When Y2K hit at the turn of the millenium, the world began losing the special era of the 1990s. It was a decade of indie music, baggy clothes, Pokémon, and lots of fun television.
The biggest TV series of the era saw Jennifer Aniston, Jerry Seinfeld, James Gandolfini, and George Clooney grace the screen with their at-the-time unknown presences and promising careers.
From The Simpsons to The Sopranos, Friends to Seinfeld, the 90s was the start of a new era for TV—one that’s had an enduring legacy that we continue to remember fondly even 20+ years later.
Who were the greatest TV characters from the 90s? Which of them stand the test of time, even to this day?
7. Will Smith
Looking back, it’s easy to see why The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air worked: ndless charm, great characters, and an iconic theme song.
But the description of the show doesn’t sound like it has the makings of a classic TV series. Will Smith playing a fictionalized version of himself, who gets into a fight and is forced by his mother to go and live in Bel-Air? It’s all explained in the song and sounds kind of lame.
It’s the cast’s performances, especially Will Smith’s performance, that continue to live in our memories. The scene that went viral—in which Will talks to Uncle Phil about his father—showcased Smith’s acting ability years before films like The Pursuit of Happiness came along.
The show may look a bit dated now, but for those who remember it, it was thoroughly entertaining TV that was mainly driven by Smith’s dedicated leading performance.
6. Phoebe Buffay
How does one describe Phoebe Buffay? Funny, complex, tragic, eternally optimistic. Phoebe was all of the above and more.
Lisa Kudrow’s character wasn’t like the rest of her friends. They all had small gripes about their day-to-day lives that verged on whining. Phoebe had genuine pain behind her—yet she put all of it away and tried to live her best life every day with charm and vigor.
As far as TV sitcom tropes, Phoebe was a true original. Her offbeat humor and zest for life made her incredibly lovable—and 20 years later, it’s still one of the biggest draws of the whole series.
5. Cosmo Kramer
If Seinfeld was the TV sitcom show of the 90s, Cosmo Kramer was the brightest star in Seinfeld’s orbit.
Wacky, borderline insane, and never without an opinion. Kramer was so heavily cheered whenever he stepped on set back in the 90s that live audiences were told to stop because it disturbed scenes too much.
Michael Richards’ performance as Jerry’s mooching neighbor was original and without any sense of restraint, something that other shows have since tried to copy but have never gotten close to emulating.
While Michael Richards’ legacy is forever tarnished by his controversial outburst, Kramer’s legacy is alive and well as Seinfeld continues to be watched by millions over two decades after it finished.
4. Frasier Crane
Frasier is one of the best known and brilliantly written TV shows of all time. After Cheers bowed out in 1993, it was followed by this spin-off series about one of the bar hounds, Frasier Crane.
There’s nothing about Frasier that should have worked. It followed one of the best TV sitcoms ever made. It centered on a character who was far from the most popular. It was set in a new city. But it worked! It ran for 11 years and became a brilliant show in its own right.
Kelsey Grammar’s character was fully explored in the show, and Frasier went from just a guy on Cheers to a celebrated TV legend. The show is due for a revival soon, and we’ll once again get to see what he’s been up to in the decades he’s been away.
3. Batman & The Joker
After the massive success of Michael Keaton’s Batman and the animated movie Mask of the Phantasm, Warner Brothers decided to bring the hero to the small screen. The resulting show is still the benchmark for animated superhero TV series.
Batman and The Joker are arguably the greatest pair of hero and nemesis in fiction history. They can’t be separated from one another in the show—Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill’s performances set the standard for animated series.
Of all of the various Batman films that have come and gone, none balanced the Bat and the Clown like the animated series did. It gave them both incredible depth and made a whole generation of children fall in love with both Batman and The Joker.
2. Tony Soprano
Although the show began in 1999 and ended in 2006, we’re still counting Tony as a bonafide 90s character.
The Sopranos changed TV forever with its cinematic style and quality of storytelling. But the biggest reason for the show’s success was James Gandolfini’s performance as Tony Soprano.
The patriarch of his blood family and the boss of the DiMeo crime family, Tony was always caught between two worlds. It would have been easy to bring Tony across as a clichéd mobster, but that would also have been forgettable.
Gandolfini brought gravitas and humanity to the role, such that even when Tony was mercilessly killing somebody, he was still a likable character. He was TV’s ultimate anti-hero and launched a golden era for serial television series.
1. Homer Simpson
If there’s one 90s character who’s known all around the world just by image alone, it’s Homer Simpson. While the series technically started in 1989, Homer is absolutely a 90s character.
Homer is the funny, bafflingly idiotic, and incredibly lovable husband of Marge and father of Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. He’s helped shape society and culture for over 30 years in his examples of dedicated fatherhood and commitment to marriage.
He tries to be more than he is and often fails, but it’s exactly that quality that gives Homer his edge. He taught whole generations of people to never give up on trying to be better, which is what makes Homer Simpson the greatest TV character from the 90s.