The '90s. The decade of extreme sports, grunge music and sitcoms with a message. There were wholesome family shows like Full House, Step By Step, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Family Matters. Then there were serious teen dramas, like 90210, and Dawson's Creek. There were also cynical thirty-something shows, like Friends, Seinfeld, and even Frasier. There was even a gluttony of supernatural shows, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed, as well as all the Star Trek.
The landscape of '90s television was getting more varied, as burgeoning networks competed for ratings, and a new frontier of progressive television was blossoming. The end of the decade would see the rise of dramatic serialized television the likes of which we enjoy today. But before that could happen, the shows seemed to conform to a litany of tropes. As varied as each series was, they had these 10 weird rules they were forced to follow, which you can read about below.
10 THE INTRO NEEDED TO EXPLAIN WHO EVERYONE WAS (WITH A SMILE)
It doesn't matter if it was introducing Roseanne and the blue-collar Connors, Full House, and the middle-class swells, or Family Matters and working-class well-to-dos, all the '90s TV shows seemed to have to explain who every character was with the introduction.
You catch the dad working in his garage - he stops hammering something and smiles at the camera. You catch the mom cooking in the kitchen - she stops stirring a pot for a second to flash the camera a wink. The kids trot down the staircase, usually in descending height, indicating their familial relationship through the point of birth. How exactly did these families know they were being filmed?
9 EVERY FAMILY SHOW NEEDED AN OVER-ACHIEVER
Not since Michael J Fox on Family Ties have there been so many over-achievers on television than in the '90s. It was almost as though a cringey over-achiever juxtaposed against the rest of the cast made them seem more appealing in some way.
Carlton on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the epitome of this trope with his academic excellence, but then there was Steve Urkel on Family Matters who took the quest of being liked to a whole new level obsession. Stephanie on Full House was tolerable, but her male counterpart on Clarissa Explains It All was a constant reminder of everyone's inadequacy.
8 THERE WAS ALWAYS A SCREW UP CHARACTER
It didn't really matter if the series was a wholesome family show or a cynical thirty-somethings show, there was always a screw-up character. This character was never explicitly a bad person, they just always managed to make matters worse if they were involved in the plot.
On Boy Meets World, that title fell to Cory's older brother (and his best friend). On Seinfeld, it fell to Seinfeld's neighbor, Kramer. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it was usually Xander. On Friends, it was Joey. All of these characters were never as smart as the main character, but often felt they were, and their hubris usually always got the entire cast in trouble.
7 ANNOYING NEIGHBORS NEEDED TO BE A CONSTANT PLAGUE
'90s television may have included the most annoying neighbors per capita than any other television landscape. They seemed to be coming out of the woodwork all the time, showing up at the house or apartment of the main character, eating all of their food, and never getting the hint to leave.
There were arguably degrees to this. Kimmy on Full House wasn't as self-righteously annoying as Ned Flanders on The Simpsons, but then could anyone hold a candle to Steve Urkel from Family Matters or Kramer and Newman on Seinfeld? At least Jazz on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air could be thrown out.
6 THE CAST MUST HAVE A COFFEE SHOP
In the '90s there was a palpable shift from the public establishment where the cast of main characters would collect to discuss and advise on their woes. It can be summed up in the difference between Cheers and Frasier; one cast hung out at a bar, one hung out at a coffee shop.
The main crew of '90s shows didn't hang out at dens of iniquity anymore. Bars were out, coffee shops and diners were in. Frasier had Cafe Nervosa, Friends had the Central Perk, Buffy had The Bronze (where no one could drink and just ordered soda), Beverly Hills 90210 had The Peach Pit, Seinfeld had Monk's Cafe, and Saved By the Bell had The Max.
5 THERE HAS TO BE A WILL-THEY WON'T-THEY COUPLE
In order to hype up the sexual tension between the main cast of characters, there has to be at least one will-they won't-they couple that spends season after season not getting together, then finally getting together, and then possibly breaking up.
Friends had Ross and Rachel, Frasier had Daphne and Niles, Buffy had Buffy and Spike, Boy Meets World had Cory and Topanga, Saved By The Bell had Zack and Kelly, and The Nanny had Fran and Mr. Sheffield. In the end, everyone (mostly) got with who they were supposed to, so was there ever really any tension after all?
4 THERE WAS A MUSICAL EPISODE
There was an odd trend in the '90s where every show on television needed to inexplicably incorporate a musical episode. Granted, this mostly happened on the supernatural-themed series because they could get away with explaining why the main cast suddenly burst into song, but it didn't make it any less eccentric.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a musical episode explained away by the use of a talisman and tap dancing demon, while Ally McBeal explained its musical episode with lots of medication. Northern Exposure's musical episode centered around an old tree and even Daria incorporated song and dance into its nihilistic narrative. This trend didn't stop with the '90s by the way, as plenty of shows still do it today.
3 THEY ALWAYS INCLUDED A VERY SPECIAL EPISODE
Usually, the Whole Family Shows incorporated this trope, but Serious Teen Dramas also knew it like the back of their hands. It would be a very special episode, and it involved the main characters getting involved with smoking, alcohol, or some other substance abuse.
This usually pertained to a series that involved kids, but it could also include a plot that revolved around abortion, infidelity or any controversial topic that the show was going to give special attention to. By the end of a single episode, everything was magically resolved, and it was almost never spoken of or referred to again.
2 THERE WAS ALWAYS A FAT EPISODE
For some reason, the plots of '90s series always seemed to include a "fat" episode, where one of the main characters has a weight problem and balloons to a gargantuan size over the course of half an hour. This requires them to wear a horrible looking fatsuit, and provide a generally preachy message about self-control.
The episode that included "fat Monica" on Friends remains highly controversial to this day, as does the episode involving "fat Daphne" on Frasier. The Nanny took a strange route and decided Fran would just have "fat feet" in a strange dream.
1 EVERYONE NEEDED A CATCH PHRASE OR AN ENTRANCE
While catchphrases were present on television long before the '90s, they hit a peak during that decade that bordered on aggressive. Like Tony Danza on Who's the Boss with his "Hey yo" for a new generation, Joey on Friends had his "How you doin'?", and Urkel on Family Matters had his, "Did I do that?" moment. Even Michelle Tanner as a toddler got her, "You got it, dude" time to shine.
As far as entrances go, no one really tops Kramer's infamous slide into Jerry's apartment on Seinfeld, but Jazz's getting thrown out exits were just as applauded on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And even Sam's latter scaling on Clarissa Explains It All deserves an honorable mention.