Making A Case For The ’90s, Television’s ‘Other’ Golden Age

All this week, we’re taking a look at the past, present, and future of Peak TV, the current, overabundant TV golden age in which we live.

When HBO aired the first episode of The Sopranos on January 10, 1999, it marked the beginning of what’s widely regarded as a modern Golden Age for television. Nearly all the hallmarks of the early 21st century “prestige drama” — the emphasis on anti-heroes, the rise in more cinematic and novelistic approaches to storytelling, and the intrusion of cable into spheres previously dominated by the major broadcast networks — can be traced back to the night when America met one moody New Jersey gangster.

Or at least that’s the way the tale’s usually told. The truth is a lot more complicated. The Sopranos premiere was a watershed moment, to be sure. But in a way it was a culmination of what had been happening on television for an entire decade. The 1990s began with the emergence of two unexpected TV phenomena — Twin Peaks and The Simpsons — and the 10 years that followed were ripe with chance-taking and new creative voices.

And there was a lot of schlock, too… so much so that at times the muck buried the era’s gems. Yet even while the ’90s were in full swing, critics recognized how good the medium was getting, and began having some of the “Is TV Better Than The Movies?” conversations that are so commonplace now. More importantly, television in the ‘90s was often excellent while remaining recognizably television — which is to say that the sitcoms resembled sitcoms, and the dramas worked to keep audiences watching past the commercial breaks. The best of 21st century TV is richer and more aesthetically pleasing than 99 percent of what aired in the end of the 20th. But one could easily argue that the ’90s offered superior entertainment.

Here are some reasons why.

The ’80s Also Weren’t So Bad

Television has seen multiple “golden ages,” including the late ’50s heyday of the live theater anthology, and the early ’70s when Norman Lear and sophisticated detective shows ruled. Few would consider the ’80s one of the peaks; and yet the decade was hardly devoid of classics. Consider Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Moonlighting, China Beach, Newhart, Frank’s Place, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The Wonder Years, The Tracey Ullman Show, and Miami Vice. A few of the decade’s best — like Cheers, Roseanne, and Star Trek: The Next Generation — were still going strong into the ’90s. For all the hubbub about cable storming the Emmys in the 2000s and 2010s, it’s sometimes forgotten that Star Trek: The Next Generation was an early interloper, earning the first and so far only Best Dramatic Series nomination for a syndicated program. By the end of the ’80s, the monopoly of “The Big Three” networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) was starting to crumble.

1990 Kicked The Decade Off Right

The first episode of The Simpsons aired in December of 1989 as a Christmas special, and as an early preview of how Fox planned to expand the popular animated Tracey Ullman Show segment into a series. After that soft rollout, The Simpsons officially debuted on January 14, 1990, to an audience of over 24 million. By the end of its abbreviated first season in mid-May, the show was routinely drawing over 30 million viewers, and was the second-most talked-about newcomer on TV. Second-most, because on April 8 ABC launched David Lynch and Mark Frost’s offbeat mystery Twin Peaks, sparking national debates about log ladies, dream dwarves, and damn good pieces of pie.

We tend to think of decades as vague cultural constructs that don’t necessarily begin in their first year. (For example “the ’60s” as a concept really starts in 1963, with JFK’s assassination and the arrival of The Beatles.) But “‘90s TV” really did jolt to life in the first few months of 1990. The Simpsons and Twin Peaks weren’t the year’s only standouts. Noble failures like Get a Life and Cop Rock fluttered by, and the soon-to-be massive new shows In Living Color, Northern Exposure, and Law & Order arrived. Almost completely under the radar, NBC dumped four episodes of Seinfeld into its summer schedule, a full year after airing the series’ pilot. (The sitcom would then come back in 1991 as a midseason replacement, taking the place of the forgotten soap opera parody Grand.)

Throughout the first few years of the ‘90s, American popular culture experienced an unexpected but much-needed recalibration, as the recording industry, Hollywood studios, and even comic book publishers discovered that there was an enormous appetite for the unusual. Twin Peaks and The Simpsons had a lot to do with that dawning awareness. It didn’t take long for other TV producers to capitalize.

The Number Of Viable Outlets Expanded

Thanks in large part to The Simpsons, the Fox network — founded in 1986 — proved it was possible to compete with “The Big Three,” both in terms of Nielsen ratings and cultural relevance. In January of 1995, The WB and UPN launched, and while neither stuck around, both at least temporarily provided platforms for a number of exciting new shows and talents. Breaking the stranglehold of The Big Three proved fruitful in unexpected ways. Smart writers and producers felt freer to shop their projects around, which by the end of the decade would lead to a rise in acclaimed original cable series. But even in the heart of the ‘90s, channels like TNT and HBO were airing excellent TV movies like George Wallace, Barbarians at the Gate, The Second Civil War, From the Earth to the Moon, and The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom.

If there’s one characteristic that defined ’90s television, it was variety. From the curatorial wonders of the then-new Turner Classic Movies and TV Land to the “weirdness welcome” policies of Cartoon Network and Comedy Central, suddenly there was something fresh and exciting to watch nearly around the clock. This was the decade where E! debuted Talk Soup, and when Bravo had Inside the Actors Studio; and when Food Network suddenly became a sensation with Emeril Live and reruns of Japan’s Iron Chef. The latter was just one of a plethora of foreign imports, alongside Absolutely Fabulous and the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. Broadening the TV map allowed for a surge in special events and must-see series, across the dial. And that’s not even taking into account sports programming — more pervasive as ESPN became a major player in the race for broadcast rights — and what was happening on MTV, where Unplugged and Beavis & Butt-head were frequently responsible for zeitgeist-defining moments.

New Voices Emerged

The term “showrunner” has become more familiar to TV-watchers over the past decade, but the ’90s didn’t lack for writer-producers whom devotees knew by name. The most prominent of these was David E. Kelley, who oversaw the peak years of L.A. Law, then went on to create Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, and Ally McBeal — all shows known for their quirky characters, gripping stories, and earnest attempts to grapple with divisive social and political issues. Aaron Sorkin did much the same with his ‘90s series Sports Night and The West Wing, while other major talents like Tom Fontana (Oz, Homicide: Life on the Streets) and Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) established their own footholds. Many of the people we most associate with modern prestige television got their start in the ‘90s too. Matt Weiner, Vince Gilligan, Shawn Ryan, Damon Lindelof, and Amy Sherman-Palladino worked back then on the likes of Becker, The X-Files, Nash Bridges, and Roseanne; while Louis C.K. wrote for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Dana Carvey Show, and The Chris Rock Show.

But even beyond the emergence of new writers, an increase in original programming on cable and the existence of new networks made room for a wave of shows offering minority perspectives on American life. From And the Band Played On on HBO and Tales of the City on PBS (and later Showtime), to the string of UPN, WB, and Fox sitcoms that showcased black comedians, the decade brought fresh voices into the mainstream in ways that still haven’t fully been appreciated.

Genre Shows Thrived

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files get most of the ink — and deservedly so — when it comes to any discussion of ‘90s science-fiction/fantasy television. But honestly, the geek tribe was well-served throughout the decade. Star Trek: The Next Generation hit its creative stride, produced a pair of spin-offs, and found a viable space-opera competitor in J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 (which, notably, was pitched by its creator as “a novel for television” years before critics started talking about The Sopranos that way). Syndicated television also offered Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys., while superhero fans could watch terrific animated adaptations of Batman and Superman. Add in the likes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Young Indiana Jones, Eerie, Indiana, The Powerpuff Girls, Pinky and the Brain, Liquid Television, and Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, and there was a Comic-Con’s worth of nerdy coolness on the air nearly every day.

Meanwhile, the action/adventure/mystery/procedural genre returned to a level of sophistication unseen since the early ‘70s, thanks to NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Streets, Murder One, Prime Suspect, and Law & Order — the latter of which was a modest hit for NBC originally, and then for a time became so vital and riveting that it won an Outstanding Drama Series Emmy.

Comedy Was Excellent, From The Mainstream To The Fringes

The single-camera/no-laugh-track sitcom has developed into its own unique artform, every bit the rival to cinematic comedy now as prestige dramas are. Somewhere along the way, some TV connoisseurs — and network executives — have bought into the idea that this kind of comedy is inherently superior to sitcoms filmed by three cameras in front of a live studio audience. Yet some of the post popular older sitcoms in syndication right now — in particular Friends and Seinfeld — are in the more traditional mold. In the ’90s, these kinds of shows were the networks’ bread-and-butter. ABC had Roseanne, The Drew Carey Show, Spin City, and Ellen. NBC had Frasier, NewsRadio, Mad About You, and Will & Grace. CBS had Murphy Brown and Everybody Loves Raymond. Fox had Roc, Martin, and That ’70s Show. The most popular three-camera shows of the ‘90s were smart and amiable in ways that the edgier modern single-cams often fail to be. They functioned as a more polished version of the workplace and family sitcoms that sprung up in the early ’70s.

The ’90s also introduced a bevy of stand-up comics and improv-trained performers, many of whom aligned themselves with what came to be known as “alternative comedy” — a mix of edgy political humor, sly satire, and performance art. Thanks in large part to cable’s need for cheap, potentially attention-grabbing programming, a lot of these comedians ended up on TV. The higher-numbered channels loaded up on shows with comics telling jokes in five-minute chunks in front of brick walls; while channels across the dial featured funky sketch series like The State, Exit 57, Kids in the Hall, and Mr. Show. Comedy Central aired one of the more original attempts to package the new wave of comedians: Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, a cartoon that had the likes of Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, Mitch Hedberg, and Patton Oswalt delivering their routines to a fictional psychologist.

The major networks got into the act too, with honorable failures like The Ben Stiller Show and The Dana Carvey Show, and with two distinct eras of Saturday Night Live — one dominated by Chris Farley and Adam Sandler, and the other by Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon (with Norm MacDonald bridging the casts). Some of the best behind-the-scenes drama in the television business involved “the late night wars,” as Johnny Carson reluctantly handed The Tonight Show over to Jay Leno. The ultimate winners of those battles? Viewers who watched Arsenio Hall, David Letterman, and Conan O’Brien prove their mettle in the role of showbiz underdogs — and also anyone who watched Garry Shandling’s brilliant sitcom The Larry Sanders Show on HBO, which spoofed late night and also gave a start to young comics like Silverman, Janeane Garofalo, and Judd Apatow.

The Big Networks Forged Distinct Identities

CBS started the decade strong with the buzzworthy Northern Exposure and Murphy Brown, but soon settled back into its traditional place as the home for older-skewing action and detective shows. NBC, meanwhile, began the ’90s by carrying over three big ’80s hits—Cheers, The Cosby Show, and L.A. Law — and then nurtured three of the ‘90s biggest in Seinfeld, Friends, and ER, setting up a decade of dominance. Some of the most exciting TV was happening at the upstart Fox and the adventurous ABC. In addition to The Simpsons, The X-Files, and Ally McBeal, the former took chances on should’ve-been-sensations like Profit and Bakersfield P.D., and introduced the new animated cult classics Futurama and King of the Hill; while the latter balanced its broadly appealing sitcoms with offbeat dramas like My So-Called Life, Gun, Nothing Sacred, Relativity, and Cupid. Few of ABC’s gambles paid off — not even its briefly huge Twin Peaks and Murder One — but throughout the decade the network could always be counted on to try new things. (Interestingly, both ABC and Fox took a crack at airing one of the decade’s most underrated shows: the animated comedy The Critic.)

All of these traits continued into the 2000s, with different results. CBS suddenly started drawing larger and steadier audiences with its more conservative fare, while NBC stumbled by overpaying to hold on to hits that were nearing the end of their creative verve. As for Fox and ABC, their respective longshot-friendly cultures allowed them to be open to what would become some of the ‘00s smashes: American Idol for Fox, and Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, and Desperate Housewives for ABC.

1999 Set The Stage For The Next Golden Age

The Sopranos wasn’t the only era-defining show that debuted in 1999. It was also the year of The West Wing and Angel, and the year Jon Stewart took over for Craig Kilborn on The Daily Show. Fox debuted Malcolm in the Middle, getting a jump on the single-camera sitcom explosion, and ABC reestablished unscripted programming in primetime with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Just as important that year were the shows that failed: NBC’s wonderful Freaks and Geeks (created by and starring multiple future comedy stars), Fox’s hard-edged showbiz satire Action, CBS’s ahead-of-its-time action-fantasy oddity Now and Again, and The WB’s zingy teen comedy Popular (created by soon-to-be TV impresario Ryan Murphy). And one of the most talked about TV movies of 1999? HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, co-written by a 29-year-old TV newcomer named Shonda Rhimes

The point of all this is that pegging TV’s current golden age exclusively to The Sopranos is short-sighted, and too limiting when it comes to appreciating all that the medium can be. Before The Sopranos even debuted, HBO was already airing the strikingly different Oz and Sex and the City; and in the years before that, television as a whole was lively and imaginative, offering everything from classic cartoons (like Home Movies, Daria, and SpongeBob SquarePants) to entertaining live television (like the long-forgotten FX morning show Breakfast Time).

These were the days before DVRs were commonplace, and when VCRs were saved for only the most special shows. There was a lot more channel-surfing, and a lot more building an evening around an entire network’s line-up. Mainstream TV had to be grabbier, and the new outlets had to offer genuine alternatives. Television was less a cultural obligation and more of lively, eclectic party. As good as the medium is now, there’s a lot that its current guardians could learn just looking back into their own recent past.