Underrated Animated '90s TV Shows That Were Ahead Of Their Time

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Vote up the animated shows that broke barriers.

The 1990s are back: butterfly clips, crop tops, and wide-leg jeans are flying off the shelves! That means it’s time for a new generation to bring the underrated cartoons from the exxxtreme decade to the surface (the more exes, the more extreme). Popular animated series from the '90s like Animaniacs, Powerpuff Girls, and Batman: The Animated Series are being rediscovered, but the real treasure lies in the oft-forgotten shows of the era.

As you read the list, think back to days spent at the mall trying to figure out which flannel shirt to buy. Or think back to this morning when you were shopping online for a new flannel shirt that looks just like the one you used to have. Either way, there is definitely at least one show on the list that you need to check out.

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  • On the surface, Gargoyles might look like another cheap attempt at selling toys, but like its main characters, the show proved so much more than that. Much of the credit for that goes to co-creator and co-producer Greg Weisman, who always thought of the show as a superhero show mixed with Shakespeare for kids. Weisman and his team succeeded by creating character-driven plots and not underestimating the audience. Weisman gave the show's primary antagonists, human billionaire David Xanatos and gargoyle Demona, real motivations and full storylines that made them more than just “bad guys.” Xanatos and his multi-layered schemes meant he always had an escape, making his name synonymous with a TV trope to this day.

    Beyond compelling villains, the main cast of Gargoyles provided real emotion and humor that made the audience connect with the ancient Scottish beings. It helped that the writers tackled real conflicts, including ostracized family members, prejudice, and gun violence, on top of the show's fantastical use of time travel and magic. The series' darker tone set it apart from other Disney cartoons at the time, but that has only added to its legacy.

    60 votes

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  • ‘Daria’ Was About As Original As Teen Television Got In The ‘90s
    Photo: MTV

    Some spinoffs can stand alone more than others. You don't have to know Frasier Crane from Cheers in order to enjoy Frasier, for example. In that same way, audiences can enjoy Daria without seeing the character's original run on Beavis and Butt-head, though that knowledge might help you at pop culture trivia night. That's right: everyone's favorite deadpan teenager Daria Morgendorffer started life as a foil to Beavis and Butt-head. She became a star on her own show when MTV decided they needed something to attract more female viewers.

    Co-creator Glenn Eichler said he didn't set out to write something so different, but that's just what happened. Fellow co-creator Susie Lewis wanted Daria to be more realistic than other MTV shows to reflect the main character's point of view and to showcase Daria as “a real teenage girl.” The show provided a thought-provoking but compassionate space for people who felt like outsiders just trying to navigate the world while also throwing in the odd musical episode or two, of course.

    73 votes

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  • ‘Æon Flux’ Was Unlike Anything On American Television Before Or Since
    Photo: MTV

    Before Charlize Theron brought Aeon Flux to the big screen, there was the 1991 animated series that has become a cult classic. In the show, climate change has wreaked havoc on humanity, who now live in two cities, Monica and Bregna. Aeon is a spy/assassin from Monica, and her mission is to infiltrate Bregna to take down its fascist leader Trevor Goodchild. 

    Series helmer Peter Chung created an art style that some might call anime-like today, but it featured sci-fi elements and a grittiness that other shows did not have at the time. The storylines often revolved around personal choice and remaining free at all costs. For her part, Aeon is a harsh assassin, but her moral code and adherence to anti-fascism make her likable and a predecessor to the rise of other '90s female icons like Xena and Seven of Nine. Aeon Flux also hinted at various LGBTQ+ relationships throughout the run of the show. Clearly, Chung created a series set apart.

    32 votes

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  • Ever wondered what happened to the characters of The Jungle Book after Mowgli left? TaleSpin (sort of) answered that by following Baloo the bear as he tried to successfully run an air cargo business. Along with a much more laid-back King Louie and businessman Shere Khan, the show featured original characters like Baloo's boss Rebecca Cunningham and his sidekick Kit Cloudkicker. Yeah, it's a bit of a far cry from the original work.

    The Jungle Book film enjoyed renewed popularity after being re-released in both 1984 and 1990. The show's co-creator Jymn Magon cited the popularity as one reason he created a new property around established characters, with the other motivation being a looming deadline. Magon and the other writers pulled inspiration from the live-action show Tales of the Gold Monkey and the popular sitcom Cheers. Thus, TaleSpin offered familiar TV stories for adults while offering new adventures to kids just discovering the beloved characters.

    42 votes
  • ‘The Tick’ Did Superhero Satire Eons Before ‘The Boys’ Came Around
    Photo: Fox Kids

    The Tick began life as a newsletter cartoon but grew into a full-fledged character as creator Ben Edlund continued to work on his story. By 1994, the big blue fella debuted on Fox. As a superhero, the Tick's superpowers included indestructibility, large size, and his nigh-unbeatable optimism. Edlund used The Tick and his cavalcade of allies and adversaries to point out the absurdism inherent to most superhero stories. As such, The Tick could be enjoyed by comics lovers and haters alike.

    The audience related to The Tick's world through Arthur, his flying-moth-suit-wearing accountant buddy. Arthur's perfect mix of mundane and fantastical elements sums up the show's humor in one. The Tick and Arthur fought the likes of Chairface Chippendale as well as having to pay rent on their apartment. The cartoon has twice been revived as a live-action show, proving that optimism really might be a superhero trait after all.

    45 votes

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  • Recess was a show that took place at… recess. More than that, it revolved around a tight-knit group of friends as they navigated the ins and outs of playground politics. The main group consisted of T.J., Spinelli, Gretchen, Mikey, Gus, and Vince while sprinkling in memorable supporting characters like uppity ruler King Bob, smarmy tattletale Randall, and the Mean Girl-esque Ashleys.

    Any child watching the show immediately recognized the social minefield of middle school that adults didn't understand. Whether it's the latest fad that everyone simply must take part in or how everyone is afraid of kindergartners, the writers painted a pretty accurate picture. Adults could also find humor and poignancy in the storylines, not just Miss Grotkey's historical asides. With references to movies and TV shows that would have gone over kids' heads and the tackling of more significant concepts like the drawbacks of capitalism, Recess was both for kids and kids at heart.

    53 votes

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