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'90s sitcoms are enjoying new life on streaming services

"Moesha" starred the Grammy Award-winning singer/superstar actress

 "Moesha" starred the Grammy Award-winning singer/superstar actress Brandy as Moesha Mitchell, a vivacious teenage girl trying to figure out her place in life.  Credit: Getty Images/Getty Images

Like so many other kids growing up in New York City of the '90s, Shana Pinnock lived with TV because there was so much to live with. Those Fox teen dramas. Nickelodeon. TGIF …

But what Pinnock, now 34, was really drawn to were those sitcoms — a proliferation of ones with all-Black casts, from "Moesha" to "Family Matters." As part of the ratings afterglow of "The Cosby Show" (1984) and "A Different World" (1987), the '90s was the Golden Age of the Black sitcom but as afterglows tend to do, it dimmed and those sitcoms along with it.

From about 60 shows in the '90s to half that number in the aughts, a few would end up on BET or in syndication. Most simply disappeared.

Gone if hardly forgotten, Pinnock — social media director of the Grio and a host of the podcast "Dear Culture" — and some others began clamoring for their return. Their plaint was both direct and reasonable: If '90s white tentpoles like "Seinfeld" and "Friends'' could thrive on the streaming services, then why not '90s Black sitcoms like ''Moesha" or' 'Sister, Sister?" (Or "Living Single," which directly inspired "Friends?")

Someone listened and last summer, Netflix added a half-dozen shows from the '90s and aughts including "Moesha," "The Game," "Girlfriends" and "Half & Half." Hulu — which already had a number of sitcoms — also added "Living Single." When HBO Max launched last May, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" relaunched with it.

"Why did it take so long? My personal opinion, to be quite frank," says Pinnock, "is that it has taken white America and white Hollywood a long time to realize the fact that Black folks, when we see ourselves on TV, become more invested in what we see."

Invested indeed: Those long-lost '90s Black sitcoms are now a huge part of the boom in '90s TV nostalgia on the major streaming services. Ralph Farquhar, the veteran showrunner and executive producer of "Moesha" — who confirmed in a recent phone interview that preliminary talks about a reboot have been held — said "the '90s was the golden age especially in terms of African American representation" because the old UPN network (1995-'99) was largely built around Black sitcoms.

"But another interesting dynamic is that a lot of these shows were headed by teen talent which doesn't happen anymore," he says. "People have fond memories of that."

People — many now in their 30s' — have fond memories of a lot of other '90s shows too. Baldwin native and freelance journalist Esme Mazzeo launched a "Dawson's Creek" podcast during COVID lockdown and is re-watching the series again.

"I was in 4th grade when it came out and the rule in my house was that I had to watch it with my mom," she says. But re-watching again, Mazzeo, who's now 32, says "they did some really good stuff," including an ongoing mental health storyline, and she has reconfirmed some old impressions: "Yes, Dawson [James Van Der Beek] is still annoying and Pacey [Joshua Jackson] is still a reason why every woman who grew up in the '90s and is single is still looking for Pacey right now."

But given this moment in time, she says what's really going on is the obvious: "We're all seeking comfort in the pandemic and it's certainly provided that for me."

Nostalgia, of course, is big throughout the culture right now. You can almost feel the distant past — smell it, savor it, reach out and touch it. But '90s TV has undergone its own special nostalgic rebirth.

Millions of others like Pinnock and Mazzeo who grew up in the '90s are members of the last generation that actually watched shows at their regularly appointed time. For them, TV was a communal experience, a shared one, often an after-school one.

This paradigm began to break down in the aughts with the arrival of DVR technology (1999), YouTube (2005) and the proliferation of online piracy. With fewer and fewer exceptions ("American Idol"), appointment viewing began its long, slow march to irrelevance. Netflix (2007) would ultimately finish the job.

For many younger viewers these days, a show doesn't even exist unless it streams — live, preferably, but the next day will do. Unless it's on Hulu, Paramount+, Disney +, HBO Max or Netflix, a TV show is like that lonely tree in the forest that falls with no one around to notice.

Meanwhile, an historically disruptive year fed this '90s TV boom. "Before COVID, we might not have predicted it," says Brian Henderson, Hulu's chief of content programming and acquisitions, "but it's pushed people into a small space and new modes of behavior while that — combined with the fact that we're looking for ways to escape and to feel better about the world around us — has made these [shows] resonate even more."

Henderson says "we saw the [criticism] this past summer over the purported dearth of Black '90s sitcoms [on the streaming services] but for a number of those shows music [rights] clearance was the hurdle." Besides, he adds, Hulu has had a few of these shows on the service for "quite some time." He says they do so well with all viewers — Black and white — "that we're reluctant to even think of them as 'Black' sitcoms."

Farquhar — who also produced "Moesha" spinoff "The Parkers" — says "that makes a lot of sense because streaming allows everyone to access [a show]. Sometimes when a show goes into syndication or if it's on BET, some think then, 'oh, it's just for Black people.' But when you're on Netflix everyone watches it — I even heard, oddly enough, that Quentin Tarantino loves 'Moesha.' When a show like this is on Netflix, Hulu or Paramount+, it not only welcomes back the original audience but builds a whole new audience, and that's pretty exciting."

WHERE TO STREAM 1990s TV SHOWS

Which shows have that unmistakable '90s throwback feel-good buzz, or that sense that — the instant you tune in — you have entered another dimension, where time has stood still and an overwhelming vibe of familiarity sweeps over you …?

Which one doesn't?

Here, by genre, are just a few shows, mostly under-the-radar now, available via streaming that are riding the 1990s nostalgia wave. (Some of these shows are also rerun on broadcast and cable channels, check listings for times and stations.)

ANIMATION

"Dragon Ball Z '' (1989-96; Amazon Prime) The manga hit that no one has ever heard of — save those many millions of fans who still revere it.

"The Powerpuff Girls" (1998-2005; Hulu) Three superpowered sisters, Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup, were created by that kindly nerdball of a scientist — aka Utonium — and then save the world, or Townsville, from Mojo Jojo. But of course you remember. A revival is in the works at the CW.

"The Rugrats" (1991-2004; Hulu, Paramount +) Hardly "under the radar," this Nick staple has since turned into an industry — and, surprise!, the reboot is coming — but a quick glance at the early season episodes can instantly transport you way back.

"Space Ghost Coast to Coast" (1994-99; Hulu, HBO Max) Starring Moltar, Zorak and your host Space Ghost in possibly the funniest show, animated or otherwise, of the '90s (although opinions may vary).

DRAMAS

"Ally McBeal" (1997-2002; Hulu) Memorable Calista Flockhart performance (and a whole lot of others, by the way) in this shrewd/funny sendup of many '90s TV courtroom conventions, and a '90s Zeitgeist trendsetter, right down to a Dancing Baby.

"Dawson's Creek" (1998-2003; Netflix, Hulu, Pluto TV) This enduring teen soap is packed with before-they-were-stars stars, among them Katie Holmes (Joey) and James Van Der Beek (Dawson), recalling the good ol' days when they were just kids.

"Felicity" (1998-2002; Hulu) Keri Russell as college freshman Felicity Porter in the breakout show for both her and co-creator J.J. Abrams

."My So-Called Life" (1994-95; Hulu, ABC.com) '90s teen angst from angst masters Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, with a precocious performance from Claire Danes.

"Party of Five" (1994-2002; Pluto TV) About a teen clan that was orphaned and then really beset by a whole world of troubles, this tearjerker worked hard for those tears, still does.

DRAMEDY

"Freaks and Geeks'' (1999-2000; Hulu) There was just one great season of this high school-is-living-hell dramedy. But it was a launchpad for some major careers (including James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Busy Philipps, Linda Cardellini) and an off-screen one too (Syosset-raised Judd Apatow who was exec producer).

FAMILY SITCOMS

"Family Matters" (1989-98; Hulu) Sure, everyone still loves Steve "Did I do That?" Urkel (Jaleel White), but some fans might make the case that Reginald VelJohnson — patriarch Carl Winslow — really made (and makes) this soar.

"The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'' (1990-96; HBO Max) Rocket booster fuel for '90s TV nostalgia boom, and still pretty funny.

"Living Single" (1993-98; Hulu, Philo) Single lives in Brooklyn, with a great cast including Queen Latifah and Kim Coles.

"Moesha" (1996-2001, Netflix, Hulu) Brandy Norwood starred as the title character in this savvy, funny charmer and counterpoint — or rebuke? — to the feel-good Black family sitcom of the era. The show has had an outsized influence — one of its writers, Mara Brock Akil, went on to launch a couple of hits of the aughts, most notably "Girlfriends."

"Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996-2003; Hulu, Paramount +, Sling TV) Sabrina (Sayville's Melissa Joan Hart) learns she a witch as she turns 16, and as charming a witch as ever there was. Hart also starred in another classic early '90s throwback, "Clarissa Explains it All'' (1991-94; Paramount+)

"Sister, Sister" (1994-99; Netflix, Hulu, Paramount +) Gone decades, this show about twin sisters reunited as teens now seems everywhere, and easy to see why — stars Jackée Harry, Tim Reid and especially lovable twins Tia and Tamera Mowry.

SCI FI

"Babylon 5" (1994-98; HBO Max) One of TV's finest sci-fis, set aboard space station Babylon 5, which was supposed to be a safe intergalactic haven following several ruinous wars. (Supposed to.) Notable for many accomplishments, but check out the groundbreaking special effects (which look SO '90s).

"Stargate SG-1" (1997-2002; Netflix, Hulu). lotsa action, lotsa cool-for-the-era graphics, lotsa star Richard Dean Anderson, "Stargate" — a spinoff from the '94 film, about galactic travel portal Stargate — still has lotsa fans (aka "gaters") too.

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" (1987-94); "Deep Space Nine" (1993-99); "Voyager" (1995-2001) The '90s was also the golden age of "Trek," thanks to these three and their groundbreaking Star Fleet commanders, "DSN'" Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) and "Voyager's" Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew).

SKETCH COMEDY

"In Living Color " (1991-94; Philo) Keenan Ivory Wayans created, wrote and starred in this influential show, bringing along other members of the Wayans clan for the ride, not to mention Jamie Foxx, Jim Carrey and Jennifer Lopez (as one of the dancing "Fly Girls").

—VERNE GAY

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