The nineties were weird. Not as weird as the eighties, when people ate cocaine for breakfast, but not as normal as the aughts, when only celebrities ate cocaine for breakfast. No, the nineties gave us baggy clothing, sex scandals — and a lot of great television. Some of it is even on instant Netflix right now. Here’s a selection of the ten most nineties shows worth revisiting.
1. Melrose Place, seven seasons, 226 episodes
Take a second to realize just how many episodes of a show that is. Today, most network dramas air around 22 episodes per season. Melrose aired 32 episodes per year for most of its run, and 35 episodes in its final season. This is but one of the many amazing things about Melrose Place! The intense hokiness of the show’s first season (safe sex, you guys!!!) gives way to the lunatic soapiness of its middle years (people are back from the dead!), which then ebbs into a more traditional soapiness (I’m gonna have an affair with our neighbor). Sometimes it seems like The Real World perfectly captured both the earnestness and the sexual panic of the Clinton years, but Melrose Place is its own kind of wonderful time capsule.
2. Wings, eight seasons, 170 episodes
There’s an always-a-bridesmaid vibe to Wings. When it premiered in 1990, it aired Thursdays at nine, after The Cosby Show and Cheers. But after its first mini-season, it was punted around the schedule, ending its run on Wednesdays as the lead-in for The John Laroquette Show. The fact that it was touted as being created by Cheers producers but was never a megahit like Must-See staples Seinfeld, Frasier, and Friends always made Wings seem like an also-ran — which is too bad, since it is pretty great.
3. Seaquest DSV, three seasons, 59 episodes
Jonathan Brandis has a talking dolphin! What more do you want from a pretty terrible undersea adventure series?
4. The Buccaneers, miniseries, four installments
This BBC miniseries is based on the unfinished Edith Wharton novel about new-money American women who travel to England in the 1870s in search of old-money British husbands. Carla Gugino, Mira Sorvino, lots of corsets, and all the longing glances, high-society shenanigans, and long white gloves you’d expect from a Masterpiece Theater period piece.
5. Sliders, five seasons, 88 episodes
Sliders spent three years in relative obscurity on Fox and then moved to full-on obscurity on the then-named Sci Fi Channel. For most of its run, the show starred Jerry O’Connell as a physics grad student (hee) who discovers wormholelike vortexes that allow him — and his pals! — to “slide” between alternate Earths. I won’t draw a qualitative comparison, but if you like Doctor Who, you might like Sliders.
6. House of Cards, miniseries, 12 episodes
Oh, everybody lost his or her damn mind over Netflix’s new version of HoC earlier this year. But there’s a British original, and it is better. It has a similar setup — high-ranking politician named Francis is passed over for higher-ranking position and decides to take down everyone who wronged him — but on account of its Britishness, it is both more evil and more fancy.
7. The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones (a.k.a. The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles), three seasons, 21 episodes (on Netflix, at least — different versions have different edits)
Rare is the movie spinoff that turns into a good TV show, but Young Indiana Jones holds up if you like earnestness (and education) along with your historical adventures.
8. Earth 2, one season, 22 episodes
It’s 200 years in the future, and, WALL-E–style, everyone has to live on space stations. One determined mom decides to lead a ragtag group to an Earth-like planet, and things go mostly okay. A lot of really good sci-fi emerged in the nineties. Not Earth 2, though! This falls squarely in the amazo-horrendous category of so-bad-it’s-good, particularly the special effects.
9. Ally McBeal, five seasons, 112 episodes
Every few years, a pop conversation about feminism happens around a particular TV show. Right now, that conversation tends to revolve around Girls, but once upon a time, it was about Ally McBeal and the infamous Time magazine “Is Feminism Dead?” cover. By today’s standards, the show is more cutesy than provocative, but it’s still emotional and compelling, and the courtroom parts in particular really hold up.
10. Twin Peaks, Frasier, The X-Files
These shows have nothing in common except that they are excellent (or at least mostly excellent) and essential. The intrigue and humor feel so timeless that the clunky cell phones and bulky computers are the only clues to the shows’ eras. If you somehow made it through the nineties without watching these classics, rid your house and your people of that shame by finally digging in now.