The 1990s were a decade when television was reinventing itself under pressure from cable, new talent, and the crumbling of censorship. Arbitrarily, we bump series that ran longer in the next decade, like ER and Law & Order, or which, like South Park and The Simpsons, remain in production to this day. Homicide: Life on the Street gets cut for ratings weakness, along with acclaimed one-season wonders like My So-Called Life. So too does NYPD Blue. Frasier? A critical and popular hit but and not a flicker on the influence meter. Friends? A million ‘Rachel’ haircuts later, its charming ensemble rewrote the rules for TV contracts but the writing was too watered down. In Living Color made stars of all the Wayans Brothers, Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier, Jennifer Lopez, Rosie Perez, Carrie Ann Inaba and choreographer Laurie Ann Gibson, with its musical interludes and button-pushing humor (fully uncensored versions of the show are still not available 20 years later), but its run was sadly too short.
Murphy Brown (1988- 1998)
It’s a dark back story for a comedy: the heroine returns to high-profile investigative TV reporting after recovering from alcoholism. The popular character gained notoriety in the 1992 presidential election when Vice-President Dan Quayle deplored her single motherhood. The show responded brilliantly, bringing footage of Quayle into Brown’s world, as if he had attacked her personally. The writing was realistic enough to attract some dozen actual television journalists to appear on the show as Brown’s colleagues, as well as revolving door secretaries, nannies, and the seemingly endless repainting of Brown’s house. In the final season, Brown deals with breast cancer with typical flair: medical marijuana to counteract chemotherapy effects and boob jokes as she shops for prosthetic breasts. Real-world health officials credited the cancer storyline with a 30% increase in the number of women seeking mammograms, and gave an award to star Candice Bergen.
Twin Peaks (1990- 1991)
We’d never seen anything like it on television before. A quote from Newsweek described on this instant national obsession as “beautiful and moody and everything that American television isn’t.” This drama was sardonically funny and darkly sexy, whose plot we wouldn’t quite get until the second season. An antidote to the stale mythology of small-town life and the 1950s, Twin Peaks gave us quirky and twisted characters galore. Agent Dale Cooper was incharge of solving the murder of popular homecoming queen, Laura Palmer, but nothing was as it seemed. Perhaps no other American feature filmmaker ever had the small-screen freedom that David Lynch so briefly enjoyed. The meteoric rise and fade of Twin Peaks is almost as weird as the two-season show came to be. Did Lynch wear out his welcome with maddening self-indulgence, or did ABC, panicking over numbers that slipped from an early peak in the top five, doom the show by insisting on premature resolution to the murder that set it in motion, and then casting it into scheduling hell? One thing was certain: Americans would never look at the possibilities of television- or cherry pie- in the same way again.
Roseanne (1988- 1997)
Roseanne Barr’s show joined the culture wars in its own way. Class, race, the gay lifestyle, two-incomes-no-money, masturbation, menstruation, teen pregnancy, abortion, alcoholism, recreational drugs, and the effects of child abuse were treated as the stuff of blue-collar American life in a small Midwestern city. The head of the household and her husband were both working-class and overweight- a fact that was mostly unremarked, not an occasion for gags. Exhibiting plenty of wisecracking humor as a coping skill for living paycheck-to-paycheck, the show also could wring sudden, genuine pathos out of, say, Dan Conner’s advising his estranged daughter’s live-in boyfriend how to winterize their windows. Critically acclaimed and widely recognized during the awards season, TV execs responded to Roseanne‘s tremendous, sustained popularity with new sitcom deals for other stand-up comedians (see number 1 on our list).
The X-Files (1993- 2002)
Stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as Agents Mulder and Scully had a marvelous tension between them, at once erotic and philosophical. There’s ingenious writing, brooding atmosphere, sometimes arrestingly surreal filmmaking. There are discussions of very real government and corporate conspiracies. Um, which are all the same conspiracy. Uh, which is conducted by extraterrestrials. Series creator Chris Carter is generous in citing his influences, so we can throw in a gratuitous reference to The Avengers. Oh, and what does The X-Files have in common with honorable mention My So-Called Life? The two shows made up Joss Whedon’s summary pitch for cult runner-up Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Eight years post its demise, there are many of us who still believe “The Truth is Out There.”
Seinfeld (1989- 1998)
Bringing the hilarity and ridiculousness of everyday situations to light, stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld, and his three closest, eccentric friends, seemingly wreak havoc all over Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Forget about sweeping story archs and dramatic plot devices folks- the silly, small, seemingly insignificant details of life are what make all the difference here. Their exploits include trying to pick up your dry cleaning, waiting in line for a movie, the position of a button on a shirt, etc- the minutia that is both time-consuming and infuriating. Obnoxious, cheap and petty, George Costanza is the “short, stocky, slow-witted bald man”, in the words of as mutual friend Elaine Benes. The only woman in the boy’s club, Elaine is superficial, outspoken and perpetually searching for Mr. Right. The idiosyncratic Cosmo Kramer lives across the hall and routinely bursts through Jerry’s door unannounced. Kramer never holds a steady job but it constantly scheming, whether about Kramerica or a coffee table book about coffee tables. A host of unforgettable characters encounter this unusual quartet, including Jerry’s archenemy Newman, George’s parents, Uncle Leo, George Steinbrenner, J. Peterman, David Putty and many others, often with disastrous results. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld wrote this show into the history books, becoming a runaway commercial success, critical masterpiece, and cultural touchstone. It spawned a thousand catchphrases including “shrinkage”, “master of your domain”, “no soup for you!”, and “not that there’s anything wrong with that”. Aside from numerous Emmys, SAGs, and Golden Globes, Seinfeld routinely topped Nielsen’s viewership figures. Not bad for a show about nothing.