Ah, the ’90s.
It was the decade that brought us the grunge movement, the rise of the internet and the birth of the Harry Potter book series. But it was a particularly rich decade in pop culture for TV and film. Teenagers lived high school drama vicariously through the “Beverly Hills 90210” crew — that show prompted the golden age of teen soaps, and the success of “ER” did the same for medical dramas. TV trends became fashion trends: “Friends” star Jennifer Aniston inspired an entire generation of women to ask their hair stylists for “The Rachel,” and Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City” did the same for Manolo Blahnik shoes. Meanwhile, “The Simpsons” became a household name, “Titanic” shattered box office records, and we were treated to many, many movies starring the venerable Tom Hanks in his prime. Also part of this decade: The Wachowski sisters blew everyone’s minds with “The Matrix” and “Star Wars” found new fans (and haters) with its trilogy of prequels.
There are too many good shows to name them all, but the following are some of our staff’s favorites. And hey, in the time of pandemic, you can binge-watch all of these to your heart’s content! And we’re clearly not the only ones with serious cases of ’90s nostalgia, because many of these shows are now getting reboots!
The ’90s: A decade that really went for it
Picking notable movies from the 1990s is like picking notable noodles from your favorite plate of pasta. Any one of them is great, but they’re most magnificent as a collection. I think of the ’90s as a moment when storytelling was reinvented (or, at least, old experiments got fresh juice), and we’re still telling stories, and even talking about our lives, that way.
Just graze over some of the decade’s big titles: “Malcolm X,” “Fargo,” “Paris Is Burning,” “Trainspotting,” “The Virgin Suicides,” “Pulp Fiction,” “All About My Mother,” “Boyz n the Hood,” “Rushmore,” “Friday,” “Groundhog Day,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Dead Man,” “Hoop Dreams,” “The Matrix,” and on and on. These movies do all kinds of things (epics, fractured timelines, Midwest noir, the birth of queer American iconography, the refinement of twee), but they’ve all got some serious vision in ways that are absent from the bookending decades. The 1980s and 2000s just didn’t break as much ground. (The 2000-01 years weren’t bad for movies, but I attribute that to leftover ’90s momentum.)
Maybe Sept. 11 spooked everyone into staying in narrower lanes. Maybe the studios just had more adventurous leadership — it was the decade that allowed “Twin Peaks” to live on ABC (ABC!), which is still the high-water mark for mainstream-network weirdness. Maybe we’re revisiting that decade in celluloid because the last few have been kinda boring.
— Brendan Kiley, arts and culture reporter
Nora Ephron movies
To give myself a quarantine project, I started working my way through Nora Ephron’s entire body of work as a writer and director, which runs the gamut from the gold-standard romantic comedy “When Harry Met Sally …” to the bleak union drama “Silkwood.” I grew up on her romantic comedies: “When Harry Met Sally …” — which came out in 1989, but its appeal is timeless, so we’re grandfathering it in — is what every romantic comedy wishes it could be, “Sleepless in Seattle” will never not make me cry by the final scene and “You’ve Got Mail” will always be the cozy cardigan of cinema. (The aesthetic is Nancy Meyers, but the story is all Ephron.) “You don’t want to be in love! You want to be in love in a movie!” says Rosie O’Donnell’s character in “Sleepless in Seattle.” And in her movies, Nora Ephron lets us. When everything else is chaos, that’s no small thing.
— Megan Burbank, features reporter
Basically any Tom Hanks movie released in the ’90s
Alright, I’ll admit it. I only spent two and a half years in the ’90s, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know about the films that came out of the decade! I have too many favorites to name, but some of my top ones star Tom Hanks. Is it cliché for “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993) to be one of my favorite movies considering I’m from Seattle? Probably, but I’m a sucker for any ’90s rom-com regardless of where it takes place, so it’s merely coincidental. Five years later, he and Meg Ryan reunited for “You’ve Got Mail” (1998) and while a bit dated now, it still warms my heart. Aside from the rom-coms, “Forrest Gump” (1994) and the first two “Toy Story” (1995 and 1999) movies are also highlights.
— Yasmeen Wafai, features news assistant
The golden era of Cartoon Network and Nicktoons
My first favorite ‘90s show was “Blue’s Clues,” which premiered on Nickelodeon in September 1996, when I was .75 years old. My faint pop culture memories of the era are of outlandish Saturday morning cartoons: suave (in his own mind only) “Johnny Bravo,” incessantly scheming “Pinky and the Brain” and the wonders of “Dexter’s Laboratory”; “Courage the Cowardly Dog,” an episode of which scarred every true ‘90s kid; delightfully stupid “Ed, Edd n Eddy” to round out my ’90s TV-and-cereal lineup on Cartoon Network. Like any Nicktoon scholar, I am familiar with the classic “SpongeBob SquarePants” ballads (“Sweet Victory,” “Ripped Pants”), and I need no excuse to break out catchphrases from “Rocket Power” (“woogity woogity woogity”) or “Rugrats” — “A baby’s gotta do what a baby’s gotta do.” (Less applicable, generally.) In thinking back on the formative shows of my early youth, I remember that Saturday morning feeling: at home, on the couch, well before chore time, siblings by my side, a cartoon with heart on the TV, laughter and Lucky Charms in my belly.
— Trevor Lenzmeier, features desk editor
“Beverly Hills, 90210″ (1990-2000)
This show premiered when I was in the fourth grade and I distinctly remember it airing from 7-8 p.m. At the time I had a strict 7:30 p.m. bedtime, meaning for at least the first two years this show was on, I only saw the first half. No matter, I instantly fell in love with Brenda and Brandon Walsh, former Minnesotans trying to fit in at their sunny, swanky Beverly Hills high school. Luke Perry was my first crush. I watched the show in its entirety, bonding with my new college friends during “90210” nights in our dorm rooms for the last season. The show is on Hulu now, and in 2019 it was rebooted, featuring nearly all the original cast. I didn’t watch the reboot and I’ve never rewatched a single episode for fear that the show is truthfully terrible and full of petty melodrama. I’m sure it is, but that was the magic of it, the battle cry “Donna Martin Graduates” and all.
— Jackie Varriano, food writer
“Twin Peaks” (1990-91)
I’ve had entire friendships based solely on a mutual appreciation for David Lynch’s Northwest-set series, with its endlessly quotable dialogue (“The owls are not what they seem!”), soap-opera framing device (“Invitation to Love”!), and characters who are both archetypes and too idiosyncratic and weird to feel like tropes, including Laura Palmer, the fascinating subject of the series’ central mystery. Like most of Lynch’s work, “Twin Peaks” is endlessly open to interpretation — it’s by turns a kooky small-town comedy, a sensitive and appropriately terrifying depiction of sexual violence and domestic abuse, an almost childishly simplistic story of elemental good and evil, and a document of the pre-tech boom Northwest. I started watching the first season 10 years ago and never stopped.
“A League of Their Own” (1992)
To date, this is the only movie I can quote every line from. “A League of Their Own,” with its predominantly female cast, and positive representations of strong, athletic women, was ahead of its time in championing women in sports. So many sports movies hinge upon tropes of camaraderie and brotherhood, so it was refreshing to find one that allowed us a glimpse into the sisterhood that was the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. It certainly didn’t hurt that these women were kick-ass athletes. Geena Davis’ character, Dottie Hinson, was probably my first girl crush. Favorite scene? There’s the one where she drops into a split to catch a ball — prompting the Racine Belles catcher to whisper to her coach “I can’t do that” and he quips back “who can?” — or the one where she catches the ball in her baseball cap, behind her back. Or even the forever-debated play for the World Series. Did Hinson drop the ball deliberately to let Kit win? This movie inspired me to become a sportswriter, if only to get to be a small part of this tightknit world of incredible athletes and their stories. I can’t wait to see the Amazon-produced reboot!
— Stefanie Loh, features editor
“Death Becomes Her” (1992), “Hocus Pocus” (1993), “The Craft” (1996), “Practical Magic” (1998)
For anyone following along on these staff picks, it’s been fairly well documented at this point that I am in no way cool. Enter our next exhibit, aka the one where Jackie becomes extremely interested in witches and ANY movie portraying something witchy. Being a witch looked dangerous and cool, wholly removed from my white-bread Midwestern life. It all started with 1989’s “Teen Witch” (call me if you want to re-create the “top that” scene) and continued with Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in the ghoulish “Death Becomes Her” featuring the glamorous witch played by Isabella Rossellini. I fell in love with the campy classic “Hocus Pocus” (and definitely still know all the words to SJP’s “Come Little Children” song) and once watched it five times in one weekend. As a teen I dreamed of a witchy store like the one Robin Tunney visits in “The Craft,” and once I was in college I pushed the idea of midnight margaritas à la “Practical Magic” pretty hard. I’m still sad that Whidbey Island house for the 1998 film wasn’t real.
“The Age of Innocence” (1993)
OK, so this isn’t a ‘90s movie set in the ‘90s (and the greatest of all those is, of course, “Clueless,” or maybe “Groundhog Day,” but I digress), but oh, it’s perfect. I found myself watching it for the umpteenth time the other day, for no particular reason other than that I spotted it on Netflix, and was pulled into its melancholy spiral of beauty. Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis, both at the peak of their swoonworthiness, play star-crossed couple Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer, in late-19th-century New York; between them, nothing happens (well, not much; he’s engaged to her cousin) and everything happens. The costumes! The blooming flowers! The dreamy cinematography! The way Pfeiffer gives all of her lines a floaty, up-and-down rhythm, as if her words are a road she’s wandering down! Everything about this Martin Scorsese masterpiece, based on an Edith Wharton novel that’s likewise a masterpiece, is glorious — and, along the way, it tells us a few things about love, passion, heartbreak and loyalty. Maybe I’ll go watch it again, right now.
— Moira Macdonald, arts critic
I didn’t love “Frasier” because it was set in Seattle — that “Seattle” certainly wasn’t the one that I knew — but because it created an on-screen family that all of us could recognize as maybe like our own. The lovably pompous radio shrink Frasier Crane struggled over 11 seasons to establish a bond with his cranky father (if you watch the show just for that plotline alone, it’s a gorgeous character arc), manage his feelings of competitiveness with his smart younger brother, and find a haven within chaos. Every week, he made me laugh. I loved how this show’s characters appreciated art (some very obscure opera jokes are tossed off), how brilliantly its directors could pull off slapstick farce (particularly in one of my favorite episodes, “The Ski Lodge”), and how its thread of decency and kindness made it seem not just like a sitcom, but like a friend — one you’re always happy to visit. (And, my nominee for television’s greatest villain: Frasier’s carnivorous agent Bebe Glazer, played to teeth-baring perfection by Harriet Sansom Harris. Ask her what she thinks about donkey basketball.)
“Empire Records” (1995)
I was a high school freshman when this film came out — it was before I had a job, a driver’s license or a boyfriend, but holy hell did this movie make me think that’s how it was going to be. There was no cooler scene than a record store in the ’90s and there were no cuter boys than the Lucas/Mark/A.J. trifecta. On the surface it was about not “selling out to the man,” but it was also about looking beyond the surface of things, be it the girl who seems to have everything or a kid stealing Whitney Houston CDs. The soundtrack holds up today, I still say “hey you forgot your thingie!” anytime I see a random bra, and it is most definitely always Rex Manning Day in my heart.
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003)
I was already out of high school by the time “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” premiered. But its clever premise drew me in: a high school perched on a literal Hellmouth, where its monsters (sometimes menacing, sometimes hilarious, often both) served as metaphors for the particularly sharp pains and challenges of high school and young adulthood. Over seven seasons, Buffy and her tight group of friends saved the world (a lot) — and the show became a portrait of a young woman coming into her own power, fighting evils (both Hell- and human-spawned), struggling to figure out adulthood and how to live in this world, and, by the time the series ended, sharing her power with a legion of young women the world over. As heart-piercing as the show could sometimes be, it was equally funny, threaded throughout with creator Joss Whedon and the writers’ witty quips and dialogue: “Love makes you do the wacky,” “Kicking ass is comfort food.” There’s been talk of a reboot/sequel. But, in some ways, “Buffy” was already ahead of its time. It transformed television. And all those cast reunions happening now? Psh. The “Buffy” cast was doing that back in 2017.
— Janet Tu, assistant features editor
Three sisters play witch superheroes to save the world? What’s not to like? I was initially equal parts heartbroken and skeptical when the showrunners replaced Shannen Doherty with Rose McGowan after Season 3 because Doherty’s Prue was always my favorite — I mean, she could move things with her mind! But to their credit, the show didn’t miss a beat. This series was as much about sisterhood and family as it was about evil-fighting witchcraft, and it always resonated with me because I’m one of three sisters. Probably also explains my tangential interest in “The Powerpuff Girls.”
“The Powerpuff Girls” (1998-2005)
I’m not sure what it was about three crime-fighting sisters made of “sugar, spice and everything nice” (plus an accidental pour of Chemical X) that I loved so much, but I was obsessed with “The Powerpuff Girls” as a little girl. My best friend and I used to play pretend as the characters and I had a lot of PPG merchandise — like, A LOT. My fifth birthday was also PPG-themed, so yeah, I was quite the fan. My favorite of the three was Bubbles because she was the sensitive one and I could very much relate (shout out to all my fellow Cancers!). The show was rebooted a few years ago, but apparently didn’t last very long. I haven’t seen it and I’m kind of scared, considering the original was sacred to me. A live-action series is in development at The CW and it already sounds like a bad idea.
Before we had the conference calling, awkward virtual happy hour, oh-no-you-forgot-to-mute-your-mic Zoom, there was the late-’90s PBS show “Zoom” (a reboot of the ’70s original). Truly a show by kids, for kids, “Zoom” featured a cast of preteens showing you how to do everything from putting on science experiments to making snacks at home. I remember feeling really empowered by seeing a diverse set of kids my age doing cool stuff and having fun. So much so I wanted to be their friends and sent them fan mail (the “Boston, Mass. 0-2-1-3-4” jingle lives in my head rent-free) asking if they wanted to hang out. They never responded but it’s OK, I forgive them.
— Amy Wong, features producer