Oh, nostalgia. What would the Internet be without it? What would we spend all of our time doing if we weren’t reading about the era of our youth? What would fill lists such as this if not memories of our after-school obsessions and our Saturday morning rituals? To answer all of the above questions: nothing.
That’s why we’re taking a look at the TV shows that made our lives worth living and the memories they’ve left that now fill those lives with meaning. We’re going to fill up on recollections of some of our favorite TV shows from our collective 1990s youths, which was – as we all can remember – a time when stories didn’t have to make sense or feature human-head shaped heads, they just had to be weird enough for us to remember them two decades later. And that’s why we’re all here. We’re here to remember the best shows from 1990 to 1999 and to list them in no particular order.
So here’s the moment that the internet has been waiting for. Here’s the culmination of every 90s kid’s life. Here’s the list that validates everything we hold dear. Here’s the 15 Best 90s Kids Shows of All Time.
15. Are You Afraid of the Dark?
To finally answer the rhetorical question that this Canadian horror anthology asked us back in 1990; yes, we are afraid of the dark, and mostly because of Are You Afraid of the Dark? Like the best shows we remember from when we were kids (and like most things from the 90s), Are You Afraid of the Dark was a beautifully campy show that embraced its format to draw us in week after week. If you say you didn’t want to have your own group of friends sit around a campfire with you and tell scary stories then you’re lying. And if you don’t remember the famous words that would kick off each episode – “Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I call this story…” then you may have a serious case of 90s amnesia.
But what really sold us all on Are You Afraid of the Dark was its ability to treat the kids watching like adults. Each episode was filled with dark parables and complex themes, and the horror elements never seemed to be diluted for children. When we watched Are You Afraid of the Dark, we felt like adults – or at least like the kids sneaking away from their parents to join the Midnight Society – and we loved every minute of it.
14. Boy Meets World
TGIF – the block of programming that ABC showed on Friday nights – wasn’t just a marketing gimmick; it was a way of life. Fridays were special to us because after a tough week of school and homework and tests the weekend was coming, sure, but Cory Matthews and Boy Meets World was coming sooner; and that was something for us all to get excited about.
Growing up with Cory and Shawn and Topanga was something that every kid who lived through the 90s has in common. They’re our collective friends and families, and the amount that we’ve laughed and learned with them can’t be understated. The series represented a time in television when just having likable characters work their way through relatable problems was enough, yet Boy Meets World did simple storytelling with such humor and grace that it’s become a flawless touchstone of our early TV watching lives. But aside from all that, Boy Meets World was an immensely entertaining constant in our childhoods. It was there for us in times we needed it and times we didn’t, much in the way that Mr. Feeney was there for Cory; always and forever, available when we need to see a friendly face.
See an image or play a soundbite from Rugrats and a blanket of childhood calm will wrap around you and make you smile. The brightly colored cartoon told from the perspective of Tommy Pickles and his friends incorporated everything great about Nickelodeon cartoons from the 90s, and if you were to watch it now you’d still be blown away by how entertaining it is.
Rugrats was funny, clever, and endlessly enjoyable. Whether it was an episode you’ve seen a hundred times or something brand new, any time you turned on Rugrats and saw that iconic title sequence you knew the next 30 minutes of your life were golden. Rugrats was a show that left its characters unsupervised and celebrated them acting like adults, and that’s how we felt when we watched. Only we could understand Tommy and his gang, and that made us insiders in a world normally meant for adults. Rugrats gave us our own world to enjoy, and between nine seasons, 172 episodes, and three movies, we enjoyed every minute of our time in that adventure filled, dog-food eating, screw-driver wielding, Reptar-loving world.
If Are You Afraid of the Dark was the genuinely frightening show that treated us like adults, then Goosebumps was its cheesier and more fun cousin, always there for us when we wanted something to make us feel like a kid. With classic episodes like “Night of the Living Dummy,” “A Night in Terror Tower,” and “Stay Out of the Basement,” Goosebumps took the R.L. Stein series that we all knew and loved and adapted it into the most 90s looking live action TV show imaginable.
As was the case with most shows on this list, the title sequence of Goosebumps is an iconic touchstone of our childhoods, and to this day the sound of a dog barking or the sight of papers blowing down a street will bring Goosebumps to mind in any self-respecting 90s kid. And from those memories of the opening sequence it’s easy to flash back on all the things that made this show so memorable; the supernatural elements, the cheesy CGI, the cliffhangers that would end each act break and make us sit through the commercials for more. At the end of the day, all memories involving Goosebumps are good memories, even the ones that kept us out of the basement for a few years.
Saturday mornings were a magical time filled with endless potential, endless sugary cereal, and an endless block of cartoons called One Saturday Morning. It was everything a kid could ask for after a tough week of coloring and playing outside, and the best part of it was without a doubt Disney’s Recess.
Following the adventures of fourth graders TJ, Spinelli, Vince, Mikey, Gretchen, and Gus, Recess was everything we wanted from our own lives; a never-ending recess and a group of friends to take on the injustices of the world with. You’d be lying if you said you didn’t try to make your recesses a little bit like the ones from Recess, complete with trying to build forts under your school’s jungle gym or setting up your own social order and playground charter. Recess held up a mirror to our own school lives – who didn’t have a teacher like Ms. Finster or a kid in their class like that weasel Randall? – and gave us a relatable animated series on a grand and epic scale that served to entertain us over the course of 127 episodes and 4 feature films.
Before superheroes hit it big on the silver screen with blockbuster tentpoles, they spent the bulk of their time in animated shows on television in the 90s. Every Saturday morning superheroes zoomed in and out of our lives with anime-inspired animation, surprisingly deep storylines, and a level of maturity that had not been seen in cartoons prior to the superhero revolution. Spider-Man was the stand out of superhero cartoons, as it took the world’s most recognizable hero and gave him his first show that wasn’t filled with campy villains and laugh out loud effects. Spider-Man was must-see TV.
Running for five seasons and weaving an incredibly ambitious and serialized storyline across all of them before being cut short and cancelled by FOX, for many of us, Spider-Man was our introduction to the wall-crawler and to superheroes in general. With storylines and seasons dedicated to Peter Parker’s personal life as well as his expansive rogues’ gallery, Spider-Man set the stage for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and to this day it remains the gold standard that we judge all Spider-Man stories by. The series’ willingness to go dark and meta – at one point a storyline featured the destruction of the universe and Spider-Man meeting Stan Lee – is something that no cartoon has been able to accomplish since, and we’ll always remember the series fondly for its willingness to take risks and push the envelope in new directions.
9. Hey Arnold!
We’re still not entirely sure if Hey Arnold! was a kid’s cartoon or a nightmare factory that churned out stories of street youths in a concrete wasteland with little-to-no adult supervision. Packed with filthy and misshapen characters that constantly bullied or stalked one another, Hey Arnold! exists in that realm of horror/fantasy/comedy/random-confusion that only a 90s cartoon series could. Our memories of the football head and his gang of friends and enemies are fond, even if we couldn’t point out exactly what was going on in this show or what any of it meant.
The one thing we know for sure is that Arnold is an icon of his age and a tough kid with no parents. He’s a guy who taught us to never quit, always be there for your friends, and never hang around with anyone named Helga. He’s also a guy who plans on sticking around and worming his way back into our adult lives, as Nickelodeon recently announced that a film titled Hey Arnold: The Jungle Movie is set to debut next year, and to those of you who have been sitting around all these years wondering what happened to Arnold’s parents, that’s a question that the film will answer. So get ready, because Arnold is coming back and bringing more nightmare-inducing / delightfully entertaining street urchin stories with him.
8. Dexter’s Laboratory
What was it about cartoons in the 90s that featured unsupervised children doing dangerous things that made us all so envious? Maybe it was the sense of freedom that these characters had. Maybe it was their endless schemes and everlasting playtime that we were jealous of. Or maybe we all just wanted an amazingly cool secret hideout like the best of these characters had; the best of which came courtesy of Dexter on Dexter’s Laboratory.
Dexter’s Lab was a childhood fantasy in every sense of the word, as we all aspired to be as smart as Dexter in order to get ourselves out of every problem we faced and hide from our annoying siblings. With every frame of Dexter’s Lab came some kind of richly animated gag or perfectly voice-acted joke. The show wasn’t simple in any respect – it can best be described as “the adventures of an inexplicably European child as he uses science and technology to deal with his aggressively American family” – but its complexity and weirdness made it a touchstone for all 90s kids. Dexter’s Lab – like The Powerpuff Girls, which was made by the same team – ignited the quirky phase of animation that would bring adult humor and aggressive style to children’s cartoons.
7. Bill Nye The Science Guy
Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill! Another 90s show, another 90s theme song that will be caught in our heads until the day we die. But this time, rather than insane animation or heart-warming live action families that came after the opening credits, Bill Nye The Science Guy was our very own science class; and damnit if he didn’t make learning fun!
Between Bill Nye’s bowtie and his sophomoric (but obviously amazing) and fast-paced sense of humor, Bill Nye The Science Guy was the type of show that our parents would let us watch before our homework was done because we were able to convince them we were learning. And we were learning, which speaks to the quality of the show considering how fond our memories of it were. Not to mention how excited we all got on those days when our science teacher would come into class – clearly not in a mood to teach – so they would throw in a VHS and let good old Bill do the rest of the work.
6. Batman: The Animated Series
Consistently ranked as not only the best adaptation of Batman outside of the comics, but as one of the best animated series of all time, Batman: The Animated Series took Batman and gave him a whole new identity for a new generation of fans. Incorporating film noir elements into a thematically complex story that spanned multiple seasons, Batman was similar to Spider-Man in its playing with themes of morality and good vs. evil. Never dumbing itself down or underestimating its audience, Batman brought stellar animation, writing, and performances to audiences that went on to embrace Batman in all forms down the road.
Utilizing famous story arcs from the Batman comics as well as his best known villains, Batman: The Animated Series was able to draw upon the rich history of Batman while spinning new tales and incorporating its own style into the series. The show’s best known legacy is the creation of Harley Quinn, who went on to become a fan favorite and is now starring in DC’s Suicide Squad. By consistently breaking the mould and doing what no show before it had attempted, Batman set the stage for envelope-pushing animation as well as the deep and challenging superhero films that would eventually proceed it.
5. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
Did you know that Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was a series about a group of teenagers that were chosen to protect humanity from a race of aliens, and thus they were given superpowers and the ability to pilot giant robots? If you did, congratulations, you know a lot about Power Rangers. But if you didn’t know that and you thought that Power Rangers was simply a show about different-colored people with motorcycle helmets punching stuff, then you were with the majority of people; but the majority enjoyed the show nonetheless.
While the show borrowed heavily from Japanese television and was mostly created to sell toys, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was still a large part of many 90s kids childhoods. It represented a genre that we didn’t see much of and presented endless action and voiolence in a candy colored package. While it may have reused footage from Japanese television, constantly changed characters and redirected storylines in an effort to be as incomprehensible as possible, the Power Rangers series ended up being pretty unstoppable, and in fact it’s still going strong to this day; Lionsgate is releasing a feature film in March 2017.
Animaniacs was a hyper-kinetic ADD-trip packed with slick animation and genuinely funny segments. It was a show filled with memorable characters and no set format, which made every episode that we turned on an exciting adventure that we couldn’t wait to unwrap.
Executive Produced by Steven Spielberg, Animaniacs had a style and production value that made it feel like high-quality entertainment. To rewatch it today would be to discover adult jokes, complex references, and homages to all sorts of films and television shows from the past. Perhaps it was Spielberg’s touch that made Animaniacs so special – after all, he reportedly read over every script, contributed story ideas, and came to voice recording sessions – and allowed it to stand above its many imitators. Or perhaps it was the show’s endless supply of characters, recurring jokes, and catch phrases that still live on in pop culture to this day. All we can say for sure is that our lives wouldn’t be the same without Animaniacs and all the things that Animaniacs brought us; most notably Pinky and the Brain.
The catchy songs! Oh, those catchy songs! It’s crazy to think of all the things that Arthur was able to teach us in just a few verses, but in those songs lies Arthur’s greatest strength; entertaining education. The show about the glasses-wearing aardvark (and why would we even know what an aardvark is if it weren’t for Arthur?) was able to give us songs to sing on the playground, hours of television joy at home, and lessons about serious issues without ever seeming like a chore to watch.
When we look back at Arthur we can all remember the “Believe in Yourself” theme song or the “Crazy Bus” song that D.W. played 375 times, but what’s less apparent is just how deep Arthur went. Episodes tackled the topics of cancer, dyslexia, diabetes, and Asperger’s, and regularly encouraged reading and strong educational values. For a show that was so aggressively educational (and one that is still going strong to this day), it’s amazing that we watched and loved it with as much excitement and fervor as any other show on this list.
Was Doug just a lesser Hey Arnold? Maybe. But a lesser Hey Arnold is still a better show than anything else, and that’s what Doug was. Dealing with the adventures of Doug, his mysteriously green friend Skeeter, and his crush Patti Mayonnaise, Doug had the absurdist and imaginative elements that the best 90s kids shows had, but it also incorporated autobiographical touches from its creator Jim Jinkins that set it apart from any other animated show.
By dealing with emotional beats that many other shows stayed away from and telling a unique coming of age story, Doug was able to straddle the line between insane Nickelodeon show and truth-seeking Boy Meets World-esque sitcom; and it made for a wildly imaginative series. Doug was the show we watched when we wanted something comforting rather than something laugh out loud funny or packed with eye-popping animation. Doug was a fun way to make sense of the world, and it always had a way of taking the problems that kids face and turning them into something that didn’t feel so insurmountable.
1. Pepper Ann
What’s that show? What’s its name? Was it cool? Was it lame? Yeah, we’re talking about what’s-it’s-name; Pepper Ann! Pepper Ann! Yes, Pepper Ann. The show that was like one in a million. And – like nearly every other show on this list – you’re welcome for getting the theme song stuck in your head for the next month. It’s going to be a blast.
And speaking of things that were a blast, Pepper Ann was a delightful show that – similar to its main character – thrived on its outsider status and was able to subvert expectations simply by being under the radar. Sure, Pepper Ann wasn’t the bell of the Saturday Morning ball, but it was a show that revelled in the simple joys and horrors of adolescence and provided humor along with heart to its audience. Maybe Pepper Ann wasn’t as revolutionary as some of the other shows on this list – aside from it being the first Disney show to be created by a woman – but like all of our favorite kids shows from the 90s, it was around when we needed it and for that reason it will always be exclusively “ours.”
And maybe that’s why we on the internet like reminiscing about the 90s so much; because just like the internet that we grew up with, the 1990s and the TV shows that came with it felt like nothing but ours.
Which of these 90s classics were your favorites? Are there any shows that we missed? Let us – and the whole 90s loving internet – know by sounding off in the comments!
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