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The Most Underrated & Overrated TV Shows Of The 90s

Andrew Payne Andrew Payne
May 2nd, 2008 9:43am EDT
NewsradioThe 1990s was the beginning of the end for network television. Program offerings grew rapidly in the last decade of the 20th century. Soon it became commonplace for a person to have 50-60 channels on their home set, paving the way for the present-day satellite and digital cable packages for 1,000 channels or more.

The 90s was the last decade that network bosses could depend on massive ratings from a nearly captive audience bereft of choices. There were certainly plenty of cable shows, but they barely made a dent in the numbers enjoyed by the networks at the time.

It was not uncommon in the 90s to see a show with 10 or even 12 million viewers be cancelled. This is a similar viewership enjoyed by "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," both considered runaway hits today. The high ratings made these networks into money machines and allowed producers a tremendous amount of financial freedom for their shows, resulting in several high-concept and exceedingly creative series.

With so many viewers spread out over a small batch of offerings, it was very easy for each show on network television to attract at least a small loyal fan base. This invariably led to many shows getting more credit than they deserved while other great shows went totally overlooked.

The following is a list of the most underrated and overrated network television shows (cable deserves its own list) of the 1990s.

UNDERRATED:

5. "Homefront" (ABC, 1991-93)
The "Friday Night Lights" of its day, and it even starred Kyle Chandler. This show might not have had football (just a little baseball instead), but it dealt with the same small-town politics with a similar sense of realism to "Lights." "Homefront" centered on a trio of World War II veterans returning home to small town in Ohio. The series dealt with race, the economy, the getting over the war, and many other topics not usually found on network television. The writers handled them with deft realism to create an indelible portrait of one of the most crucial times in American history, told from the point-of-view of the people it affected the most.

4. The last 13 episodes of "Twin Peaks" (ABC, 1990-91)
The conventional wisdom is that once the murder of Laura Palmer was solved, "Twin Peaks" went into the toilet. Those who actually stuck around to watch the remainder of the series know this isn't the case at all. The show seemed more focused and better planned out once the homecoming queen's case was closed. A dynamite new villain entered the fold in the person of Agent Cooper's evil ex-partner Windom Earle, and the mystery of the Black Lodge began to take shape. This run of episodes was capped by an eye-popping series finale that was the equal of the series' pilot. Not bad for a show that couldn't thrive after the main mystery was solved.


3. "Get A Life"/"The Ben Stiller Show" (FOX, 1990-92 and 1991-92, respectively)
Yes, it's kind of a cheat to include two shows in one spot, but both of these series had so much in common that it's hard to separate them. "Life" was a surreal comedy starring Chris Elliott as a middle-aged paperboy who lived with his parents. Its method of filming (kind of a modified single-camera) and nonsensical absurd comedy (the main character dies in several episodes) would become commonplace in the early 21st century. Stiller's show was a sketch comedy program whose method of writing and quick style of filming the skits would become the standard for shorter comedy for the remainder of the decade and actually influenced other media like the way FOX covers sports and pretty much anything on MTV. Plus, "The Ben Stiller Show" holds the ultimate proof of being underrated: It won an Emmy after being cancelled.


2. "Newsradio" (NBC, 1995-1999)
"Newsradio" was the second-best live action sitcom of the 1990s (behind "Seinfeld") yet it can't even be found in reruns on any network right now. It's not surprising that so many people missed this show: NBC moved it around the schedule a total of eleven times during its four-year run. Those who kept up with the constant movement were treated to a workplace sitcom that combined the wit of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" with the absurdity of "30 Rock." Everybody on the cast was magnificent, particularly the always-brilliant Phil Hartman who starred as the radio station's self-absorbed anchor, Bill McNeal. "Newsradio" was the rare instance of the perfect cast performing perfect writing in a perfect sitcom setting. Too bad nobody even remembers it was on.

Newsradio


1. "Homicide: Life on the Street" (NBC, 1993-1999)
Nowadays it's almost a sin to not mention "The Wire" during a discussion of the best television show of all time. People love the way it realistically portrays police and paints the characters as real people, not just heroes who love catching the bad guys. Well, that's all well and good, but that aspect of the series started with a different Baltimore-based crime drama, "Homicide." The series is based on "Wire" creator David Simon's book of the same name, and he served as a staff writer on the series that detailed the hectic life of the Baltimore Homicide Department's day shift. Just like Simon's later show, "Homicide" strove for realism and centered around the detectives' desire for solving crimes motivated by their attempt to assert their intellectual superiority over the criminals. Despite its long run and critical acclaim, "Homicide" never garnered the attention it deserved. This has a lot to do with its Friday timeslot and the popularity of "Law & Order" on the same network. "Homicide" holds up extremely well in this post-"Wire" world of police dramas. After all, it started the whole absolute realism movement within the genre.

Homicide: Life on the Street

OVERRATED:

5. "Home Improvement" (ABC, 1991-1999)
OK, so nobody ever though of Tim Allen's domestic sitcom as the highest form of satire on television, but it was one of the most-watched shows of the 90s and fondly remembered by viewers. Sure, the show was funny for a little while and Tim's elaborate accidents entertained for a bit, but this show ran out of gas after about 1993 and then ran on for six more years, recycling the same formula: Tim blows something up, Jill gets mad, they all make up in the end. "Home Improvement" is one of the last sitcoms in which one singular formula was repeated ad nauseum and should remain as an example of what we've gotten away from rather than a fondly remembered comedy series.

Home Improvement

4. The first 16 episodes of "Twin Peaks"
The TV movie that served as the pilot for "Twin Peaks" has never and probably will never be equaled as a series' first episode. After that, the actual show began. It was certainly like nothing else on television and flashed brilliance continually, especially during the first season. A few episodes in, however, the show began to meander and it was clear creators David Lynch and Mark Frost had no ultimate plan for the series and were making up new twists as it went along. The period before Laura Palmer's murder is solved is often considered the gold standard for what episodic television can be. While it is great, any show that has followed its lead of using an overarching story has improved upon it.

Twin Peaks

3. "In Living Color" (FOX, 1990-1994)
Many people consider this show a ground-breaking that opened the door for a new wave of comedy. Really? One look at a rerun on BET shows that the new wave of comedy included a lot of scatological humor and over-the-top characters that weren't that funny. Yes, it certainly opened the door for a lot of black comedians (of course, most of them were Wayans so that's a mixed blessing at best) and did unleash Jim Carrey onto the world, but mostly this was a show that had all the brilliant satire of the "Scary Movie" franchise.

In Living Color

2. "ER" (NBC, 1994-2009)
It is a bit of a cheat to include a show that had the majority of its run outside of the 1990s, but this series will always be remembered for its heyday of George Clooney, Anthony Edwards, Julianna Marguillies, and Eriq La Salle. Too bad it was never that great. This show never really distinguished itself from any other medical in any sort of meaningful way other than the prettiness of the physicians. Every show followed the same formula of, "Here's a new patient, let's save him, oh good, we did! or oh no, we didn't!" Fascinating. Amazingly, audiences never got sick of this hackneyed repetition, as the show lasted for a staggering 15 years, despite maintaining none of its original cast by the end. Oddly enough, viewers of the later seasons complained of a drop in quality. Really? It was the same show at the end as it was at the beginning. I guess the doctors just weren't as pretty.

ER

1. "Friends" (NBC, 1994-2004)
"Friends" is one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time. It seems people just can't get enough of a bunch of annoying people sitting around a coffee shop and an improbably large Manhattan apartment ripping off "Seinfeld". For 10 years, this sextet forced their way into American homes with dull relationship humor, repeated plots, and an on-again/off-again relationship that never held the allure of any other such romance in the sitcom world. There were funny situations on "Friends," but it's hard to find a single episode that works from top-to-bottom. There may be a funny plot involving Chandler and Joey not wanting to turn off their television out of fear of losing free access to an adult channel, but it is undermined by a lame "Brady Bunch" plotline that finds Emily and Ross flying opposite ways across the Atlantic to meet up. Eventually, the show gave way to relationships in such a way that it became more of a drama than comedy, or maybe it's just that it wasn't very funny. Who can tell? Worst of all, it was capped off by the absolute worst series finale of all time. Ross' lame-brained yelling into an answering machine made Roseanne writing a book look as clever as the last episode of "Newhart." The flaws of "Friends" far outweighed the good bits, yet it is considered by many to only trail "Seinfeld" in terms of quality. Now that is overrated.

Friends

Check back next week for the most overrated and underrated Martin Scorsese Movies.

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Story by Andrew Payne
Starpulse contributing writer