I may never have gotten the hang of sports as a kid (softball consisted of picking dandelions and soccer was “don’t get kicked”) but I’ll give my younger self credit for making a solid amount of good media choices in the nineties. All of those classic Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and John Wayne movies I rewound again and again on VHS were the start of a beautiful friendship with silver screen classics. Multiple viewings of Star Wars have not brought me up to the level of fandom where I have memorized every detail of each scene by heart, but there have been some heroic light saber battles on my living room rug, the series’ empowering credit music playing in the background. And as for Blue’s Clues—name me the episode and I’ll tell you the clues.
It actually wasn’t until the nineties were behind me and the twenty-first century had begun that I was made aware of the more critically acclaimed creative works produced in that decade, particularly in regards to television. Some I hadn’t been old enough to watch. Others weren’t on my radar and unknown by me to exist (a fate that will never transpire again due to weekly TV Guide readings and IMDB). Nonetheless, in order to correct that wrong, I have since watched these nineties programs, letting my VCR rest for a bit in exchange for DVD’s episode selection feature.
1. ER (1994)
Few shows have managed to keep running for 15 seasons and maintain their quality, but ER makes a pretty strong go at it (and until a certain character gets hit by a bus in season 13, I’d say they did pretty well). With a constantly rotating cast, the program had a remarkable success rate of keeping Country General Hospital staffed with new, strong characters, that made the transition of the old doctors going out much easier than it could have been. The real test came when the show hit a definite midpoint by the end of season six, with George Clooney and Julianna Margulies official departure. By replacing them with an equally (and if I dare say it, more) captivating couple, played by Goran Visnjic and Maura Tierney, the show was able to continue for nine more seasons, where most would have caved at that loss of star power. While confusing medical jargon flew and patients make you cry, for forty-five minutes you were glued to the screen. Fans who watched the original seven doctors (and nurse) develop over that long period of time were often rewarded through the writers’ commitment to maintaining continuity (and dropping the occasional reference to old episodes that only long-term audience members would catch). Yet it was easy for people who had never watched to jump in on a random episode as well. That’s an admirable feat and, with the conclusion of the various Law and Order franchises coming sooner than later (SVU being the lone entity still standing), ER may have been one of the last of its kind.
2. Xena: Warrior Princess (1995)
I will admit that this show may not be as “critically” acclaimed as the others but it certainly has its cult following, and for good reason. With her trusty chakram at the ready (think sharp Frisbee that acts as a weapon), Xena could kick and flip like no other warrior princess, plus she has that war cry you only wish you could emulate. Like the best Greek superheroes, she had a trusty sidekick (Gabrielle), a well-meaning, occasional groupie (Joxer “the Mighty”), a god in love with her (Ares), and a crazy-awesome female nemesis (Callisto). Sometimes heavy handed in the moral message (markedly so in season one) I stand by this marvelous show as being exceedingly entertaining up until the very last note.
3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997)
Like the show Cougar Town, which frequently, publicly, regrets its show title, I often fear that the name, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, hurts it. Unfairly assumed to be the antithesis of cool, Buffy is judged as corny by potential new viewers who don’t know better, and assume it’s another Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, or True Blood, where you’ve got good vampires versus bad boy vampires showing their fangs, warring for the human lead character/love interest’s affection. And do these programs have that plot thread in common? Yes… but Buffy came first and if it receives any flack for its successors’ exaggerations and melodramatics, that’s a pop culture travesty. Not only did Buffy come first, but it was (and is) the best of its genre. You’ve got the quirkiest, most easily quotable dialogue (“My whole life just flashed before my eyes. I got to get me a life!”), a wonderfully winsome cast, season-long “Big Bad” arcs, emotional depth, and wooden stakes. Lots of wooden stakes. And even if there are people who still don’t know what they’re missing when they pass the seasons on sale at their local Target, there are also a lot of people who have realized it and for that, one can be content.
4. Freaks and Geeks (1999)
So many young actors appeared on this show, whether as leads or guest roles, that have since broke out and can be seen working in television and movies today. Judd Apatow, who created the show, appears to have found many of his go-to cast members, including James Franco, Jason Segel, and Seth Rogen, through this one-season marvel. Even beyond that, you can’t watch an episode and not spot someone you didn’t recognize before (Rashida Jones from Parks and Recreation, Matt Czuchry from The Good Wife, etc.). At its seventies-set heart, this high school drama which was prematurely canned, stole fans hearts by not having the quirky dialogue that worked so well for Buffy. Instead it embraced the awkwardness of teenage interaction, and for that it was loved.
5. The Sopranos (1999)
Last but not least, we have The Sopranos, a world I’m still fairly new to, but unsurprisingly enjoy. In a nutshell, the show features Italian mobsters living in my home state of New Jersey, dealing with nagging mothers one minute and watching mallards in swimming pools the next. The Godfather with a twist, it was one of HBO’s first strikes at narrative television along with Oz, and it works because of the balance it keeps between illegal activity and family troubles.
Every one of the programs discussed above is memorable and some of them have even earned a position on my top ten TV list of all time. Despite coming late to the game, it really doesn’t matter when you watch these shows because their content is timeless. The only thing that matters is that you do. Just press the power button on your remote control and hit play. There will be no regrets, only, perhaps, a little nostalgia.
Photography credited to Constant c Productions/John Wells Productions and Apatow Productions/Dreamworks Television. No copyright infringement intended.