The '90s weren’t just flannel shirts, boy bands, and Seinfeld. Some of the most daring shows in television history premiered during this decade, like Aeon Flux, Get a Life, and The Maxx. Although they were short-lived, make no mistake: They were years ahead of their time.
From dystopian sci-fi to serious cartoons to hyper-realistic depictions of the teenage experience, the '90s were actually a pretty great time for TV. This list aims to rank and revisit some of the most underrated '90s shows, both campy and high-quality, that still deserve our attention.
- 1913 VOTESPhoto: MTV
The avant-garde sci-fi animated series, set in a cyberpunk-styled dystopian future, follows female assassin Aeon Flux from the nation of Monica whose mission is to infiltrate the strongholds of the neighboring country of Bregna.
Air Dates: November 30, 1991 - October 10, 1995 (16 episodes)
Why It Didn't Catch On: It's been hailed as one of the most daring science fiction series ever created. It was political - Monica was an anarchist society and Bregna was a police state - in a time when political commentary and sci-fi didn't really mix, let alone on MTV. Plus, Aeon perishes at the end of every single installment in the initial short film series. Then she perishes at the end of the half-hour episodes. Considering that this was creator Peter Chung's intention from the beginning, it didn't exactly make for a hopeful series - a hostile dystopian future and the hero bites it? Maybe a bit too much for the 1990s.
Why It Could Work Today: Modern society loves a good dystopia. Just look at The Handmaid's Tale or Altered Carbon. Dark, dystopian, political commentary has slowly taken over the airwaves. Throw climate change into the mix and a dystopia is no longer a distant, unfathomable thing. Audiences can relate now more than ever.
- 2826 VOTESPhoto: The WB
This superhero parody follows a geeky teen named Dexter Douglas who gains superhuman strength and agility from a computer bug activated by a "secret key sequence."
Air Dates: September 5, 1995 - June 1, 1997 (24 episodes)
Why It Didn't Catch On: It aired just a touch too early. Courage the Cowardly Dog premiered on Cartoon Network in 1999, followed by Invader Zim on Nickelodeon in 2001. Cartoons got weird by the end of the '90s. Animators started making shows for a slightly older crowd, and Adult Swim surged in popularity over the ensuing decade. Freakazoid! would've been a great addition to the network. (Although Cartoon Network did air the reruns from 1997-2003, where it solidified its status as a cult classic.)
Why It Could Work Today: We are in something of a golden age when it comes to superhero movies and television. DC is widely popular on TV, as evidenced by Arrow, Supergirl, and Black Lightning. A superhero parody would be absolutely apropos. Plus, weird cartoons are in high demand. Rick and Morty, anyone?
- 3603 VOTES
The MaxxPhoto: MTV
Based on the Image Comics series by Sam Kieth, a homeless superhero tries to protect his social worker and friend Julie from the omniscient Mr. Gone, both in the real world and in the subconscious fantasy world.
Air Dates: April 8, 1995 - June 19, 1995 (13 episodes)
Why It Didn't Catch On: It was both too real and too confusing. In the real world, the Maxx is a homeless guy living in a cardboard box; in the fantasy land called the Outback, he’s a mighty warrior tasked with protecting the Jungle Queen (who is actually Julie in real life). Mr. Gone, a truly insidious villain, taunts the Maxxx and Julie, and is helped by small creatures who exist in both the Outback and reality - though in the real world they look like humans. Does any of that make sense? The show was purposely abstract, sometimes beautiful to look at, and quite often horrific. The primary concept behind the show was the difficulty of processing trauma, which, albeit extremely necessary and important, is heavy subject matter for a teen audience.
Why It Could Work Today: A show aimed at teenage audiences that depicts how difficult it is to process trauma, specifically regarding violation and intimacy, is more important now than ever. Euphoria and 13 Reasons Why attempt this, but The Maxx did it in a way that has yet to be duplicated.
- 4548 VOTESPhoto: NBC
Marshall Teller (Omri Katz, who also played Max in Hocus Pocus) moves to a Midwestern town that just so happens to be "the center of weirdness for the entire planet.” Aided by his best friend Simon (Justin Shenkarow), the two investigate the supernatural mysteries that frequently occur around town.
Air Dates: September 15, 1991 - April 12, 1992 (19 episodes)
Why It Didn't Catch On: The sci-fi/horror craze just hadn't caught on yet. Audiences weren't ready for a primetime show about a town that had its own werewolf, creepy Tupperware that keeps things fresh forever, and zombies who wore pajamas. (Even cult classic Twin Peaks, which debuted in 1990, was canceled after two seasons.) Plus, a few of the characters were children who came from broken homes, and adults were the bad guys. Had the show aired just a few years later, when we reached Buffy and X-Files territory, Eerie, Indiana, might have gotten a few more seasons. The show did gain enough popularity for a 1998 spin-off series (Eerie, Indiana: The Other Dimension), but that, too, only lasted a season.
Why It Could Work Today: Eerie, Indiana, walked so Stranger Things could run. They share the same basic premise: kids solving mysteries while riding around on bikes in a small town in Indiana that just so happens to be a hot bed for strange activity. Plus, Eerie has a Twilight Zone-like quality, with each episode being its own individual adventure - and The Twilight Zone just got its own reboot. There's a big market for the weird and for the unexplainable, especially in a town where everything seems normal on the surface.