The 1990s were an especially transformative decade for television. Fox had firmly established itself as a fifth broadcast network after a shaky start in the 1980s, basic cable began to expand at an exponential rate and divided audiences more than ever with all the options that became available, and HDTV entered the market in 1998, setting the stage for a whole new era of television we could actually see. Aside from the streaming era of the 2010s, the '90s changed the way we watch television more than any decade since TV sets went color.
We're celebrating television from the 1990s as part of TV Guide's TV Throwback, picking some of the biggest shows that defined the decade to rewatch as we explore TV's history over the last half-century. From the comedy greats that would shape the future of sitcoms to the dramedies that would push the boundaries of genre to the animated series that remain relevant even 30 years later, the footprints of the '90s are all over television today.
To read more about the TV of the 1990s, check out where to stream your favorite '90s cartoons, come and debate our ranking of the 25 best X-Files episodes, and look back on the biggest Fresh Prince of Bel-Air guest stars you probably forgot about.
Watch it on: Hulu
Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David's megahit sitcom has a reputation as being "about nothing," but that's inaccurate. It's about George Costanza (Jason Alexander), the most unlikeable TV comedy protagonist ever devised. Even more than Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David himself, on whom George is based, Costanza is a repellant misanthrope who nonetheless appeals to our most selfish, whiny, neurotic, cringey instincts. He's what so many of us could be if we completely lacked shame and a sense of decorum. Every comedy antihero since exists in George's stocky, slow-witted, bald shadow. –Liam Mathews
Watch it on: Disney+
Forget the fact that it's run for 31 seasons. Forget the fact that it's America's longest-running sitcom and scripted primetime series. Forget the fact that it's been a shell of itself in the last, oh, 15 years. Think about The Simpsons' run in the 1990s. It's one of the most sustained streaks of brilliance in television history. It dominated a decade of pop culture and was beloved by anyone with a sense of humor. How many "Don't have a cow, man?" T-shirts have you seen in your life? It's quite possible that Fox would look very different today if The Simpsons hadn't saved it, so give a shoutout to Matt Groening every time you settle in for an episode of The Resident. –Liam Mathews
Watch it on: HBO Max
You know the story: Will (Will Smith), a streetwise kid from West Philadelphia, born and raised, gets sent to live with his wealthy Uncle Phil (James Avery) and his family in Bel Air, Los Angeles. The sitcom was very funny, with many of the laughs provided by Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro), Will's dorky, entitled cousin, who had a signature dance and whose preppy style actually looks pretty cool today. But it also had dramatic moments that showed how much skill and range Will Smith possessed even then ("How come he don't want me, man?"). Though it only cracked the Nielsen Top 20 twice in its six-season run, The Fresh Prince has a greater legacy than many shows that bested it in the ratings, in part due to that dope theme song and memes, but also because of the way the show harnessed Smith's star power to tell enduring and specific stories about class, race, and privilege that had universal appeal. –Liam Mathews
Watch it on: Peacock
This case-of-the-week procedural about cops and district attorneys in New York City is the most addictive format TV has ever devised. It's impossible to turn on an episode without watching it to the end. Even if you know what's going to happen — and you always do — you will watch the whole thing, because you have to. The Dick Wolf-created formula produced two incredibly long-running series: the original Law & Order, which ran from 1990 to 2010, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which started in 1999 and is still airing today. Appearing on a Law & Order show was and still is a right of passage for actors in New York City; seemingly every working actor in the city has appeared on it at least once, and sometimes even multiple times as multiple characters. The Law & Order franchise is an integral part of a city's economy, which not many shows can claim. And OG L&O — which gave us beloved characters such as Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach), Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson), Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), and Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin) — is the only truly episodic drama to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series since Lou Grant, winning the statue in 1997 for its seventh season. –Liam Mathews
David Lynch and Mark Frost's genre-defying supernatural murder mystery starts from a simple premise — "who killed Laura Palmer?" — and builds out an immersive world of soapy romance, offbeat comedy, and esoteric mythology in the titular town where nothing is quite what it seems. Though it never won a Primetime Emmy (it won two Creative Arts Emmys), its influence can still be felt today in mystery-box dramas that mimic its tone, cinematography, and overall creepiness, and people are still trying to puzzle out what all the symbols mean 30 years after its premiere, making it the biggest cult hit of the decade. –Liam Mathews
Watch it on: BET+
Martin, which ran for five seasons on Fox, wasn't particularly groundbreaking. Plenty of other comedians had shows based on their personas long before Martin Lawrence, and the sitcom's conceit didn't have the kind of provocative "hook" we look for in comedies today. It was just about a crazy, silly radio DJ named Martin Payne goofing around with his friends. But Martin was essential viewing in the '90s simply because it was really, really funny. Family fights, job troubles, annoying neighbors — Martin covered so many elements of everyday life relatable to everyone while also zeroing in on experiences specific to Black life; and not just racism either, but the outrageous characters easily recognizable in every hood everywhere, like the round-the-way girl Sheneneh and the cocky, pervy neighborhood player Jerome. (Both, it should be noted, were played brilliantly by Lawrence in costume.) Unlike the purposefully respectable Huxtables and the kids on A Different World a generation before them, the adults on Martin — upwardly mobile urbanites who spoke the language of hip-hop in their vernacular and their clothes — weren't asking to be seen as representatives, they were just being themselves. And it was hilarious. –Malcolm Venable
Watch it on: Hulu
Before Queen Latifah became a huge movie star, she was Khadijah James, editor of a hip magazine in Brooklyn, and friend to Maxine (Erika Alexander), Régine (Kim Fields), and cousin Synclaire (Kim Coles). Trendy, fly, and on-the-go, the gals of the Fox sitcom experienced everything from heartbreak to career drama to epic fights together. Whether or not Warner Bros. deliberately copied the formula to make Friends, the studio absolutely promoted the latter more than the former, vaulting the almost entirely white Friends to out-of-this-world success while Living Single, with a predominantly Black cast, remained a favorite to its smaller but nonetheless passionate audience. We could write a book about how this show and Friends epitomized a glaring, intentional divide in the television industry that's still present today (some already have) but, disparities aside, Living Single is fundamentally a great sitcom and definitely one of the best of the '90s. –Malcolm Venable
Watch it on: Hulu
This groundbreaking cop drama ran for an astounding 261 episodes, won 20 Emmys, and produced one of the most emotionally devastating hours of television of all time, when Det. Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) died from surgery complications. It hailed from Steven Bochco, one of the most prolific and accomplished TV producers of his era, and David Milch, an idiosyncratic visionary whose gift for dialogue is unparalleled among TV writers and who would go on to create Deadwood. But this ABC show is mostly remembered today for showing us star Dennis Frantz's middle-aged tuchus. It's kind of unfair, but given that NYPD Blue's greatest legacy is pushing the boundaries of how gritty broadcast TV could be, it's fitting. –Liam Mathews
Watch it on: Hulu
Science-fiction on television took a backseat to the more popular doctor and legal dramas of the 1980s, but the genre came roaring back thanks largely to Fox's serial about a believer and a skeptic investigating the unexplained. The X-Files burst through as a breakout sci-fi hit on broadcast television, increasing viewership over its first five seasons on its way to becoming firmly cemented in pop culture. Despite being a throwback to anthologies of the '50s and '60s, The X-Files ushered in a new era of science-fiction on television, paving the way for shows that would mix procedural and serial elements such as Lost, Fringe, and Bones, as well as making sci-fi cool again. That's a truth out there that we can all be thankful for. –Tim Surette
Although it lasted just one season, My So-Called Life was one of the most influential series of the 1990s. The coming-of-age drama's realistic and honest portrayal of teenage life, not just via lead Angela Chase (Claire Danes), but also through the show's excellent young supporting cast, launched it into the pantheon of TV greats. Now considered to be one of the best shows of all time, the series tackled serious topics like homophobia, homelessness, drug use, and more without ever feeling judgmental or like an after-school special. It's a shame the series was canceled so swiftly, because if it could do so much with just one season, imagine what it could have done if given the opportunity for more. –Kaitlin Thomas
Watch it on: HBO Max
Friends had a concept that was simple but enduring — these six people are friends! Right from the pilot, it was clear that the dynamics of this sextet would be intriguing, particularly when it came to the series-long love story of those lobsters, Ross and Rachel (who were, we're sorry to say, "on a break"). It was more than just snappy laugh-a-minute dialogue that set the series apart in the comedy scene; Friends explored the many career and relationship pratfalls people endure during this foundational part of adulthood with both humor and heart. Though there are some aspects of the series that haven't aged gracefully, particularly when it comes to the comedy's complete lack of diversity, there's a reason fans continue to clamor for that still-to-come cast reunion and it remains one of the hottest streaming properties out there; the characters felt like our friends, too. –Amanda Bell
Watch it on: Hulu
NBC's long-running ER remains the medical drama against which all medical dramas are measured — yes, even the longer-running ABC soap Grey's Anatomy, which likely wouldn't exist if ER hadn't paved the way first. Highly realistic and the winner of 23 Emmys (out of 124 nominations), the series featured an "uncanny ability to meld technical wizardry with unmatched emotion and storytelling." Across 15 seasons, the series entertained its viewers with any number of medical emergencies, but it also educated them on social issues, from HIV and adoption to medical privacy and substance abuse. ER's lasting legacy is not "the show that launched George Clooney's career into the stratosphere," but rather the show that was prestige TV before the idea of prestige TV even existed. –Kaitlin Thomas
It's fascinating to think how Ally McBeal would have done in the modern internet age. That dumb dancing baby was a meme before memes were a thing, making its way onto Geocities pages everywhere. But if we had the social tech we have now back then? That baby would be all over Twitter avatars. Instead, Ally McBeal was ahead of its time in that sense, a perfectly GIF-able series about a female lawyer (Calista Flockhart) who hallucinated flights of fancy. The show was an instant hit because it was a legal dramedy that wasn't really about law — it was about Ally's love life — attracting new viewers and forming a template for other series that would break the boundaries of their genre's definitive traits. And though the show's sense of feminism hasn't really stood the test of time, it was all anyone could talk about during its first two seasons. David E. Kelly was one of TV's defining voices in the '90s, and Ally McBeal was his mountaintop. –Tim Surette
MTV's Daria is even more culturally relevant today, in the age of social media and the perfectly curated and filtered appearance of one's life, than it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Although the show is mostly remembered for its eponymous lead's monotone cynicism, dry sense of humor, and biting sarcasm, the Beavis and Butt-Head spin-off was actually a spurning of the status quo and the superficial existence of high school (and beyond) that placed great importance on appearances. It was an argument in support of seeking out life's greater potential and evolving into something deeper or more meaningful, and if its rejection of the vapid Fashion Club resulted in some especially sharp barbs along the way, all the better. –Kaitlin Thomas
Watch it on: Hulu
Every few years, a show tries to re-create the magic that made Buffy the Vampire Slayer one of the best and most influential shows in TV history. Very few have been successful. Anchored by Sarah Michelle Gellar and her ability to pivot between witty retort and naked vulnerability, The WB and UPN series about a teen girl tasked with saving the world from the relentless forces of darkness was an apt metaphor for the familiar trials of adolescence and young adulthood. But with a great sense of humor, feminist voice, and insightful wisdom, the series was also a source of empowerment across its seven seasons. Subverting tropes literally from the very first scene, Buffy changed television in the 1990s, and its influence continues to be felt today. –Kaitlin Thomas
Looking for more shows to stream? Check out TV Guide's TV Throwback, recommending the best shows to rewatch — or to discover for the first time — from 1970 through the present day.