I was born in 1986, which I would argue essentially makes me the quintessential ’90s child, coming into the decade as a four-year-old making some of my first television memories and leaving it as a jaded 14-year-old, certain that The Simpsons probably had “a season or two left, at best.” But one thing is certain: I watched a whole lot of TV.
In that decade, I watched some of the best shows, such as the aforementioned Simpsons in its heyday, and I watched some absolute dreck—I’m talking Street Sharks and SWAT Kats-type stuff here. (Do you even realize how many terrible animated shows there were featuring anthropomorphic animals in the ’90s? I suspect that you do not.)
It was a decade of wholesome family sitcoms and subversive cartoons that flew under the radar and straight into cult fame. Sincerity seemed to rule the airwaves as the ’90s opened, gradually replaced by a sense of cynical, defeatist satire as the decade progressed. It was a transformative period for so many televised genre programs, from science fiction and mystery to horror and absurdist humor. The ’90s came in with dayglo excess and left in a flannel daze, bemoaning the death of grunge and the incoming and clearly unavoidable disaster of Y2K.
Here, then, is a ranking of the top 90 shows of the 1990s.
A favorite of the “senior citizen solves mysteries” genre in the same vein as Columbo, Murder, She Wrote actually has a bit more in common with the work of Agatha Christie and particularly her brilliant spinster, Miss Marple. Granted, Angela Lansbury was only in her 60s for most of the show’s long, 12-year run, racking up Golden Globe and Emmy nominations all the while. Really, the most remarkable thing about Murder, She Wrote is the way that murder literally follows Jessica Fletcher around everywhere she goes. Any locale this woman visits is immediately stalked by death, moments after her arrival. It’s like she emits some kind of magnetic field that causes people to act out their darkest urges.
Just thinking of the opening music from Unsolved Mysteries sends a chill down my spine—this was undoubtedly the most frightening theme song my grade school self had ever heard. Its accompaniment was the steely voice of Robert Stack, who would reel off quite the list of disturbing “mysteries” each week, from unsolved crime cases and conspiracy theories to terrifying dips into the supernatural. That was the bizarre thing about the show—it could go from a story about long-lost twins somehow finding their way back together into a segment about demonic possession or alien abduction at the drop of a hat. It was a staple of both NBC and then CBS for years before somehow ending up on Lifetime of all places before Stack’s death in 2003.
The late 1990s saw a large boom in the teen drama subgenre, of which Dawson’s Creek was certainly one of the prototypical examples. It was very much in the same vein as some of its contemporaries, with a cast of attractive young kids, although it was set apart somewhat by its pretty New England surroundings. The scripts by series creator Kevin Williamson caught some early flack before the series had even premiered for their perceived “raciness” and frank discussion of teen sexuality, but time has been kind to memories of the show’s legacy. And James Van Der Beek of course remains a total dreamboat to this day.
It’s tough to name any show of the 1990s more fun to ironically watch in 2014 than a vintage episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. I mean really, what other shows have inspired Conan O’Brien to install a level on his desk and show contextless clips over the course of several years—and that was the most requested Late Night skit series of all time, by the way. The individual moments are so incredible that it’s not even necessary to watch the episodes—you can just enjoy the snippet of an old man in a wheelchair being pushed down the stairs into a pool , completely out of context. Or Walker telling a young Haley Joel Osment that he has AIDS. Or Walker jumping through a man’s car windshield:. Or perhaps the thrilling conclusion to the greatest Walker clip of all time—I won’t spoil this one for you.
Bruce Campbell is an actor who never truly received a chance at the starring roles he deserved, and The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. is some of the better evidence that we all missed out on a guy who could have been much more than just a cult favorite in movies like The Evil Dead. Ostensibly a western, there are so many other genres wrapped into Brisco’s adventures, from time travel to experimentation with steampunk technology. It may have even inspired some Venture Brothers episodes, seeing as a good number of episodes revolve around a mysterious artifact from the future called “the orb.” Critical praise was strong for the show, but like so many others on Fox, the ratings didn’t hold up and The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. was filed squarely into the “cult” folder after its cancellation after one season.
Before Mayim Bialik was sucked into the CBS comedy void that is The Big Bang Theory, she was the early ’90s star of Blossom. The story of a precocious teenager growing up with her musician father and annoying brothers, she became an icon as the “goofy girl” with weird fashion, particularly the big, floppy hats that became her calling card. Today, the show is often remembered as one of the leading innovators of the “very special episode” format, which was already well established by shows such as Diff’rent Strokes but expanded into an art form by Blossom. Examples on Blossom include the time her best friend Six (that’s her name, yes) is dating an older man who turns out to be married, or the traumatic occasion of Blossom’s first period. Sometimes it seemed like every other Blossom episode was “very special.”
A lot of people, Martin Lawrence included, probably thought this would be the peak of the former stand-up’s career in comedy, but they were simply unaware that he would one day make Big Momma’s House. Set in direct opposition to the dominance of NBC’s “Must See TV” block on Thursday nights, Martin became a counterbalance, a story set in urban Detroit with a largely black cast. A bit of a blowhard and a paper tiger, Martin is a funny guy who likes to act tough, but is secretly a softy on the inside, a characteristic only rarely seen by his more serious, long-suffering girlfriend, Gina. The show had a bit of an odd conclusion, as a sexual harassment lawsuit from Tisha Campbell resulted in her being absent through a good portion of the final season. She eventually settled and filmed three final episodes under the stipulation that she wouldn’t appear in any scenes with Lawrence, which certainly sounds like it must have been awkward to witness.
It’s sort of hard to make Wings sound thrilling, but that’s okay because it was always a gentle, sort of stuffy sitcom, albeit one with good performances. You can sum it up in one short sentence: A pair of brothers live in Nantucket and operate a small, one-plane airline. In the vein of Cheers (it was produced by the same people), the stories revolve around the colorful cast of characters who hang around the airport, such as cellist Helen Hackett or Italian-American stereotype Antonio V. Scarpacci, amusingly played by Tony Shalhoub. The brothers, Joe and Brian Hackett, basically have the classic Abbott and Costello dynamic going, with Tim Daly playing the straight man and Steven Weber playing his free-wheeling, womanizing foil.
Full House is probably the quintessential sappy family sitcom of the ’90s, the kind of show that was the butt of jokes from every late-night comedian who thought he was somehow skewering polite society by making fun of its cheesiness or adorable kid actors. The story of a widowed father raising his three daughters in San Francisco with the help of his brother-in-law and goofy best friend, it was pure sap, but a guilty pleasure for plenty of viewers who wouldn’t have watched anything else in the same genre. It offered a little something for everyone—kids liked the silly voices and characters of Joey, women liked the beefcake that was John Stamos, and families liked the cute kids, especially Michelle, who was turned into a marketing empire by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. But even more than Michelle, what says “’90s” more than Stephanie Tanner leading a dance party to Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch?
Even more so than in the golden age of the WWF in the late ’80s, the late ’90s was the most popular and relevant that pro wrestling has ever been on a national scale. Good things arose from the competition between Ted Turner’s WCW and Vince McMahon’s WWF and the so-called “Monday Night Wars” that resulted, as the quest for ratings drove creativity and some of the most popular characters of all time, including Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Goldberg, Sting and more. The single biggest heel turn in history took place July 6, 1996 when Hulk Hogan did the unthinkable and became a villain, forming the New World Order in WCW and ushering in several of the most exciting, over-the-top and influential years the wrestling world has ever seen. WWF, meanwhile, kicked off its own “Attitude Era,” still considered the high-water mark for pro wrestling as a whole.
It’s easy to sort of deride seaQuest DSV as essentially “Star Trek underwater,” but in its earlier episodes that comparison was only half right. Roy Scheider of Jaws fame starred as the captain of a research and diplomatic envoy vessel in a future where depletion of the Earth’s resources has led to the only cities remaining underwater, where they harvest the bounty of the ocean. As the show progressed to a second season, the sci-fi elements grew stronger with the discovery of aliens and various “monster of the week” episodes in the vein of those types of Star Trek or X-Files episodes. Scheider was particularly unhappy about the direction the show was heading and stepped down before the third season, which was oddly set 10 years further into the future. Michael Ironside replaced him and played the new, more militaristic captain, but ratings were bad, dooming one of network TV’s quirkier series.
Ah, Hercules. This syndicated show was some truly excellent TV comfort food—put it on in the background and devote roughly 25 percent of your attention to it while doing something more important. Plots were minimalistic, but the action was cheesy and fun, although somehow still less over the top than say, Walker, Texas Ranger. The writers clearly didn’t care whatsoever about long-term plots or even keeping their mythologies straight—every other episode would lift random fixtures of Egyptian, Asian and European mythology right alongside the “Greek stuff.” None of that mattered—it was understood you were watching simply for the bromance between Kevin Sorbo as Hercules and Michael Hurst as his nephew/sidekick Iolaus. Check your brain at the door and let 30 minutes roll by.
It’s easy to imagine the average viewer being completely perplexed by The Tick the first time they laid eyes on the animated series. Its satire of both animated children’s TV shows and comic book superheroes came totally out of left field—the one similar parody from the time period I can think of is the occasional character “Really Really Big Man” from Rocko’s Modern Life. The Tick, though, was a full-time satirist, a possibly insane, blue man-child who possessed super strength but a lack of any common sense, and powerful abilities that literally increased or decreased depending on how “dramatic” his surroundings were. As a Saturday morning cartoon it was only mildly successful before blossoming into a cult hit on Comedy Central re-runs. The subsequent 2001 live-action series returned to Fox but ran for only nine episodes, proving that The Tick was probably best left to a more colorful atmosphere.
The 1990s seemed to be just jam-packed full of sitcoms like Coach, these genial programs about harried parents dealing with kids and family life, only defined by their unique locations. What mattered was each show’s cast, and Craig T. Nelson, as later evidenced by The Incredibles, was pretty much born to be the harried father. Here, he coached a prestigious college football team at the fictional “Minnesota State” before moving on to the NFL, but even more than the team, his challenges typically revolved around wrangling his college-aged daughter or sorting out disputes between other teachers or members of his staff. Like any of these shows, you had yourself a few goofball comic relief characters who existed just to give out-of-nowhere monologues like this one.
Dinosaurs was a truly bizarre concept, a puppet show about anthropomorphic dino-humans in flannel, living a Flintstones-type existence in lower-middle class suburbia. To some viewers, it seemed moronic, what with Baby Sinclair’s antics, singing and slapstick humor, but it was simultaneously capable of being both a sincere political platform and a biting parody of TV’s shallowness. I mean, just look at the absurdity of the fourth wall-breaking going on here. It was also notable for having the most depressing conclusion this side of ALF, which heavily implied that all of the dinosaur characters we’d come to know and love over the course of four seasons were going to freeze to death and go extinct. I’m not sure how this came as a shock—they’re dinosaurs, after all. But still, genocide is a rough way to end a sitcom.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.