The Ultimate Guide to the Best 90s TV Shows: From Full House to Sex and the City
Are you ready to take a nostalgic trip back to the golden era of television? The 90s blessed us with an array of unforgettable characters, heartwarming storylines, and timeless sitcoms that still resonate with audiences today. From the laughter-inducing antics of "Full House" to the gripping mysteries of "The X-Files," these best 90s TV shows defined an era and left an indelible mark on pop culture. Get ready to reminisce as we delve into the iconic shows that captivated our hearts and kept us glued to our screens.
Full House (1987-1995)
Even food enthusiasts have to admit that constantly eating gourmet meals can become tiresome after a while. Sometimes, all you want is a simple grilled cheese sandwich or a slice of pizza. The same can be said for television. That's where the comforting '90s kids show Full House comes in. It tells the story of Danny Tanner, a widower (played by the late-great Bob Saget), as he navigates the challenges of raising his three young daughters in San Francisco. He receives help from his rockstar brother-in-law (John Stamos) and his silly friend Joey (Dave Coulier).
The show may have been wholesome and cheesy, but sometimes life can feel like a never-ending slog, and those warm, fuzzy emotions are exactly what we need. Plus, it launched the incredible careers of the Olsen Twins, who are still beloved by fans today. The show's nostalgic charm inspired a 2016 Netflix revival called Fuller House, where the original sisters return to their childhood home with families of their own.
Originally Published: May 10, 2023
Roseanne (1988-1997; 2018)
The reason Roseanne was so funny is because it touched on true experiences. This sitcom revolved around a working-class family from the Midwest who constantly faced financial struggles, family conflicts, chaotic children, and a strong-willed, sarcastic matriarch with no filter. Roseanne Barr's standup persona served as the inspiration for the show, with the fictional Conner family embodying a non-fancy, non-classy, and non-subdued vibe that was different from most other television families. They were lazy, loud, and unapologetic junk-food lovers who would scoff at modern helicopter parenting. The show fearlessly tackled subjects that were rarely addressed in '90s TV shows, especially in prime-time comedies. These topics included domestic abuse, unemployment, heart attacks, and premature births. Behind the scenes, there was plenty of drama as well, including Barr's public controversies.
Seinfeld, a show famously about nothing, managed to evoke a lot of emotions from its audience. It is widely recognized as one of the best sitcoms of all time and dominated NBC's Thursday night lineup for years, winning 10 Primetime Emmys in the process.
Grounded in Jerry Seinfeld's standup comedy, along with Larry David's cynicism and sarcasm, the show revolved around the everyday concerns, calamities, and complaints of Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer. Set in New York City, it offered a glimpse into the lives of these quirky characters and their hilarious interactions. The show's impact on popular culture was so profound that Jerry's infamous puffy shirt is now showcased at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000)
It's hard to imagine a time when stories about high school students didn't dominate popular culture. Nowadays, young adult novels constantly top the bestseller lists and get transformed into movies or TV shows, while streaming platforms offer a plethora of shows focused on the teenage experience. However, Beverly Hills, 90210 was one of the pioneers of this phenomenon. When Brandon and Brenda moved from the Midwest to the wealthy Beverly Hills, they found themselves immersed in the drama of their glamorous and attractive new circle of friends.
In the '90s, the up-and-coming network Fox took a gamble on this new type of teen drama created by Darren Star and Aaron Spelling. The show's success was undeniable, as it ran for 293 episodes and launched the careers of Luke Perry, Jason Priestley, and Shannon Doherty. Even after the characters graduated from high school and embarked on new adventures, the show's loyal following never waned. It remains influential, having paved the way for future shows like Gilmore Girls, Schitt's Creek, and Parks and Recreation.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996)
Long before Will Smith's involvement in a controversial awards show scandal, he won a Grammy for Best Rap Performance alongside his partner DJ Jazzy Jeff in 1989. It wasn't long after that someone came up with the brilliant idea of creating a sitcom around the charismatic 21-year-old from West Philadelphia, drawing inspiration from his own life.
The result was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a show that combined comedy, heart, and hip-hop. It quickly became a huge hit on NBC, with its memorable theme song, making Will Smith a household name and propelling him to superstardom. The show presented a strong, loving, and successful Black family, while also addressing important social and cultural issues such as drunk driving, police violence, and absentee fathers. The show's impact extended beyond its original run, influencing future shows like Everybody Hates Chris and Black-ish. It was even reimagined as a drama in 2022 for Peacock.
Law & Order (1990-2010; 2022)
Dick Wolf's groundbreaking police/legal procedural hybrid forever changed the landscape of crime shows. Its unique concept followed both the police officers investigating a crime and the district attorneys who prosecuted the cases. It was known for its "ripped-from-the-headlines" plots, resonating with viewers who enjoy true-crime documentaries. The original L&O series ran for an impressive 20 years and secured six Emmys, including the coveted Best Drama Series award in 1997. The show launched the careers of several actors, such as Chris Noth, Angie Harmon, and Jill Hennessy, while solidifying the legacies of others like S. Epatha Merkerson, Benjamin Bratt, and Jerry Orbach. Reruns remain popular and the show was rebooted in 2022, with many original cast members returning to reprise their iconic roles.
In Living Color (1990-1994)
At the beginning of the '90s, the idea of creating a Black version of SNL was not new. The concept had been floating around Hollywood for years, but network executives were hesitant to invest in it, fearing it wouldn't attract advertising dollars or alienate White audiences. Keenen Ivory Wayans, however, saw things differently. He gathered his family members (Shawn, Damon, Kim, and Marlon) to create a show.
In Living Color also featured Wayans' funny friends, including David Alan Grier, Tommy Davidson, Chris Rock, Molly Shannon, and Rosie Perez. It even introduced promising newcomers to the audience, like Jim Carrey and Jamie Foxx, who later achieved superstar status. The sketch comedy show was hip, edgy, and occasionally controversial. Wayans has acknowledged that some of the sketches haven't aged well. What made the show even more groundbreaking was its staff, with nearly 80% of the production team being female. This included the head writer, the co-executive producer, and Terri McCoy, the first Black woman to direct a sketch comedy.
Northern Exposure (1990-1995)
Northern Exposure tells the heartwarming story of a big-city doctor who is sent to a small Alaskan town to practice medicine and pay off his student loans from Columbia University. Life in Cicely, Alaska, is a complete departure from his previous New York City existence. The townspeople are eccentric, the weather is freezing, and the lifestyle is rustic.
Rob Morrow brilliantly portrays the doctor who despises the great outdoors and is supported by a talented cast including Janine Turner, John Corbett, Cynthia Geary, and John Cullum. Despite winning seven Emmys and capturing viewers' hearts with its charming depiction of an unconventional setting, Northern Exposure is often overlooked in conversations about memorable sitcoms.
In the early '90s, primetime network TV was still predominantly white and focused on suburban settings. However, Martin Lawrence's urban comedy broke barriers by showcasing a sassy and opinionated radio DJ living in Detroit. Alongside his girlfriend Gina, her best friend Pam, and his friends Tommy and Cole, Martin entertained audiences with his quick wit and larger-than-life personality. The show played a significant role in promoting a more diverse lineup of shows on competing networks. It also highlighted the representation of Black comedians in mainstream television. Martin enjoyed great success during its five-year run, winning NAACP Image Awards and making Lawrence a household name and highly paid movie star.
Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2012)
Bold, brassy, and unapologetic, AbFab is a brilliant British comedy created by the duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. Saunders also stars as Edina "Eddy" Monsoon, a PR executive and best friend to Joanna Lumley's Patsy Stone, a former Bond Girl turned magazine executive.
The show is a whirlwind of cleavage, champagne, and caustic humor. Featuring characters like Eddy's conservative daughter Saffron, her judgmental mother, and her ditzy assistant Bubble, AbFab explores the hilarity that ensues when Eddy and Patsy chase after a good time. Their escapades are marked by slapstick comedy, witty banter, and an unwavering devotion to each other. The show also celebrates the power of solid female friendships on TV.
The Nanny (1993-1999)
Fran Drescher's distinct wardrobe and thick New York City accent resonated with audiences across America. The Nanny begins when Fran Fine, a cosmetics saleswoman from Queens, shows up at the doorstep of a wealthy widower with her iconic hairstyle and no-nonsense, tough-love approach. Unexpectedly, Fran lands a job as a nanny to his three children: Maggie, Brighton, and Grace. Alongside the sarcastic English butler Niles, Fran enhances the lives of the Sheffield family and eventually finds herself falling in love with her employer.
The X-Files (1993-2018)
The truth is out there, and The X-Files brilliantly explores the mysteries of the unknown. If you're a sci-fi geek, this show is a must-watch. Created by Chris Carter, the series cleverly mixed mythology-building storylines about cigarette-smoking men, aliens, and government conspiracies with stand-alone monster-of-the-week episodes.
One of the show's defining elements was its ability to weave different genres into its narrative. Some episodes had more humor, while others leaned into horror. Fans also rooted for a romance between the lead characters, FBI Agents Mulder and Scully, played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson respectively. The show's success extended beyond television, spawning movies, spinoff shows, a video game, and a massive amount of collectible merchandise. Even after a nearly 15-year absence from television, the franchise's loyal fan base ensured that the revival seasons garnered strong ratings.
Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999)
Before The Wire, there was Homicide: Life on the Street. This critically acclaimed NBC series, based on a book by David Simon, who was once a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, brought authenticity and gritty realism to the screen. It focused on character development, moral dilemmas, and intricate plots rather than high-action chases and gunfights. Set in Baltimore, it followed the dedicated detectives of the homicide division as they solved murder cases. The show received numerous accolades and featured a talented cast, including Andre Braugher, who won an Emmy for his performance. Stream Homicide: Life on the Street now.
Friends was a groundbreaking sitcom that left a lasting impact on pop culture. Set in New York City, the show revolved around the lives of six Gen-X singles who shared endless moments of laughter, love, and friendship at their favorite coffee shop. The show catapulted its stars, including Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox, to fame and became a cultural phenomenon. Its clever writing, relatable characters, and memorable catchphrases like "We were on a break!" and "How you doin'?" made it a fan favorite. With 64 Emmy nominations and six wins, Friends continues to captivate audiences and remains a beloved classic. Stream Friends now.
Ellen DeGeneres made history with her sitcom Ellen, which featured an openly gay lead character. The show centered around Ellen Morgan, a neurotic bookstore owner, who came out on television in 1997. This groundbreaking moment, known as the "Puppy Episode," coincided with Ellen DeGeneres's public announcement of her own sexuality. At a time when LGBTQ representation was scarce, Ellen brought important visibility to the community. Despite recent controversies surrounding Ellen DeGeneres, her impact on pop culture cannot be denied. Stream Ellen now.
Party of Five (1994-2000)
Party of Five was a poignant and thought-provoking drama that tackled serious issues. Following the tragic death of their parents, the Salinger siblings faced the challenges of navigating life on their own. The show delved into topics such as grief, responsibility, and the complexities of family dynamics. It stood out among other teen shows of the time with its honest and mature storytelling. Party of Five has left a lasting impact and is well worth streaming.
The Daily Show (1996-)
For over 25 years, The Daily Show has revolutionized late-night television with its unique blend of news satire, sharp wit, and political commentary. Created by Lizz Winstead and Madeline Smithberg, the show has been a platform for comedic talents such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Trevor Noah. It has fearlessly tackled current events and held a mirror to the absurdities of politics and media. The Daily Show remains a vital source of information and entertainment. Stream The Daily Show now.
Moesha, starring Brandy Norwood, broke barriers by placing a young, headstrong African-American woman at the center of a sitcom. The show followed the life of Moesha, a high school student in a historically Black neighborhood in Los Angeles, as she navigated social issues like race relations, gender inequality, and peer pressure. Moesha's authentic portrayal and aspirational storylines resonated with audiences. The show remains a cultural touchstone and is available for streaming.
3rd Rock from the Sun (1996-2001)
3rd Rock from the Sun brought a unique twist to the alien-invasion genre. The show followed a group of aliens on a mission to observe and study humans on Earth. Posing as a quirky family, they hilariously navigated the absurdities of human life. Created by Mike Judge, the show was a clever blend of comedy and social commentary. It featured a talented cast, including John Lithgow, and won multiple Emmy awards. Stream 3rd Rock from the Sun now.
Home Improvement (1991-1999)
Home Improvement, starring Tim Allen, brought laughter into households across America. The show centered around Tim "The Toolman" Taylor, a bumbling yet lovable handyman who hosted his own home-improvement show. Despite his expertise with tools, Tim struggled to navigate the complexities of being a husband and a father. The show struck a chord with audiences, offering a mix of comedy, relatable family dynamics, and memorable catchphrases. Stream Home Improvement now.
Beavis and Butt-Head (1993-2011)
Beavis and Butt-Head, created by Mike Judge, became a cultural phenomenon with its irreverent humor and social commentary. The animated MTV series followed the misadventures of two teenage metalheads as they indulged in their obsessions with music, stupidity, and mischief. While the show may have seemed crude on the surface, it offered a witty and scathing critique of 90s youth culture. Beavis and Butt-Head remains a cult classic and is worth revisiting.
Sex and the City (1998-2004)
Sex and the City, based on Candace Bushnell's book, redefined television with its honest portrayal of single womanhood in New York City. The show followed the lives of four friends—Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda—as they navigated the complexities of modern relationships, careers, and self-discovery. Sex and the City broke barriers by openly discussing topics like sexuality, femininity, and the pursuit of happiness. With its iconic fashion, relatable characters, and memorable storylines, the show became a cultural phenomenon. Stream Sex and the City now.
The Real World (1992-2019)
The Real World revolutionized reality television by capturing the lives of seven diverse individuals who shared a house. The show provided a platform for open discussions about social issues and cultural differences, as the cast members came from varied backgrounds. Over its 33 seasons, The Real World continued to push boundaries and shape the reality TV landscape. It paved the way for countless shows that followed, making it a cultural phenomenon. Stream The Real World now.
The 90s were undeniably a golden era for television, and this list of iconic shows is a testament to that. From heartwarming family sitcoms like Full House and The Nanny, to groundbreaking comedies like Seinfeld and Absolutely Fabulous, there was something for everyone. The era also produced unforgettable dramas like Friends and The X-Files, and even introduced us to the world of reality TV with The Real World. These shows not only entertained us but also became a part of our cultural fabric, reminding us of the magic and nostalgia that the 90s brought to our screens. Though time has moved on, these timeless classics will forever hold a special place in our hearts, reminding us of a simpler yet unforgettable time in television history.
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