The edgy young people of today despise laugh track sitcoms because it apparently insults their intelligences to be “told when they should laugh.” However, this writer here loves the multi-cam sitcom style and continues to favor those shows. Up until the late-2000s, sitcoms were primarily multi-cam outings until popular shows like The Office and 30 Rock brought a change with single camera sitcoms becoming a thing. Back in the ‘90s, however, laugh track sitcoms were still all the rage (do young people still talk like this?) and the popular shows were all in this format.
Friends, Seinfeld, Mad About You, and a whole lot more used this formula, which made even their storylines resemble one another. Due to this, you could have similar plot-lines in these shows and similar plot twists. In those sitcoms, the plot twists were generally part of tried-and-tested tropes, which would resurface in every show in one shape or form. But it didn’t matter much, because the impact to the storyline was still always felt. Because these shows were all so iconic – we are still talking about them after more than twenty years, after all – it’s only appropriate to run down those shows whose twists had a positive impact and those twists which didn’t have the effect that was required.
For this list, we’ve considered those shows which were active in some way on the ‘90s to qualify. This means the shows which either began in the ‘80s, or those which lasted into the 2000s, are considered because they were still active in the ‘90s.
20 Saved: Ross Says Rachel’s Name (Friends)
By the finale of Season 4 of Friends, you would’ve thought that the next season would show Emily and Ross’ married life while Rachel pined for him the same way she did in Season 1. This didn’t come to pass as Ross wound up saying Rachel’s name instead of Emily’s at the time of the vows.
This rescued the show because a Ross and Emily marriage would obviously be doomed to fail and watching it fall apart wouldn’t have been pretty. The twist of Ross saying Rachel’s name not only avoided that, but added more spice to the ever enduring Ross and Rachel story.
19 Hurt: Daphne Tells Niles Her Feelings Before Her Wedding (Frasier)
Daphne and Niles would always be endgame on Frasier, but it came at the expense of making these two quite unlikable. Daphne would confess her feelings to Niles right before her wedding, and this would prompt Niles to leave his new wife for her.
The show could’ve come up with anything else other than making these two turn out to be unfaithful people who value their own happiness over others’ feelings. It also made the wait to see Niles and Daphne get together lose its quality because these two didn’t come out looking like the good guys. It would take an entire season for these two regain that charm that makes us root for them in the first place.
18 Saved: Diane Leaves Sam Hanging (Cheers)
Although Diane’s announcement of leaving the show was prior knowledge to the fans, the manner with which she left had a sour taste in our mouths for a long time. As it happened, Diane and Sam were meant to be married sometime, but she would be dissuaded by the sudden arrival of her ex-fiance, who offered her another chance to get her novel written.
It kind of came out of nowhere and left Sam down in the dumps as he could do nothing more than encourage Diane. The kicker was that Diane made a promise to Sam she would return in six months, only for Sam to know she was lying.
17 Hurt: Caroline Can’t Choose Which Man She Wants (Caroline In The City)
There are a couple sitcoms from the ‘90s that have never had their cliffhangers resolved, and never will because they aren’t popular enough to warrant revivals. Caroline in the City falls under this as we still don’t know what decision Caroline made after twenty years.
The sudden twist took place right in the final moments of the show with Caroline about to marry Randy, only for her former flame Richard to burst in and proclaim his love for her. It’s awful for those fans who followed the show because we never will find out what Caroline went with for her choice; would’ve been better to finish off with a definite decision.
16 Saved: Everyone Goes To Jail (Seinfeld)
The finale of Seinfeld still doesn’t place well with some people, although most have warmed up to it by now. The twist took place out of the blue as the friends were about to leave for Hollywood to celebrate the commissioning of Jerry as a TV series when they were all placed in jail for being bad Samaritans.
One would’ve thought the episode was going to be about the friends in Hollywood at first, but it then became a courtroom setting as every recurring character returned to testify for or against the main characters. In the end, the fact that they were found guilty saved the show as the finale is still memorable and in retrospect feels like a hilarious send-off.
15 Hurt: The Main Couple Got Divorced (Mad About You)
Mad About You was always about the main couple being, well, mad about each other. The series ran for seven years during which the many adventures the two went together were shown, and they remained together throughout.
The finale swung this away during narration by the adult daughter of the couple who told us that Paul and Jamie would become separated from one another within the next twenty years. Although in the final scene, the two were said to have gotten remarried, it didn’t save the damage the couple’s earlier separation made. This meant that Paul and Jamie weren’t as solid as we thought the were, and all of the previous seven seasons were basically for nothing.
14 Saved: Monica And Chandler Get Together (Friends)
By Season 4 of Friends, Chandler and Monica had become such big losers in relationships that there could be nothing lower than where they were – Monica being confused as Ross’ mom while Chandler spent the vacation alone as Joey got yet another girl for himself.
This made the reveal that Monica and Chandler got together all the more appropriate. However, upon first viewing, there’s no way you didn’t react with complete shock to see them in bed together. But the coupling of Monica and Chandler saved both characters as their relationship became the one surety of Friends till the very end. They were the best couple featured and it was a joy to watch their relationship grow.
13 Hurt: Jerry Gets Cancelled (Seinfeld)
Seinfeld never did long term storylines, with the sole exception being that of Season 4 where the whole season was devoted to the production of the pilot for Jerry, a sitcom based on Jerry’s life. The finale of this season finally showed the pilot in all its magnificence, and the in-universe show wasn’t bad at all. You’d have thought Season 5 would be about Jerry starring on the show – that was nowhere near the case.
As it turned out, Jerry wasn’t picked up to air at all, and this reveal was shown in the final episode of the season itself. We were made to believe the story was steering in one direction, but the show turned it upside down.
12 Saved: Everything Was A Dream (Newhart)
Bob Newhart had two sitcoms, both of which had a similar protagonist and kooky characters to boot. His first show was called The Bob Newhart Show and the second was titled simply Newhart. Neither main characters were called Newhart, though, so it made things quite similar.
The ending of Newhart is considered to be the most memorable finale in sitcoms because it negates everything we saw of the show for eight years. It turns out Newhart was just the dream of the main character from The Bob Newhart Show. This twist didn’t ruin the finale, though, as it was too out there to make anyone feel offended or betrayed. Instead, the revelation only made people laugh harder.
11 Hurt: Denise Comes Back With A Baby (The Cosby Show)
The Cosby Show became Bill Cosby’s baby to the point that he would be livid if anything happened without his express approval. At the time, Lisa Bonet married very young in real-life and became pregnant with the now-actress Zoe Kravitz.
This turned her character upside down in The Cosby Show as it meant her character had to be written out for a while. When she returned, her characterization underwent a major overhaul and she was revealed to have been married and with a child. This was all far too heavy stuff for a sitcom and the major reveal that Denise had a baby was too “real-life” to be placed into a funny show.
10 Saved: Sam Leaves Diane On The Plane (Cheers)
After six years, we had the chance of the reconciliation between Sam and Diane that we never saw in Season 5. The three-part finale had Sam make the decision to move away with Diane and leave Cheers behind.
Up until the very final minutes of the finale, the show had us believing this would happen, but things shifted when Sam and Diane both heard voices in their heads not to go through with it. As fate would have it, the plane was delayed from take-off and Sam left. This was the right decision because by this point Sam had become his own person and didn’t need to be in a couple to have his happy ending.
9 Hurt: Dan Passed Away (Roseanne)
The original final season of Roseanne is considered the worst in sitcom history as it had the show change its format. After enduring the entire season, the finale was one big plot twist that had everything in the season justified as something that was part of Roseanne’s book.
Chief among these changes was the revelation that Dan wasn’t even alive for Season 9 and had passed away in Season 8. Apparently, Roseanne was in denial over his passing and wrote him to be alive so as to cope with the loss. You’d have been forgiven if you confused this sitcom to be a tragic drama. Thankfully, the tenth season made all this non-canonical and Dan is living once more.
8 Saved: Eric’s Grandmother Passes Away Mid-Sentence (That ‘70s Show)
Eric’s grandmother was an insufferable character whose departure could only be a welcome because it meant we wouldn’t be seeing her anymore, but her departure also signaled towards some much needed family bonding that had been missing from That ‘70s Show.
Eric had enough of his grandmother’s mean attitude toward his mother and yelled at her while they were in his car, only for the old lady to drop cold. This was a surprise for anyone watching, and it turned out the grandmother really had passed away. But this was a great moment as the result was Eric, Kitty, and Red embracing one another as they acknowledged they really did love each other; the grandmother's passing reminded them of this.
7 Hurt: The Family Gets Rich (Roseanne)
As mentioned before, Roseanne’s ninth season really wasn’t something for the history books other than for how bad it was. The twist came in the beginning of the season when it turned out the Conners had won the lottery and would be showcased as rich as opposed to the lower-middle class we’d seen them to be.
It turned out this twist in the mix was the worst thing that could’ve happened to the show as no one liked the Conners being rich; it made them come across as snooty and full of themselves. The final season is still ill-remembered, and it was “fixed” the earlier mentioned second twist of everything being part of Roseanne’s imagination.
6 Saved: Frasier Shows Up (Wings)
If you thought that Frasier was the only spin-off of Cheers then you’d be very wrong. Frasier was, in fact, not even part of the first couple spin-offs as these were The Tortellis and Wings. Unlike The Tortellis, Wings didn’t borrow any characters from Cheers and was its own thing.
This lasted until it was revealed that the show took place in the same universe when Lilith and Frasier showed up in an episode of Wings. The twist here was how everyone’s minds were blown to find out two popular shows were set within the same continuity. The episode itself was well-received and prompted many more show crossovers.
5 Hurt: Emily Arrives At The Airport (Friends)
After Ross messed things up for himself in his marriage by saying Rachel’s name instead of Emily’s, you’d think things couldn’t get any worse; it sure did. Ross would become a total moron and invite Rachel to his own honeymoon, in which Emily was supposed to go.
Emily would show up at the airport to see Ross and Rachel leaving, and would storm out. This twist hurt the characters as it made Ross seem too stupid to be a husband while it made Rachel look very much like "the other woman." You could’ve forgiven the wedding slip-up, but Ross and Rachel looked like pretty terrible people in this one.
4 Saved: Kramer Shows Up (Mad About You)
This one still takes fans by surprise because the clip of Kramer interacting with Paul is very hard to find on the internet. Mad About You was revealed to be in the same universe as Seinfeld when it was shown that Kramer’s apartment was never his to begin with.
Paul was subletting it to Kramer all along and the crossover had him interacting with Kramer on the Seinfeld set. It was like a dream come true for any sitcom fan and this twist is welcomed with open arms. It’s not everyday you see two of the best characters from iconic sitcoms not only share scenes, but have an episode dedicated to them.
3 Saved: Joey And Ursula (Friends)
Speaking of Mad About You crossovers, this one also took everyone by surprise when it was shown that Ursula Buffay, the show's ditzy waitress, had a twin sister who was a main character in Friends.
But the more surprising twist was when the story played out with Joey being attracted to Ursula, which made Phoebe very uncomfortable. Up until then, Phoebe and Joey had never had a heavy-handed storyline, so the sight of Ursula stepping out of Joey’s apartment, with the implication that stuff had happened, really made things spicier than before. It also led to Ursula becoming a recurring character, which was always a funny outing.
2 Hurt: Sudden Race Bullying (Family Matters)
TV shows in the ‘80s always had some messages in the even if those shows happened to be sitcoms. It could be disarming when some very heavy story fell into out laps because it would happen literally out of nowhere.
This was the case with Family Matters which had the storyline of bullying through racial means. Although the story meant to educate, the sudden shift from funny to extremely serious wasn’t something that was easy to get used to. Add in the fact that the bullying was very severe, and the storyline was simply too uncomfortable. Maybe next time, a show should prepare us for such serious stories beforehand.
1 Saved: Maggie Shot Mr. Burns (The Simpsons)
The angle behind the mystery of who shot Mr. Burns was a multi-episode arc that ran much longer than usual Simpsons episodes.
Nowadays, the main reason why the episode is so popular is the big twist at the end which features the reveal of the person who shot Mr. Burns: Maggie Simpson. This twist was crazy, but it was the best thing going for the show as it gave Maggie that characterization she sorely needed. Not only that, it also added more layers to Burns as we found out he wasn’t above any dastardly act; and it was also reason why The Simpsons was so awesome back then.