Thanks to some nice reaction to this week’s earlier post, TV’s top one-season wonders from the ’00s, I’m back with another top-20 list of single-season sensations, this time from the 1990s.
I’ll repeat my disclaimer from the last compilation: It’s not a comprehensive list, but rather one based on what I watched (which wasn’t inconsiderable) and meant something to me in some way. But again, it’s surprising to me how many shows I found that fit the criteria.
In the tradition I recently established, I’ll list 21 shows in my top 20. And after you’re done reading, you can tell me what I forgot.
21) “All-American Girl” (ABC, 1994-95): A troubled show more remembered for the damage it inflicted upon lead performer Margaret Cho, but it had a fun cast (Clyde Kusatsu, Amy Hill, Jody Long, Maddie Corman, Diedrich Bader, B.D. Wong and more) and some worthwhile moments, even if it was destined never to hit its stride.
20) “L.A. Doctors” (CBS, 1998-99): Solid effort from CBS with some serialized elements and a cast including Ken Olin, Matt Craven and Sheryl Lee.
19) “Nowhere Man” (UPN, 1995-96): There was decent suspense in this drama that starred Bruce Greenwood. I’m not sure I can think of any other broadcast network one-season show in this era that got 25 episodes in before hitting the road.
18) “Cop Rock” (ABC, 1990): Not as bad as you might think but certainly not as good as you’d want it to be … though at this point I might very well prefer it to “Smash.”
17) “Madman of the People” (NBC, 1994-95): It starred Dabney Coleman but didn’t recapture the magic of his great 1980s sitcom “Buffalo Bill.” I suppose others might make an argument for Coleman’s single-season Fox comedy from 1991-92, “Drexel’s Class.” In a way, they belong together.
16) “Action” (Fox, 1999): Didn’t end up being my cup of tea, but this tart comedy starring Jay Mohr and Illeana Douglas definitely earned its cult love.
15) “WIOU” (CBS, 1990-91): It’s possible this drama is better than I’m giving credit for, but I don’t have specific memories of it, other than it wasn’t bad but didn’t seem to demand viewing. John Shea starred in a cast that also included Helen Shaver, Harris Yulin, Mariette Hartley, Phil Morris, Jayne Brook, Wallace Langham and Dick Van Patten.
14) “George & Leo” (CBS, 1997-98): Look, it wasn’t great comedy, but teaming up Bob Newhart and Judd Hirsch (with Jason Bateman in a supporting role) virtually guaranteed that “George & Leo” would be a pleasant way to spend 30 minutes.
13) “704 Hauser” (CBS, 1994): Norman Lear revived “All in the Family” by essentially reversing the white and African-American roles. What was bold in the ’70s became heavy-handed in the ’90s, but it had the right idea casting John Amos in the lead and Maura Tierney in one of her earliest roles.
12) “Hyperion Bay” (WB, 1998-99): Created by former Humanitas-winning “Thirtysomething” writer Joseph Dougherty, “Hyperion” was an underrated drama, especially at its outset, featuring Mark-Paul Gosselaar near the beginning of his post-”Saved by the Bell” career, Sydney Penny, Christina Moore and later, to jack up ratings, Carmen Electra.
11) “Relativity” (ABC, 1996-97): At times too earnest for its own good, the Jason Katims-created “Relativity” still was mainly a creative success. Kimberly Williams starred in a cast that also included Lisa Edelstein, Adam Goldberg, Richard Schiff, Poppy Montgomery and “My So-Called Life” alum Devon Gummersall.
10) “Sydney” (CBS, 1990): Valerie Bertinelli was charming (no surprise to her “One Day at a Time” groupies fans) as a low-stakes private detective, with Craig Bierko and a 21-year-old Matthew Perry co-starring.
9) “Bakersfield P.D.” (Fox, 1993-94): Giancarlo Esposito, Ron Eldard, Chris Mulkey, Tony Plana and Brian Doyle-Murray were the principal cast in a clever single-cam comedy that was before its time.
8) “If Not for You” (CBS, 1995): Hank Azaria and Elizabeth McGovern were the leads in a cast that also featured early career roles for Peter Krause, Sandra Oh and Reno Wilson, not to mention Debra Jo Rupp, Jim Turner, Caroline Aaron and Kelly Coffield. It was not a great fit for CBS, but it meant well (and I have an undeniable soft spot for it since I got to write a bit for it while serving as a writers’ assistant).
7) “The Good Life” (NBC, 1994): A very underrated multicam comedy that ran for 13 episodes and featured comedian John Caponera along with a relatively unknown Drew Carey in a supporting role and Eve Gordon. (Check out Paul Feig as the waiter in the clip below.)
6) “Cracker” (ABC, 1997-98): Adapted from the brilliant British drama about a highly troubled detective played by Robbie Coltrane, this version with Robert Pastorelli (and a young Josh Hartnett) didn’t match the intensity of its ancestor but still was worth watching.
5) “Nothing Sacred” (ABC, 1997-98): Perhaps more famous in its time for its level of controversy than its level of excellence, “Sacred” starred Kevin Anderson as a very human Catholic priest and became one of the best serialized dramas of the decade of any length. Bruce Altman, Ann Dowd, Tamara Mello, Brad Sullivan and Jose Zuniga were among the supporting cast.
4) “The Ben Stiller Show” (Fox, 1992-93): Even listed this high, I might be underrating this filmed sketch-comedy series with Stiller, Andy Dick, Janeane Garofalo and Bob Odenkirk, a show that had one brilliant sketch after another. It holds the distinction of winning a writing Emmy after being axed by Fox.
3) “EZ Streets” (CBS, 1996-97): A series that came before its time and that would have absolutely thrived on cable. Ken Olin, Joe Pantoliano, Jason Gedrick, Sarah Trigger, Debrah Farentino, Carl Lumbly and Mike Starr were members of an ensemble cast in a tremendous serialized tale. It’s quite possible that karma gave series creator Paul Haggis the Oscar for “Crash” because it allowed “EZ” only nine episodes.
2) “Cupid” (ABC, 1998-99): Genius creation from Rob Thomas impeccably executed with leads Paula Marshall and Jeremy Piven. First-rate storytelling and chemistry, that Thomas was unable to recapture a decade later with Sarah Paulson and Bobby Carnivale. Someone needed to shoot an arrow of love at more viewers.
1) “My So-Called Life” (ABC, 1994-95): As sure as “Freaks and Geeks” was going to top the list from the 2000s, “My So-Called Life” trumps all comers in the 1990s. Claire Danes was a revelation in the lead role but supported by a great ensemble and tremendously sensitive, pointed writing. I could go on, but if you’re a TV fan, you already know, right?