The T.V Shows
Some of our favourite T.V shows from the decade.
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.
Xena: Warrior Princess
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
3rd Rock from the Sun
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.
Beverly Hills, 90210
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.
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.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
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.
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 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.
Beavis and Butt-head
Certainly, there could be no South Park without Beavis and Butt-head, the show that redefined what you could get away with in the realm of animation. The title characters are moronic teenagers with absolutely no sense of empathy or social consciousness, whose only goals in life are to watch TV, eat junk food and hopefully “score” one day. Nevertheless, Beavis and Butt-head always had the ability to be oddly astute at times, especially when the boys would deconstruct MTV music videos with an unexplainably expanded vocabulary. The episodes have aged pretty well, and there’s just a stupid pleasure in watching the pair wreck the lives of everyone they come across. The series even led into a surprisingly funny feature film, Beavis and Butt-head Do America, which I’ve seen more times than I care to admit.
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.
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.