30. The Larry Sanders Show
The Larry Sanders Show was basically the result of a skilled stand-up comedian taking everything he knew about every facet of the entertainment business and throwing it into a blender set to “puree.” Gary Shandling played late night TV host Larry Sanders, just as he had done in real life as a Tonight Show guest-host. Other comedians and well-known actors appeared as guests, playing exaggerated or satirical versions of themselves, toying with audience expectations. Its combination of deadpan humor and “behind the scenes” setting made it an obvious influence on series such as The Office and 30 Rock in particular, because no joke was “too meta.” One of the first great successes in original programming for HBO, it remains the standard by which many comedy series on premium TV networks are judged.
Certainly a “water cooler show” if there ever was one, Oz made waves with its violence and sexual content early on and its equally deep and disturbing storytelling once people got over the fact that it was set in a maximum security prison. It’s probably safe to say that there’s an entire subset of former viewers out there who think of every prison and prison caricature in terms of what they saw on Oz, from the racial gangs to the unpredictable violence and stress of daily living. A truly ensemble cast was one of the selling points for the large and ambitious HBO series, which showed that an adult-content drama could still turn great ratings. The fact that it was on a premium network was essential, allowing a much deeper (and more realistic) depiction of the horrors of incarceration in the United States.
28. In Living Color
Created by Keenan and Damon Wayans, In Living Color was seemingly meant to offer an alternative to sketch comedy shows such as SNL, whose casts have always had a tendency to feature “one black guy” until recent years. By contrast, there were only two white actors on In Living Color, but its legacy as an important show in black culture was somewhat mitigated by the fact that one of those white actors was a young Jim Carrey, then credited as “James,” who went on to become the show’s biggest star before using it as a springboard to feature film fame. There were plenty of other people doing great things on In Living Color, though, from all the significant musical acts (Tupac Shakur, Mary J. Blige, Public Enemy) to the dance team, which featured a young, unknown Jennifer Lopez. As a launching pad alone, it remains one of the most significant sketch shows of the ’90s.
27. The Practice
In the courtroom, The Practice bears a bit more similarity to the staid presence of Law & Order than the often wacky hijinks of L.A. Law, except it likely had more genuine heart than either of those shows. The Practice succeeded because it truly liked to dive into the motivations of its characters as they attempted to operate their exceedingly busy and challenging Boston law firm. The series made Dylan McDermott a TV star as the idealistic senior partner, Bobby Donnell, a complex character who was simultaneously the show’s moral center while often being forced to make contradictory decisions for the sake of the firm. It was the finest pure legal drama of the ’90s.
26. Grace Under Fire
Grace Under Fire offered so much deeper a character and background than almost any other female-fronted sitcom of its decade: Brett Butler’s Grace was a true outlier among sitcom characters. As a former alcoholic and current single mother, that was enough to make her stand out, but for most of the show’s early run she was also a blue-collar worker, just an average “Joe” working pipelines at a local oil refinery. It was the exact sort of background that so often would have been given to a man in a sitcom, and it made everything seem so much more genuine. Unfortunately, real life intervened after three seasons, and Butler’s painkiller addiction led to several cast members leaving, including one of the kids who played her son, Quentin. Ratings declined sharply, but during its first few seasons, Grace Under Fire was something refreshingly different.
25. Batman: The Animated Series
Put simply, this is easily the best animated superhero series of all time—nothing else even enters the discussion. It looked absolutely gorgeous, evoking a whole new aesthetic for the Gotham universe that merged art deco and gothic architecture into a macabre whole. The voice acting was on an entirely different level, to the point that the portrayals of both Batman (Kevin Conroy) and The Joker (Mark Hamill) have become the absolute defining sounds of each character in all animation since. Hamill alone would make this the best Batman series—his Joker is gleefully maniacal, quite different from the psychotic aspect of say, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. This Joker is truly about the joke, and nobody has done a better maniacal Joker laugh than Hamill—ever.
24. Kids in the Hall
Probably even weirder overall than Mr. Show, Kids in the Hall was the most out-there sketch show of the ’90s. Truly committed to the absurd, it relied much less on the formats of bigger shows such as SNL, with its celebrity impersonations and direct pop culture parodies. Instead, the show was all about its bizarre characters and just the general freedom of seemingly being able to do whatever it wanted on a weekly basis. Just look at “Mr. Tyzik,” the misanthropic character whose main gag was simply standing at a distance and imagining he was crushing the heads of others between his fingers, or the half-human “chicken lady” who is totally unaware of how her horrifying appearance frightens others. It goes without saying that plenty of the sketches totally misfire, but the creativity and often disturbing nature of their best work gave the show a very unique atmosphere.
Years: 1999-2003 (first run)
Totally underappreciated in its original run, which just caught the tail end of the ’90s, one gets the sense that Futurama at first suffered from misplaced expectations. Knowing it was coming from Matt Groening, perhaps people expected a futuristic version of The Simpsons, but Futurama is fundamentally different in quite a few aspects. Although it was similar in its satirical lampooning of modern (or futuristic) daily life and media, it was also capable of being surprisingly—even shockingly—emotional at times. Just ask anyone who remembers the end of “Jurassic Bark” or “The Luck of the Fryrish,” among other episodes. Likewise, its self-contained continuity was unlike almost every other animated sitcom, with events unfolding in both its first and second run on TV that fundamentally affected the viewer’s perception of earlier plot points. It’s now rightly recognized as one of the best animated comedies ever.
A show like Married…with Children was blue-collar funny, but Roseanne was the show with blue-collar heart. The concept of a two-parent household with both parents working was unique enough in the world of sitcoms, but even with both Roseanne and Dan both working full-time jobs, this show was a portrait of a family just struggling and scraping to get by, all while keeping their good humor and basic decency intact. Sure, they could be a little crude at times, but who isn’t? Roseanne Barr had the distinction of being one of the first really, really popular female characters on TV whose character’s success wasn’t based on their aesthetic appeal, and likewise one of the first widely liked female characters who was “wearing the pants” in her household, as it were. And audiences responded in a huge way, making it one of the biggest hits on TV for 222 episodes.
21. Freaks and Geeks
There aren’t many comedies or dramas that have ever done more with 18 episodes (only 12 broadcast in the initial run) than Freaks and Geeks, one of the most influential cult shows in history. High school had never been caricatured with such scathing negativity—this show dredged up memories that most teens of the 1980s would probably have preferred to keep buried down in the depths of their subconscious. The characters are awkward, and it’s not “TV awkward”—we’re talking about people seriously challenged in their quest to simply fit in and get through the day, relishing the tiny victories afforded to either freaks or geeks. The show could make the most minuscule moments seem so momentous and use a small trait to infuse such deep humanity in its characters. Just watch hopeless geek Bill Haverchuck slouch through the house before having his day picked up by a Gary Shandling stand-up set. One can easily imagine series creators Paul Feig or Judd Apatow doing the exact same in their high school years.
Cheers is certainly an ’80s show first and foremost, but one can’t ignore its final four seasons and especially its 90-minute finale, one of the most watched episodes in television history. Like many long-running sitcoms, the Cheers of 1992 was really a fundamentally different show than it was in 1982, less about the dating life of Ted Danson’s Sam and much more of an ensemble device, full of characters who were by this point beloved by all. The final years of Cheers were when all these characters got to shine, especially Rhea Perlman as Carla and Kelsey Grammer, who joined the cast full-time before spinning off into Frasier. The finale episode received mixed reactions at the time, but nostalgia has pushed it into favorable territory, especially given the happy endings that most characters receive. The fact that Sam decides not to get married and stays with the bar is the right decision—it is of course his “one true love.”
Very much in the mold of WKRP in Cincinnati, NewsRadio was set at a radio station populated by an eccentric staff of dreamers, blow-hards and troublemakers. The main character is young news director Dave Nelson, played by Kids in the Hall’s Dave Foley, the classic calming presence who is at the eye of the storm around him. This show was a playground for character actors to run wild, such as Stephen Root as station owner Jimmy James and Phil Hartman in one of his best and final roles before his shocking 1998 murder. Storylines and individual episodes could be pretty weird as well—later in its run, the series even did a few “what if” episodes that imagined the WYNX staff in different times and places, including an episode that had them running the radio station on an orbiting space station.
18. Sports Night
A Sportscenter parody was a pretty ripe idea for a comedy-drama when Aaron Sorkin dreamed it up in the late ’90s, but unlike other Sorkin gems such as The West Wing, Sports Night never ended up finding the popular appeal to match its critical acclaim. One gets the sense that it could have gone over better had it been more squarely in the hands of its creators, but in its first season, ABC insisted the show be a comedy first and foremost. Over time, the laugh track was eliminated and the show began to incorporate many more of the stylistic choices that one would see on other Sorkin shows, such as the witty, fast-paced repartee and the tendency to “walk and talk.” Perhaps this could have eventually breathed some new life into the series, but by 2000 The West Wing was taking off as a hit show and Sorkin left to focus on a sure thing. Sports Night was left behind as a program that displayed a ton of promise but didn’t quite manage to harness it.
17. Everybody Loves Raymond
Everybody Loves Raymond was the quintessential “family/marriage sitcom” of its decade, never genre-bending but generally solid, always dependable. The insecurities of its characters were certainly relatable, from Ray’s struggles to assert himself in any facet of his life to the general concerns of age and sexual inadequacy. Between them, Ray and Debra seemed like people who could easily be living across the street from you, which was the whole idea. Of course, the characters of Ray’s parents and his brother Robert were just as important if not more so at times—look no further than the show’s Emmy history, where Doris Roberts and Brad Garrett led the series in wins. If Ray is the gravitational center of the show, Garrett is the heart and Roberts is the verve.
16. The X-Files
Few series projected a sense of mystery as well as The X-Files, which had fans literally begging for any scrap of information on where its central story was going for most of its run. The flipside is, of course, that it could be frustrating at times, whether it was because of the central story or a weak “monster of the weak” entry. Individual episodes, though, remain both masterpieces and cultural touchstones of science fiction, whether it’s the disturbing familial story “Home” or the black-and-white Frankenstein narrative “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” both of which prove the show’s range in terms of the stories it chose to tell each week. No discussion of science fiction or horror on TV in the ’90s can be held without devoting a large chunk to The X-Files.