15. My So-Called Life
It sometimes seems like all the most influential shows of the ’90s were in the mold of My So-Called Life: Surprisingly mature, critically adored, and cancelled immediately. Similar in many ways to Freaks and Geeks but a little grittier and less artistic, My So-Called Life was like a refutation of all the school shows that had come before it, both comedies and dramas. It seemed to have special disdain for the “very special episode” format, and instead took those social issues and wrapped them into the entire ongoing storyline. The problems faced by 15-year-old Claire Danes as Angela Chase didn’t arise and get wrapped up at the end of the episode, they festered and spurred personal growth. It was as big a challenge for Danes as it was for her character, and at the end of its first season she expressed doubts about returning for a second. And ultimately, that was all ABC needed to hear as justification to cancel it.
14. N.Y.P.D. Blue
One of the most iconic cop shows ever, N.Y.P.D. Blue defines the portrayal of New York police officers to this day. At the heart of the show were the partnerships, first David Caruso’s John Kelly and then Jimmy Smits’ Bobby Simone, both of whom worked alongside Dennis Franz as the immortal Andy Sipowicz. Of all potential talking points, the series generated controversy about its nudity content (and Sipowicz’ butt), but to dwell on that was ignoring its incredible characterizations. Sipowicz in particular goes on quite the journey, never losing sight of his passion for justice while simultaneously battling his family history of intolerance and bigotry. Smits, meanwhile, (spoiler alert!) suffered one of TV’s most heartbreaking demises when his character, Bobby Simone, was killed by a heart infection at the end of Season Six.
13. Ally McBeal
There are a lot of law shows on this list, but of all of them, Ally McBeal by far had the least to do with actual legal cases. Instead, the firm was just a playground for the peccadilloes of the exaggerated characters personified by the optimistic, hallucinogenic Ally McBeal herself, played by Calista Flockhart. It was a show with little concern for sensible plots; what mattered were the vibrant, offbeat characters and dazzling fantasy sequences. The supporting cast here was extremely strong, from the season that was anchored by Robert Downey Jr. as Ally’s boyfriend to the breakout character of Ling Woo, a star-making vehicle for Lucy Liu. At the time, Ling Woo was by far the most prominent and well-known character for an actress of Asian descent in TV history, so the calculating, man-eating character inspired quite a lot of analysis. Entertaining for both its jokes and various controversies, Ally McBeal made quite the splash.
12. The Sopranos
Yes, The Sopranos is undeniably a 2000s show, but you can’t ignore the impact of its monumental first season on American TV culture. It establishes everything about the series that reeled people in immediately, most notably the complexities of Tony Soprano’s day-to-day life. Here’s a character who we are able to see in so many different arenas—as a calculating mobster, a family man trying to hide his work from his children, and a vulnerable psychiatric patient angrily trying to figure things out with his shrink. There’s so much for him to overcome that you immediately begin to understand his panic attacks—this dude is dealing with potentially psychotic family members attempting to rub him out and supplant his position within the crime organization, all while attempting to remain a decent father and husband. Most of TV’s great characters since The Sopranos have been influenced more than a little by James Gandolfini’s defining portrayal.
11. Star Trek: The Next Generation
The only question is, great Star Trek series or greatest Star Trek series? The debate will always rage on endlessly, but I think time has been especially kind to peoples’ fondness for Next Generation, to the point where I expect it would be the winner of a poll of 1,000 Trekkies. And with good reason—TNG basically takes the original Star Trek’s exploration premise and goes further with it, expanding the boundaries of the universe and creating a richer, more compelling backdrop to the action. Everyone loves Patrick Stewart as the empathetic, cordial Captain Picard; the dude’s appeal is universal. Likewise, there are so many other fan-favorite characters, from good-guy Klingon warrior Worf to Brent Spiner as the charming android, Data. It’s probably the best pure cast in terms of acting talent that any entry in the series has ever had. Its reruns still draw good ratings—what other sci-fi show that started airing in 1987 can make that claim?
10. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
There aren’t many entries in the “TV series is better than the film” canon, but Buffy is certainly one of them. One of the best possible genre mish-mashes, it gets the very best out of both its “teen/school comedy” and “action/horror” content, all under the exceedingly geeky direction of Joss Whedon. Very much based around the idea of cohesive seasons, the show was blessed with great “big bads” as long-term villains and a colorful cast of returning good guys in its “Scooby Gang.” Prior to Buffy, nobody had really blended horror and comedy elements in a way that was so accessible to a young, geeky audience. The complex characters of Angel and Spike alone proved compelling as antihero vampires who still maintained much more edge than the heroes of Twilight could ever dream of possessing.
9. Sex and the City
I vaguely remember the debate and “controversy” that followed the earliest seasons of Sex and the City on HBO, which essentially amounted to “…and it has SEX right in the title, can you believe it?!” And yes, there was plenty of sex in Sex and the City, but it really wasn’t completely focused on titillation. Rather, it was all about relationships, dating and assertiveness in dealing with the opposite sex, presenting four very different women as they tackled many of the same issues from differing perspectives. For some female viewers this was heavenly—finally, they felt, they had a show depicting a group of women who could occasionally pass the Bechdel test in conversation. Others criticized the lack of reality, from the fact that Carrie seems to make a living with a single weekly column to the depiction of the various male suitors for each character. Whether or not Sex and the City has any value whatsoever as far as feminism is concerned is still a topic of much debate, but that fact alone confirms that people are still watching it.
8. Twin Peaks
Certainly the weirdest show of the early ’90s, and possibly of the entire decade, Twin Peaks is one of the most eccentric things that ever successfully got onto network TV. The David Lynch mystery drama started out looking like it would essentially be Blue Velvet: The Series before revealing how kooky it was prepared to become, a tangled conspiracy that touched on the double lives of practically every person in Twin Peaks who comes into contact with FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper. Soon enough, we’re uncovering a reverse-speaking, dancing dwarf known as “The Man from Another Place,” who appears to be an ally in hunting down the demonic entity “Killer BOB.” Most viewers had absolutely no idea what to make of all this talk of alternate dimensions and evil planes of existence, but they were enraptured anyway … for about a season and a half. Falling ratings then convinced the network to reveal the show’s central mystery, and it wrapped up in a cliffhanger that was never fully resolved, even by the show’s feature film follow-up, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
In terms of pure marketability, Friends was a juggernaut. Everyone watched Friends. Parents watched alongside kids. Its mass appeal is summed up by its incredibly general title alone—I mean really, “Friends”? Its success may be the ultimate reminder that truly populist sitcoms are all about the characters and not necessarily the storylines. Friends simply had the best-defined characters: Nebbish Ross, prickly Chandler, air-headed Joey, domineering Monica, bubbly Phoebe and “I’m very attractive” Rachel. The writing was just clever enough to let a talented bunch of actors grow into their roles and become archetypes that have been echoed in dozens of sitcoms in the decade since the show’s finale. The reach of Friends extends to every end of pop culture, even fashion. Case in point: “the Rachel” hairstyle, which became the decade’s defining ’do. That is the definition of influence.
6. South Park
The South Park of the 1990s was quite a different show from the one it grew into over the years. In its earliest episodes, it was absolutely committed to raising as much controversy as possible, which was certainly a success in terms of media coverage alone. But the main characters were also quite a bit different—Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman were more innocent characters back then, truly childlike in many ways, less mature and grizzled from the insane experiences of living in their “quiet mountain town.” The early episodes are focused much tighter on those central characters as well, while just beginning to dip into pop culture parody (such as “Chinpokomon”) and episodes dedicated to supporting characters (such as “The Succubus”). The ’90s show hadn’t quite grown to its full potential, but it’s still easy to miss some of these character-driven stories compared to 2014 South Park, which so often dedicates whole episodes to Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s opinions on a single trend, celebrity, film or limited subject matter.
So many of the sitcoms on this list are paeans to blue-collar family life, but Frasier was the odd show that made cultural elites and eggheads somehow seem like lovable characters to a mass audience. Both Frasier and his brother Niles can be infuriatingly snobbish, but audiences soon found that when their petty jealousies were directed at each other, they could also be hilarious. The show soon became an off-hand representation of the idea of “smart comedy” on TV, but it was also still a sitcom full of relationship humor. Viewers waited a hell of a long time in particular for the long-teased relationship between Niles and Daphne to finally come to fruition (seven full seasons). Frazier, on the other hand, is never really lucky in love, but he was always better as a semi-depressed single, turning his probing mind on himself.
4. Homicide: Life on the Street
Before The Wire, Homicide: Life on the Street plumbed much of the same territory (and in the same city, no less). One of the most realistic police procedurals ever, it eschewed much of the soap opera-style drama of other series in favor of reality—crushing, numbing reality, most of the time. It depicts police and detective work as bleak, often repetitive and mentally exhausting, which certainly takes a toll over time on its breakout character, homicide detective Frank Pembleton, played by Andre Braugher. To emphasize the sense of “real world” implications, the characters were often tackling multiple cases and totally separate plot threads in each episode, which served as a constant reminder of how the work piles up, never allowing people to be at their best in tackling a single job. Even when they were successful, these cops rarely got to bask in any sense of glory or accomplishment. Homicide: Life on the Street went on to become the first TV drama to ever win three Peabody Awards.
ER was on the air for so long that the different periods of the show bear almost no resemblance to one another, except for the fact that the 331 episodes are mostly set in the hospital and continued to draw Emmy nominations, a record 124 in total. In the ’90s, the lead character was ostensibly Anthony Edwards’ Dr. Mark Greene, but it’s more likely remembered these days as “The Clooney Years.” The A-lister played pediatric Dr. Doug Ross at the height of his powers, a womanizer (of course) with an on-again, off-again relationship with head nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies, years before The Good Wife). It’s safe to say that in this role, Clooney was one of the most popular TV doctors of all time, and his departure in season five certainly made some headlines. ER, however, remained a beast in the ratings until well into the 2000s, making it one of the most successful medical shows that has ever aired.
On any given weekday, the likelihood is high that I watch a Seinfeld rerun that I’ve seen at least 20 times before, and I’m not alone in that habit. The fact that the show has been in continual reruns and syndication since its 76-million viewer finale proves how beloved it remains to this day: Seinfeld is still making money for networks 16 years after it ended. Its grasp on pop culture minutia was on another level entirely, as was its distaste for typical sitcom conventions. Long-term relationships and love triangles were practically non-existent on Seinfeld. Never did characters offer sappy apologies to each other. Never did they even learn from their mistakes! Larry David and company were instead committed to telling stories of everyday, casual misanthropy from people who viewed themselves as “generally decent” or average, but were in reality pretty terrible individuals. Without even going into depth about the show’s transformative effect on the cultural lexicon, known as “Seinlanguage,” it’s easy to see how Seinfeld uniquely stood out from every one of its peers.
1. The Simpsons
If you ever meet someone who claims the best period of The Simpsons came in a season outside the 1990s, that person is either trolling you or they’re a poor, deluded soul who somehow doesn’t know any better. At its creative peak in the mid-’90s, there was no better-written show on TV—the joke density alone is absolutely incredible. Go back and watch an episode like part one of “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” from 1995 and the thing one can’t help but notice is how insanely fast everything moves—there’s literally a joke every few seconds, most of them brilliant. Every type of humor is present, from the ubiquitous pop culture references to self-referential parody, slapstick, wordplay and simply silly, iconic characters. Really, what TV character has been quoted more times since the early ’90s than Homer Simpson? How many of us can recite entire passages or episodes? And with the launch of the new “Simpsons World” app in late August as the show’s reruns move to FXX, there’s never been an easier time to finally revisit the best portions of the show’s absurd 552 episodes. Watch the episodes and reminisce—The Simpsons was the finest show of the 1990s.