Many people feel that we're living in the golden age of television, but the present run really began back in the 1990s. It was a time when shows like Seinfeld and The Simpsons elevated the art of the sitcom to new highs, while The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twin Peaks changed the rules of the game for dramas (and dramedys) forever. Since Friends landed on Netflix earlier this month, we decided to have our readers vote for their favorite shows of the entire decade. Some of these shows began in the late 1980s, while others carried on into the 2000s. But they're all firmly rooted in the 1990s.
When people thought about Buffy the Vampire Slayer prior to 1997 (not that they often did), the only thing that came to mind was the 1992 Kristy Swanson film. But then the WB began airing a new series with the same name, and Sarah Michelle Gellar played in the lead role. Both projects were helmed by Joss Whedon, but the movie seems quite under-cooked in comparison. Gellar battled vampires for seven seasons, and the show became a cult sensation that spawned comic books, a spin-off and hordes of fans that know every line of every episode.
Back in 1992, MTV's surreal Liquid Television showcase aired a cartoon short called Frog Baseball. It featured two crudely drawn, dim-witted teenagers who basically beat a frog to death. This didn't seem like the launching pad for anything special, let alone one of the funniest shows in the history of television. Nevertheless, Beavis and Butt-head became a perfect parody of 1990s youth culture. It drove conservative critics insane, though it seems tame by the standards of today. MTV briefly brought the show back a few years ago, but it didn't quite catch on with today's kids. It's a product of a pre-Internet world and perhaps should stay there.
Roseanne broke a lot of unwritten rules when it began airing in the fall of 1988. Unlike most television couples in history, Roseanne and Dan Conner were overweight. They had money problems. They screamed at their kids. In the famous first episode, Roseanne even joked that she understood why some animals eat their young. This is a far cry from The Cosby Show and Leave It to Beaver, but the grim reality presented by Roseanne really touched a nerve with the American public. The Conners seemed like a real family, and the show was absolutely hysterical. The two leads became stars, and the world was introduced to a young Tom Arnold. The final season (ultimately revealed to be a fantasy) is best forgotten, but every time a rerun comes on TV we see why this show generated so much attention.
Fish-out-of-water shows have been a staple of television for decades: Just think about The Beverly Hillbillies (Southerners in Beverly Hills!) or Green Acres (Beverly Hills residents in the South!). So there wasn't anything all that original about Northern Exposure's basic premise of a New York doctor who moves to a small town in Alaska. What made the show great was its brilliant execution. Rob Morrow played the doctor, but as Exposure continued, it began focusing more and more on the townspeople. It never generated killer ratings, but the critics loved it and a cult audience followed.
The 1990s were just four months old when ABC aired the Twin Peaks pilot. Even without Twitter, it was an instant phenomenon. Back when most shows didn't get more complicated than Full House or Murphy Brown, this one dared to be confusing and surreal. It began with the death of a teenage girl and headed into directions nobody could have seen coming. The ratings were huge at first, but when the central mystery was resolved in the second season – the point where things started to get really weird – ratings went down and the show was cancelled.
In many ways, Frasier is a textbook example of how to make a spinoff work. The creators took a great yet underused character from a beloved show, moved him to a new city, gave him a new job and surrounded him with strong supporting characters. In those crucial early seasons, he rarely made any reference to his days at that Boston bar, and visits by Woody and the gang simply didn't happen. After a while, many people watching Frasier simply stopped thinking about him as the guy from Cheers. The show ran for 11 seasons. It definitely began to run out of steam near the end, but that's bound to happen with 11 seasons of anything.
The fact that The Simpsons landed at Number Four on this list proves how much we take it for granted. After all, the show is currently in its 26th season, and there's no reason to think it won't reach 30 and beyond. Many people who watch it now weren't even born when it began, so they don't actually know what it's like to live in a pre-Simpsons world. They've also seen many, many sub-par episodes. Nothing gets the internet arguing faster than trying to determine when the show peaked, but most sensible people agree there was a drop-off after season 10. Zooming in further, seasons two to seven feel very, very special. They may even contain the greatest television ever made.
It was tough being a nerd in 1993. Prodigy, AOL and Compuserve were slow and cumbersome, Star Trek: The Next Generation was whiffing in its final season (Worf dating Counselor Troi?) and Devo remained stubbornly broken up. Then Fox started airing a new series about two FBI agents that investigate paranormal events. One is a believer. The other is a skeptic. They have chemistry, but will they ever take their relationship to the next level? Who is the mysterious Cigarette Smoking Man? What happened to Mulder's sister? Questions like these kept AOL message boards humming for years.
At first glance, nothing seemed all that noteworthy about Friends. Beyond the generic title, we'd seen many of these actors bouncing from one lame to sitcom to another. It then became clear that something was special about this one: The ensemble had amazing chemistry, with no one person taking too much of the attention. Before long, women were having their hair cut like Jennifer Aniston, the theme song became an actual radio hit and the cast was everywhere from Oprah to the cover of this magazine. The Ross and Rachel drama dragged on for years longer than necessary, but needless to say they ultimately wound up together.
Seinfeld was far from an instant hit. The show first aired as The Seinfeld Chronicles in July 1989. Kramer was named Kessler, Elaine wasn't around and a waitress named Claire played a big role. The pilot didn't receive huge ratings, and the second episode didn't air until nearly 11 months later. During this time, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David worked out the kinks and cast former SNL actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Jerry's ex-girlfriend. Moderate success followed, but NBC knew they had something fresh.
As the months went by and the writing grew sharper, Seinfeld began rising in the ratings. By the third season, roughly 18 million people were watching every episode, and by final season that number had doubled. Jerry was offered incredible amounts of money to carry on, but he knew he'd damage the legacy should he agree. Seinfeld has now been gone for 17 years now, but with constant reruns on cable it really feels like it never left.