Ahh, the ’90s. A time of seriously sassy fashion statements, bombastic new music genres, some of the highest-grossing films ever, and many now-iconic television shows. Back in the ’90s, without the internet constantly leaking spoilers, television felt fresh and exciting. You could sit down for a new episode of your favorite sitcom and genuinely not know what direction it’d be headed in next. It was an era when networks, writers, and actors felt free to experiment and take risks after the ’70s and ’80s and, as a result, some of the best series of all time were born.
Nowadays, it’s easy to see how the hit television shows of the ‘90s have influenced the shows we continue to see on television and various streaming apps to this day. Some popular series, like WandaVision and Derry Girls, teleport audiences back to the time period instead of present day, while others put their own slight spin on the era’s tried-and-tested recipe for success. Not only did ’90 television offer honest discussions onscreen that were reflective of the times, but it also allowed audiences to provide TV networks with a clear guide on what sort of shows that they felt seen and represented by. As a result, there were countless ’90s TV shows that felt way ahead of their time that continue to lay their influence on TV shows to this day.
The true testament of how advanced many of these ’90s shows were for their time is the fact that shows like The Powerpuff Girls, The X Files,Twin Peaks, and more have all been rebooted within the last few years. Setting standards of storytelling, genre, quality and concept, these 20 ’90s shows were way out ahead of the pack and definitely worth a watch if you haven’t seen them before.
1. The Real World
This MTV reality docuseries first aired in 1992 and is arguably the influential precursor for the swathes of reality TV shows that dominated the network schedules of the early 2000s. The Real World could be taken as being the basic framework for countless other reality shows that would come to follow it, including Love Island and Siesta Key. The timeless quality of the show has spawned countless revivals across multiple platforms and its casts are still widely discussed to this day. Plus, who can forget the show’s iconic opening dialogue? “The true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite ... and start getting real.”
2. Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
There’s a reason why Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a cult following even more than 20 years after its original release. The feminist WB show centered on the eponymous slayer, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, as she navigated love triangles, some spooky supernatural entities, and embracing her destiny along the way. In addition to having a strong selection of female LGBTQ+ characters who were intelligent, witty, and powerful in their own right, Buffy The Vampire Slayer was also one of the first programs to successfully and effortlessly portray horror in a way that was entertaining, intelligent, hilarious, and at times even deeply moving.
3. The Powerpuff Girls (1998-2005)
Sugar, spice, and everything nice. These were the ingredients chosen to create the perfect little girls, when Professor Utonium accidentally added the mysterious Chemical X into his experiment he could’ve never foreseen that the end result would be one of the most iconic, beloved, and feminist cartoon series ever. Not only did The Powerpuff Girls tell young women that their femininity didn’t make them weak, it celebrated it through the lens of its three protagonists who each held their own unique perception of identity and femininity. It also fearlessly and proudly portrayed girlhood, and was one of the first cartoons to show young females kicking butt within a universe where the color pink, sparkles, and cuteness overload reigned supreme.
4. Sex And The City (1998-2004)
Sex and the City has been defining friendship groups since its debut in 2008. Whether you’re a Miranda, Charlotte, Carrie, or Samantha, part of what made Sex and the City such a refreshing and much-talked about program was its celebration of female friendships and its ability to frankly discuss sex, love, feminism, and other topics that were traditionally sidestepped on television. When the show first aired, women across America were finally able to see a show that understood women’s sexuality both existed and mattered. With a new series on the way, it just proves that stories about friendship, love, and fashion will never go out of style.
5. Cop Rock (1990)
This 1990 musical cop show was the butt of everyone’s jokes when it debuted in 1990 because, well, it was definitely a little odd. After all, creating a show that centered on the LAPD as they solved crimes intermixed with surprising musical numbers and choreography certainly wasn’t par for the course at the time. However, Cop Rock can and should be seen as the precursor to hit television shows like Glee, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, and Empire, which were able to eventually prove that the musical television genre is definitely a lucrative one.
6. Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
Long before American Horror Story was mystifying and freaking out audiences across America, Twin Peaks was delivering puzzling and creepy (alongside a cup of coffee and apple pie) every week. Despite having only two seasons, and a subsequent revival in 2017, the story of FBI agent Dale Cooper’s (Kyle MacLachlan) journey to uncover the truth behind the mystery of who was responsible for the demise of high schooler Laura Palmer has remained the influential benchmark of many a crime show ever since.
7. Ally McBeal (1997-2002)
Let’s be honest: Ally McBeal was a delightfully weird show. Not only did it feature that infamous dancing baby scene, but it also tried to impart the idea that it was incredibly normal to just hang out in the toilets at work. However, the legal comedy starring Calista Flockhart had a lot of heart and humanity to it too. Female-oriented dramas including Weeds and Orange Is The Black continue to trail blaze the path set by Ally McBeal, delivering powerful drama alongside great comedy and weird quirks.
8. My So-Called Life (1994-1995)
My So-Called Life was one of the first shows to take the teenage experience seriously. The show focused on the dramatic inner workings of a group of friends, with its cast played by now prominent actors, including Claire Danes and Jared Leto. What made My So-Called Life special was that it delivered storylines that felt truly authentic. This show’s influence was one that teen dramas like Skins definitely benefited from nowadays.
9. The X-Files (1993-2002)
Name a more iconic duo than Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). We’ll wait. The FBI agents’ weekly quest to solve paranormal crimes — ranging from stretchy mutants to doppelgangers — effortlessly merged both horror and science fiction genres together in a way that was unique, thrilling, and at times bone-chilling. The X-Files took the addictive nature of serial shows and combined it with the intrigue of the supernatural, both genres that have only grown in popularity in the years since.
10. Freaks And Geeks (1999-2000)
Created by Paul Feig and executive produced by Judd Apatow, Freaks and Geeks was more than just a precursor for modern day teen shows — it was also the launching pad for a slew of actors who continue to shape film and television today, including Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, Jason Segel, Busy Philipps, and Martin Starr. Not only did it build something of a bromance comedy brat pack in the process, but Freaks And Geeks would help to create a culture where dudes could openly talk about their feelings in comedies and proved what we all already know: that women could be just as funny as their male counterparts.
11. The Ren & Stimpy Show (1991-1996)
Prior to the release of The Ren & Stimpy Show, cartoons had been largely perceived as a genre for children. Instead, the creators of Ren & Stimpy paved new ground by developing a show that could be enjoyed by both children and adults alike — often for entirely different reasons. The show is still known for its shock value and use of dark, subversive, and at times controversial humor and gags, and its assertion that cartoons could be for adults too lives on in programs like Rick And Morty.
12. Boy Meets World (1993-2000)
The general plot of Boy Meets World is not a new one. The show centers around a young boy named Cory Matthews (Ben Savage) as he grows from a sarcastic tween into a mature adult. Along the way, he navigates first loves, falling outs with friends, and poignant discussions about mental health, love, and trauma with family and his teacher Mr. Feeny (William Daniels). Its delicate balance of lighthearted comedy and honesty is what make this show so beloved even now — enough to even spawn its own 2014 sequel Girl Meets World.
13. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996)
The Fresh Prince is a story all about how Will Smith’s life got flipped, turned upside-down after he is forced to move to Bel-Air to live with his aunt and uncle. The iconic show’s weekly episodes typically saw Will’s West Philadelphian ideals often clash with those of his posh family members like cousin Carlton for comedic effect, but it also featured powerful discussions about race, abandonment, and growing up too.
14. Sister, Sister (1994-1999)
Tia and Tamera Mowry took center stage as identical twins who reconnect after being separated at birth in Sister, Sister. The hilarious Disney Channel series’ unique approach to storytelling saw its two main characters frequently break the fourth wall and talk to the audience about whatever situation they were currently facing in the episode and their plans to remedy it. It was a storytelling device that was often used in the ’90s, and it’s one that can still be seen to this day in shows like Fleabag.
15. That ’70s Show (1998-2006)
That ’70s Show may have aired in the ’90s, but it transported viewers even farther back in time to the rock ‘n’ roll heyday of the ’70s. The teen comedy focused on the lives of six friends living in Point Place, Wisconsin, and featured a star-studded cast that included Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis (who would later get married). Despite being set in the ‘70s, the show’s values definitely weren’t — it often used its time period to poke holes at and have open conversations about sexism, relationship dynamics, and feminism.
16. Oz (1997-2003)
The HBO prison drama Oz was easily one of the first originators of the prestige drama that we know today. Set in the fictional Oswald State Correctional Facility, the HBO show reinvented the humble serialized TV show with its own complex character arcs, shocking violence, and jaw-dropping twists. It was these powerful storylines that undoubtedly helped open the doors for later shows including Deadwood, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones.
17. Seinfeld (1989-1998)
Featuring a strong, hilarious female character Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and the anti-hero antics of both Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza (Jason Alexander), Seinfeld saw that audiences were deeply dissatisfied with everyday sitcoms and so they flipped the script and offered viewers something new. The result was a sitcom that featured characters that were real, hilarious, and openly flawed, and whose storylines are still widely discussed. Without Seinfeld, it’d be impossible to imagine shows like It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia or Workaholics ever being created.
18. Eerie, Indiana (1991-1992)
Consider this show the children’s equivalent of The X-Files. The NBC show centered on a teen named Marshall Teller (Omri Katz) who moved to the town of Eerie, Indiana, only to discover it was full of urban legends and all things absurd, mysterious, and generally spooky. What’s more important than any of the show’s paranormal storylines, however, was that Eerie, Indiana respected the intelligence of children enough to give them a legitimately smart, fun, and weird show of their own.
19. Clarissa Explains It All (1991-1994)
Not only was Clarissa Explains It All the first Nickelodeon show to ever center on a female lead, but its frank and open discussions on topics like puberty, first crushes, and growing up from the perspective of a teenage girl are all still important today. Plus, Clarissa Darling was a coder, y’all! The character, played by Melissa Joan Hart, loved computers, would create her own games, and could throw together some pretty complex (given the time period) graphics on screen. It was truly ahead of its time.
20. Lois And Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman (1993-1997)
OK. The New Adventures of Superman might be a total soap opera warping of the iconic comic book character’s story. However, audiences can thank this show and Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher’s performances for breaking open the door for the comic-based television shows we see on screen today. That includes Arrow, The Flash, WandaVision, and Loki — Emmy-nominated stories that are now all over TV and streaming sites and considered highly respected and beloved.
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