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Best Television Shows of the '90s

Updated on August 28, 2011

I was seriously trying to decide whether or not to keep this list at ten or double it and make it twenty because the list of great shows during this particular decade is longer than any other. I truly think of the 1990s as the golden years of television, when people seemed to be at their most creative and there were so many avenues to explore as far as characters and television are concerned. Again, you may not necessarily agree with this list, but I'm never about cliche and what the majority liked or what got the most views during that particular time, but which shows I thought were truly the best.

A few of my guilty pleasures were Clueless (1996-1999) which was based on the hit movie that came out in 1995; Sabrina, The Teenage Witch (1996-2003) that also had a movie precede it; Nightman (1997-1999) which was one of the corniest shows I've ever seen in my life and that I honestly thought wasn't going to last more than a handful of episodes, but ending up staying on the air for two years. Nightman was obviously the guilty pleasure of more than just a handful for it to stay on as long as it did, and I think most people were surprised that it lasted as long as it had for it's really ridiculous premise. Yet, it was one show that always had me coming back every single week, 6pm on Saturday evenings and I stayed seated even throughout the commercials. I don't know what it was about this show, but you can't really find the DVD box sets of it or repeats anywhere and that is really frustrating because despite it's corniness I absolutely loved it. Hey, that's what guilty pleasures are all about.

A couple of family oriented or kids' shows that I think were cool were The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers (1993-1996) which I always thought was an ode to the cartoon Transformers (1984-1987) and Step By Step ((1991-1998) that starred Suzanne Somers.

A few honorable mentions that just didn't make the cut of the best shows are New York Undercover (1994-1998), Spin City (1996-2002), The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996), Blossom (1990-1995), Angel (1999-2004), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), and 3rd Rock from the Sun (1996-2001). I absolutely think that Joss Whedon is an absolute genius for what he made of shows about vampires, they were absolutely phenomenal and I don't have to think twice about their constant rotation on TNT and Chiller channels till this day. A couple of shows that I think had exceptional potential, but were cut off early much to my dismay were Swan's Crossing (1992) and South Central (1994). I never knew the reason why Swan's Crossing was cancelled, but it was one show that I would watch after school every single day and it was wonderful so when it was yanked off the air I was truly surprised. If you've never heard of it, it starred a very young Sarah Michelle Gellar and it was basically a soap opera for pre-teens and teens and I thought the people that created it did a fantastic job. South Central, on the other hand, was said to have been cancelled for low ratings, but I don't believe that at all. I've never believed that. I simply think that audiences weren't ready to see what truly went on with black families in urban neighborhoods and that's what South Central was about--telling the stories of those families of the forgotten. They're the families that people try to sweep under a rug and pretend they don't exist in this country the best way they can. Sure, you have Grace Under Fire (1993-1998) that was truthful, but with South Central there was no laugh track and the premise was more serious, and let's face it, there's still was and is a stigma about black television that goes it can be aired just so long as middle class America is happy with it, and I don't think they were with South Central. The show itself came off the heels of the movie Menace II Society (1993) and also starred one of the actors in it, Larenz Tate, but it was simply more toned done than what was shown in theaters. If that show had been given a little more time to grow, I think it would've been on my list of the best, but it just didn't quite make it. Eerie, Indiana (1991-1992) was also a favorite of mine and I recently got to catch up with those episodes on Netflix and it was also a cool little show that i wished would've stayed on the air and let us have more episodes.

One of the most cliche shows to put on lists ever has to go to Friends (1994-2004). Was it a good show? Yes, I thought it was. Was it funny? Yep, I thought that as well. Did it get high ratings and it was one of people's favorite shows during that decade? Apparently. So why isn't it on the list? I thought it was a good show, but not a great one. Yes, I watch a few reruns here and there and I think it's awesome, I just can't go along with the crowd and say it was one of the greatest because I just don't think that would be true. A lot of people rank it right up there with Seinfeld (1990-1998), but I just don't see it. One of the most overlooked shows, I believe, was Living Single (1993-1998). I still think that Sex and the City (1998-2004) was partially based on these women (though very loosely), and I know most people will say, "but it was based on Candace Bushnell's book...", to which I would then ask: "Did you read that book???" The show SATC was actually very loosely based on Bushnell's book if you ever bothered to read it. There were no concrete set of four girlfriends in the book as it was portrayed on television and there weren't even many details given to the characters to give them much of a personality (except maybe Samantha Jones) to translate to a show. I can't think of another show other than Living Single that featured four young girlfriends living out their personal and love lives so closely side by side on a level that was relevant to the young women of the time before LS. Although I loved SATC much better, I don't think my theory is completely far-fetched.

So here is my top 10 list of what I think are the best shows of the 1990s. They may not necessarily be my favorites, but they I believe they were of the best:

1) Mad About You (1992-1999)

This is one of my favorite shows of all time, but it's also one of the best shows. It was well written, and Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt were terrific. They were believable as this couple and they every single episode was great. When Fox used to air it right before midnight every single weeknight I was always there (it was aired right before Night Owl Theater would come on), but that ended years ago. I miss seeing this show out of any of my favorites and it feels like seven years just wasn't enough.

2. ER (1994-2009)

This show was absolutely wonderful. I didn't watch the very last one or two seasons because at that point the show had gotten pretty bleak and almost unbearably depressing, but after 15 years of being on the air and just missing a couple of seasons, I'd say that was an exceptional run. During the nineties this show was ingrained in my Thursday night schedule and if there's anything worth remembering from those times, those late weekday nights, ER is apart of them in some way.

3. Seinfeld (1990-1998)

This show about "nothing" definitely turned into something special. Not only was it funny, but these characters just stick in your head. It's been over a decade since this show ended and I still think of it, still remember episodes, and still laugh out loud at the memory of them. It was just well written--the writing was everything on this show and it truly was some of the best.

4. The Sopranos (1999-2007)

A mob figure who's prone to panic attacks needs psychiatrist. Normally the guy would be "sleepin' with the fishes", but in this hit show he lived to breathe and crack skulls another day. Not only is Tony Soprano someone from television history that we will long remember, but his very presence has carved out yet another kind of genre amid mob entertainment. Sure, we had the mob movies, but who would've thought we'd ever get a hit television as well?

5. Sex and the City (1998-2004)

Four women, four sex lives, and Manhattan as a backdrop equals success on the small screen. I loved this television series (not so much the movies at all, they're like night and day in my opinion) and the dynamic of the women. Each woman brought her own unique quality to the show and I can't imagine another woman taking any of their places as they traipsed around the city making fashion statements and sometimes fools of themselves. Anyone who was a fan of this series all have their favorite moments and each episode had something special to give its viewers. I don't think there was one fan of the show ready to see it go when it went off the air. I still wish they would've let it play out at least one more season as a tv show before letting it go.

6. Beverly Hills 90210 (1990-2000)

My eyes were glued to the screen when it premiered and they were glued to the screen (and may have actually cried a bit, I believe) when it came to the final episode. The saga began with two new teenagers, sister and brother Brenda and Brandon Walsh, moving into a new neighborhood and going to a new school, and it ended with us knowing and falling in love with almost a whole new group of people at the end of the show. It's no wonder they wanted to try and do it again for the new generation, but I've never seen the new show and there's no way to remake a 90210 anyway. For its time it was great and watching some of the old episodes now, it's still great. It was meant to be a soap opera for teens, but it transcended any age barriers and anytime most people from any walk of life hears the zip code you bet this show is the first thing that pops into their heads.

7. That '70s Show (1998-2006)

Pure genius. This show was phenomenal right off the bat. Everything fit from the cast to the set to the wardrobe. You actually did feel like you watching a throwback show, not something from the '90s or the 21st century. They never deviated either with forgetting which time frame they were in. I thought it was hilarious when I first saw it, but I also thought there was going to be no way they were going to pull off even two seasons with that concept; they not only proved me wrong in that instant by going for seven seasons, but it was a great show. This show could have easily fallen flat right off the bat, and it did open with some controversy (about the insinuated marijuana use by the young cast members), but I think that only made people watch it more. It was a show that could have aired right alongside The Brady Bunch and been its naughty alter, in theory of course, but happily we got it in my generation.

8. Charmed (1998-2006)

The last season of the show may have fell flat (there was some talk that it was due to budget cuts) because of the bad writing and recycled content that they used to try and create fresh shows with, but the first seven seasons of this drama were absolutely excellent. The show itself was created by Constance M. Burge and featured three young women, sisters, that would soon learn that they were born witches and they had a destiny to become " the charmed ones". There were so many more layers to this show than meets the eye: first of all, the sisters didn't always get along. This wasn't an always blissful union, but the girls had a bond that they could either use towards fighting evil or they could fight among one another, breaking their bond, and becoming useful towards that fight. They had to work at their relationship like people do in real life and I think that was a great element in the show. Nothing really came that easy to them: not love or money, they struggled with finding their careers and their identities like everyone does, so if you could get past the supernatural concept and go along for the ride with these women you would've found a rather unique and wonderful television show and I doubt there'll be another like it.

9. Home Improvement (1991-1999)

There was a show within this show, and Tim Allen often said that when he got stopped on the street for his autograph or when some people would talk to him, they would refer to the actual show as "Tool Time", which is funny because for the first couple of years it was on the air I forgot the name of it was Home Improvement as well and found myself calling it "Tool Time". If you've never seen it, Tim Allen played a man named Tim on the show who had his own show called, what else, "Tool Time" and had his trusty sidekick, Al, on his show who was the reason behind Tim's madness. He was always hurting himself, blowing something up, or worse, nearly blowing himself up in the process. He and his wife on the show had three sons, the youngest one bearing a remarkable resemblance to Allen in real life. His wife, played by Patricia Richardson, was the kind of level headed woman you suspected his character needed, the same as his right hand man on his television show within the show. His next door neighbor, Wilson, would appear sometime during the show an acted as more comic relief, but also would give Tim pearls of wisdom over the picket fence that separated their yards, only we never saw Wilson's face. It was like some comforting mystery when you watched the show; you knew that Wilson was going to be there to help Tim with whatever he needed and even though you never saw his entire face, you felt the same comfort you knew Tim did just knowing he was there to help guide Tim to right decision. This was a great show, and young Pamela Anderson had a small role on it before Baywatch snatched her up and made her a star.

10. Grace Under Fire (1993-1998)

I was very confused by the credits on this show for years as I wondered why someone named Brett Butler got top billing, but the star was a woman. When I actually found out that it was her name, surprisingly, I wasn't that shocked. This show reminded me of Roseanne in a certain way, but Grace was all its own. This show reflected the lives of so many working class people that it didn't surprise me that it stayed on as long as it did. The mother in this show wasn't trying to be glamorous or trying her best to be someone she wasn't, but she was always trying to keep her own head above water like so many other blue collar moms who were doing it at the time. The character made mistakes, but she was also doing her best to raise her kids right and be a good mother and that's the main reason I loved this show.


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