TV movie on NBC.
38. King of the Hill
When you really consider the traits and personalities of the characters, one can’t help but realize that King of the Hill is honestly one of the most unique animated shows of both the 1990s and 2000s. Name one other popular, long-running sitcom where the protagonists—people we at least like, if not agree with—are staunch conservative, mildly redneck individuals. You can’t do it, because King of the Hill tapped into an aspect of the American ethos that is often ridiculed and made those characters funny, human everymen. With the possible exception of Peggy (who can be a real pill with few redeeming qualities), the characters on King of the Hill are really decent people, even when they’re a little overzealous. But in the end, Hank always fundamentally does the right thing, even if that does involve threats to “kick your ass” on a disturbingly regular basis.
It’s kind of interesting to look at random episodes of Ellen from different periods because few sitcoms have ever been so defined by a single, revelatory episode. There are all of the early Ellen episodes from the first few seasons, which simply deal with her life as a quirky bookstore owner with goofy friends … and then there’s everything after “The Puppy Episode.” It was so named because network execs were frustrated at the lack of progress in the character’s dating life and suggested maybe she should “get a puppy.” That’s exactly when Ellen DeGeneres dropped her big bombshell—she wanted to come out of the closet as a lesbian, both in real life and as her character, Ellen Morgan. The resulting episode guest-starred Laura Dern as the woman who turns Ellen’s life inside out, and suffice to say it was an event. Protestors mobilized, awards were doled out in rapid succession, and the depiction of coming out of the closet on TV was never the same again.
36. Northern Exposure
Charmingly eccentric, Northern Exposure was a classic fish-out-of-water story about a young, New York Jewish doctor transplanted to the small town of Cicely, Alaska, where the moose roamed free. There, he struggled to adapt while hobnobbing with the quirky locals, such as ex-con turned disc jockey Chris Stevens or alluring bush pilot Maggie O’Connell. One might almost say the show was a small-town comedy-drama with a hint of, say, Fargo in it. It certainly performed well critically, racking up nominations in all the major awards and taking home a few Emmy’s and Golden Globes during its five-year run. It may have gone on longer if lead actor Rob Morrow hadn’t held out in contract disputes with CBS, leading to the introduction of other “lead characters” in the final season.
35. Spin City
Spin City was in many ways the last hurrah for Michael J. Fox in a full-time gig before his semi-retirement due to the ongoing battle with Parkinson’s Disease, and it was a fitting send-off to an actor who accomplished a whole lot before his 40th birthday. A great political comedy, it skewered the city politics of New York, with Fox playing the city’s deputy mayor, the guy with all the “real power.” Veteran character actor Richard Kind got serious time to shine as antagonistic press secretary Paul Lassiter, and the show even featured a gay black character, certainly a rarity in just about any decade. Fox, of course, was as charming as he was always capable of being. After he left the show, Charlie Sheen of all people stepped in to play the new deputy mayor, but things just weren’t the same.
34. Mystery Science Theater 3000
This might be the most clever, best-written comedy program of the decade. In fact, strike “might,” because MST3k was nothing short of brilliant in its skewering of pop culture minutia and general poor filmmaking. With a framing device about a man shot into space and forced to endure terrible films, the show made the best of its limited resources by employing great voice acting and even better writing to mock nearly 200 of the worst films ever made. Its impact is vast—would anyone even know about Manos: The Hands of Fate today without MST3k? Likewise, the thing that makes it so impressive (and so rewatchable today) is the timelessness of most of the jokes about filmmaking, along with the diversity in joke backgrounds. This wasn’t just a show for geeks—jokes range from sports and movies to politics or simply memorable TV commercials. The sheer breadth of the show’s humor is practically unparalleled.
33. Mr. Show With Bob and David
Literally every sketch comedy show that has come along since 1995 would cite Mr. Show as not only an influence but a major influence. Certainly, there could be no Key & Peele or Tim and Eric without the revolutionary, absurdist format that Bob Odenkirk and David Cross pioneered here, along with help from lots of great bit players such as Tom Kenny. Each episode’s individual continuity is striking, as some bizarre through-line was almost always carried out from beginning to end. Most of the individual sketches are likewise timeless, not bound to pop culture or whatever was in the news. This hipster parody is about 20 years old, and it still seems like something that came out last week on Portlandia. “It’s so pure, it hurts!”
32. Beavis and Butt-head
Certainly, there could be no South Park without Beavis and Butt-head, the show that redefined what you could get away with in the realm of animation. The title characters are moronic teenagers with absolutely no sense of empathy or social consciousness, whose only goals in life are to watch TV, eat junk food and hopefully “score” one day. Nevertheless, Beavis and Butt-head always had the ability to be oddly astute at times, especially when the boys would deconstruct MTV music videos with an unexplainably expanded vocabulary. The episodes have aged pretty well, and there’s just a stupid pleasure in watching the pair wreck the lives of everyone they come across. The series even led into a surprisingly funny feature film, Beavis and Butt-head Do America, which I’ve seen more times than I care to admit.
31. Home Improvement
This is the quintessentially dumb, cheesy but somehow entertaining sitcom of the 1990s. No one has ever described Home Improvement as a smart or cleverly written show, but we all watched it at some point. The characterizations are super broad—Tim Allen as the grunting but luckless alpha male handy man, his wife Jill the constant stick-in-the-mud and three young boys full of trouble and mischief. Perhaps it was the kids who really made the series a ratings juggernaut on ABC—Jonathan Taylor Thomas in particular became “that kid” in mid-’90s Hollywood. Regardless, there’s a lot of folks out there with fond memories of silly “Tool Time” bits such as the “man’s kitchen” or “man’s bathroom.” Just thinking about it has the funky, flute and grunt-driven opening theme music running on a loop in my head.