Television Thursdays- The Reincarnation of 90s TV Part 1

Today I’m veering away from looking at television case studies. Instead, I want to discuss the resurgence of 90s television in the public imagination. 1990s American TV had a lot to offer audiences, particularly in comedy. The 1990s were memorable in that more than ever before, TV defined a generation. No longer did TV sitcoms represent only perfect white middle class families with picket white fences the way they did in the 1960s and 1970s. Television series began to reflect the diversity of the American public in the 1980s but picked up steam in the 1990s. This idea of television representing real people took a step further with the creation of reality television, a movement that continues to dominate television today.

Here’s my list of top 1990s TV shows that should be adapted for Millennial audiences, not ranked in any particular order. Since 13 is my lucky number, I broke down the 1990s into 13 television categories with one distinctive series serving as a representative in each category. I also offer a brief list of other shows that fall under the same category for anyone interested in exploring further. These shows have an American bias as I grew up watching far too much TV in the States and cannot comment on 1990s series in other countries. Feel free to contribute international remake ideas in the comments section.

1. Animation


Daria itself is an adaptation, a spinoff of the popular 90s animated program Beavis and Butthead. Daria Morgendorffer is a smart, caustic teenage girl who was originally conceived as a recurring character on Beavis and Butthead. Daria’s series picks up when she and her family move to the fictional American suburb Lawndale. She lives with her parents and her younger cheerleader sister Quinn. Most of her time is spent with best friend Jane observing the horrors of teenage life in her famous monotone voice.  Daria is a satire on the American high school experience with smart social commentary and a smattering of pop culture references. The show aired on MTV from 1997-2002, ending with Daria going off to college. During its run, the series was one of MTV’s most highly rated programs. Ten years later, the world may be ready for a updated remake of this iconic series.

What would a modern day Daria look like? The pop culture references would be quite different but the universal experience of being a teenager would remain the same. I would love to see Daria’s take on social media and reality TV trends. Would she and Jane join Occupy Wall Street? Maybe the adaptation could set in the future with Daria taking on the real world after college. If the popular kids at Lawndale gave her so much material, I can’t even imagine how Daria would interpret the world of inept bosses and gossiping coworkers. I’d be curious to see Daria as a live action series, something in the vein of My So-Called Life. Not sure if a real person could manage that monotone commentary and still be funny.

Other notable 90s animated series: Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Beavis and Butthead, Doug, Rocko’s Modern Life, Pinky and the Brain, Animaniacs, Rugrats, The Ren and Stimpy Show

2. Teenage Television

Saved by the Bell is the teen sitcom that set the stage for many other teen series. Gone are the days when TV teenagers were just like us. Nowadays it seems a prerequisite to be insanely wealthy with more skeletons in the closet than a cemetery (Gossip Girl, I’m looking at you). Saved by the Bell aired on NBC from 1989-1993. The series was a spin off of 1980s pilot Good Morning, Miss Bliss which was intended to follow the life of  teacher Miss Bliss and her students. The pilot bombed but the network decided to revamp the series focusing on the students instead.  The star of the show was impish Bayside High school student Zack Morris (played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar). Zack and his friends A.C. Slater, Jessie Spano, Lisa Turtle, Kelly Kapowski, and Screech Powers caused havoc at Bayside High but learned important lessons along the way under the guidance of high school principal Mr. Belding. Zack was also famous for breaking the 4th wall (talking directly to the audience) long before writers used that same devise almost 10 years later in Malcolm in the Middle. The series ends as the friends graduate high school and head off to college.

Out of all the 1990s teen sitcoms and dramas, why did I choose Saved by the Bell as the ideal choice to adapt? Saved by the Bell already had two spin offs, Saved by the Bell: The College Years and Saved By the Bell: The New Class. There were also two TV movies and a comic book series. But both shows were spin offs in the 1990s and ultimately failed because they were not different or compelling enough to be successors in their own right. Now, 18 years after the original series ended, is the ideal time to adapt this series in time for it to premier 20 years later. Saved by the Bell was one of the first American series targeted to teenagers that dealt with real social issues as a central element of the story. Yet the show was remarkable in that unlike later series like Dawson’s Creek, the issues were presented in a way that parents felt comfortable letting their children watch. There are not many teenage series today with a positive moral message about society at large. It would be an interesting challenge to use Saved by the Bell as a basis for a modern show that speaks to the issues teenagers face in 2011 but parent-approved. Glee comes close to this, but lately has been incorporating racier story lines.

Other notable 90s teen series: My So-Called Life, Boy Meets World, Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Beverly Hills 90210

3. Ensemble Comedies

Seinfeld was the classic comedy “about nothing”. It was one of those shows people either loved or hated and has remained in syndication for many years. The series centered around comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his friends George, Elaine and Kramer as they have ridiculous adventures in New York City. Unlike many shows of the time, the characters were not related to each other nor were they work mates. They were incredibly selfish and un-endearing yet people loved them anyway. One of the most genius elements of the writing on this show was rather than focusing on overall themes, the show mined its humor from the minutiae of everyday life. The show aired from 1989-1998 and reruns can still be seen today.

The reason I picked this one over the countless other top-rated 90s ensemble comedies is because I envision this one having the most potential for adaptation. Although this show was created as a starring vehicle for Jerry Seinfeld, I don’t believe it actually needs him to succeed as an adaptation (unless we could lure him out of retirement). There are so many minute wacky details in our post-9/11 world that the gang could easily get involved in. Perhaps the show could focus on one of the other characters beginning a new life after they are released from prison (the characters are sent to prison after violating a Good Samaritan law at the end of the series). The writer could take note of Frasier (itself a spin off of Cheers) and move the new series to a different city. An idea off the top of my head would be Elaine accepting a new dream job that forces her to move to Dallas or some other city as far away from NYC culturally as you can get. As a fish out of water, she’d notice all the strangeness of her surroundings and have to make new crazy friends.

Other notable 90s ensemble comedies: Friends, Cheers, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, Mad About You

4. Drama

The X-Files is an American science-fiction show which aired on Fox from 1993-2002. Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) are two government officials who investigate unsolved paranormal cases. Much of the show’s tension evolved from Mulder’s passionate belief in the existence of extraterrestrials and Scully’s scientific scepticism. Mulder and Scully develop a strong friendship and eventually a romantic relationship by the end of the series. There have been two X-Files movies, The X-Files in 1998 and its sequel The X-Files: I Want to Believe in 2008. In September 2011, Gillian Anderson sparked rumors of a third X-Files movie in the near future.

The X-Files was one of the earliest television series in a growing trend for high budget Sci-Fi series. It was also one of the longest running science fiction series in America. Since the show’s completion, there has not been a single series that fills its gap in the investigative science fiction category. What could an adaptation of this television show look like? Since Duchovny is busy with Californication these days, it appears a reunion several years down the line would be out of the question. It’d be interesting to see what happens to the department in their absence, perhaps a new series could pick up with their replacement(s) and how they inherit all of the intense paranormal cases.

Additional 1990s dramas:  Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Twin Peaks, Party of Five, Xena: Warrior Princess, Oz

5. Detective Shows

Murder, She Wrote is a classic detective show starring Angela Lansberry as mystery writer and amateur detective Jessica Fletcher.  Jessica Fletcher was a  retired widow who found success in old age as a mystery writer but chose to stay in her cosy home town Cabot Cove, Maine. When murders occur in the town, Jessica asks questions and uses her strong observational skills to find the killer.  Murder, She Wrote ran from 1984 to 1996.  Lansberry has received the most Emmy nominations for outstanding lead actress in a drama series for the series. There were four TV movies released from 1997-2003. The show has been adapted into a book series which is still running today and a 2009 computer game.

Detective shows were such a staple of the 1990s, I knew they deserved a separate category of their own. I couldn’t think of one series I’ve seen on my television more often than Murder, She Wrote. Even today, you can often find reruns while clicking through the channels. Did you know Murder, She Wrote was named after the 1961 film of the same name, an adaptation of Agatha Christie novel 4:50 from Paddington? To my knowledge there’s no other connection between the film and the television show, but there is no denying that Jessica Fletcher is very much like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Keeping in mind an updated version of this series, perhaps Fletcher could retire and have her daughter or granddaughter take on the amateur detective role in Cabot Cover. Technology would have to play a much bigger role in today’s series than it would have in the early 1990s so that would have to be incorporated somehow into the new character’s role. Perhaps her granddaughter would be a blogger who uses her computer investigative skills to solve crimes. For the moment, this case appears to be closed.

Other 90s legal shows: NYPD Blue, Law & Order, Homicide: Life on the Streets, Ally McBeal

6. Birth of Reality Television

Real World- San Francisco

The Real World was one of the very first modern reality TV programs. MTV debuted Real World: New York in May 1992 after filming the cast for three months. The seven strangers lived in an apartment in Soho as cameras followed their lives and their blossoming interpersonal relationships. The general personality stereotypes established on this show, such as the innocent one or the gay one, set the trend for subsequent series. What was remarkable about this show is by throwing seven strangers to live together in one house, it forced each person to confront their preconceptions about prejudice, racism, and homophobia. MTV’s core audience of 18-25 yr olds could easily relate to these fellow twenty somethings confused about their purpose in life and dealing with social issues.

The show is technically still running so I was unsure whether to select it for revival over a defunct show, but I chose to place it on this list because the current show is a very different beast than the original. It is time for an overhaul of the reality shows we’ve come to know and love. Let’s have less drinking, more bonding and greater social awareness. I still have yet to see a reality show that touched me as much as 1994 Real World: San Francisco‘s depiction of Pedro and his struggles with AIDS. There’s enough going on in the world today that we can maintain the drama without the aggressive partying. My idea is Real World 2012: Alaska which would contain the following characters: a Occupy Wall Street Protester, a Iraq/Afghanistan Veteran, a Trust Fund Hollywood Baby, a Middle Eastern International Student, a Gay Asian-American Male, a Texas Cowboy, and a Teen Mom. Instead of giving them a glamorous job, let’s throw them into a series of low paying service jobs. Surely throwing that eclectic group of strangers together in one house would give them enough to talk about without rampant booze or sex. What would your Real World look like?

Other Reality Shows that got their start in the 90s: Road Rules, Survivor, COPS

Coming up…Reincarnation of 90s TV Part 2


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