Night Court (1984-1992) The blue jeans and sarcastic wit of adjudicator Harry Stone alarmed a staff that was nearly as odd as the nightly parade of malefactors — a tall, shaven-head bailiff, a chain-smoking matron, a perky clerk, a couple of sexy DAs. Their internecine strife went on unabated, and viewers rightly judged it to be hilarious.
The Golden Girls (1985-1992) Four single women of a certain age created sparks when they all moved into a home in Miami. The comic chemistry between Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty showed the world that the years of Social Security were more social than secure, and more colorful than a sunset.
Married…With Children (1987-1997) It shouldn’t have been hilarious. After all, what’s comic about a dyspeptic shoe salesman, his indolent wife and their kids who seem incurious about everything — except sex, of course? Yet somehow, largely because of the acting (by Ed O’Neill and Katey Sagal) and the audacious situations, the show kept viewers diverted for ten years.
Murphy Brown (1988-1998) As the title character on a TV newsmagazine, Candice Bergen was the sharp-tongued reporter who went everywhere — including the Betty Ford Clinic. Initially, network executives weren’t so sure about what they had on their hands. But Diane English, the show’s creator, held firm. “She insisted on ‘Mike Wallace in a dress,’ ” Bergen recalls, “and that’s what she got.” With the help of a mirthful cast Murphy Brown became a household word, especially when Vice President Dan Quayle took her to task for having a baby out of wedlock. “I guess he and I will be linked forever in the textbooks,” says Bergen.
“In the end, the show lasted ten years and to tell you the truth I still miss that outspoken lady very much.” — Candice Bergen
Roseanne (1988-1997) No utopian ’50s here. An overweight, unglamorous but fiercely loyal couple, the Conners (Roseanne Barr and John Goodman) met everything from rebellious kids to mortgage payments. Humor in the Conner house was sarcastic, tough and ruthless, but the bond of affection was as unbreakable as it was uproarious.
Seinfeld (1990-1998) Successful stand-up comic Jerry Seinfeld played himself as struggling stand-up comic, abetted by his hyperneurotic pal George, his goofy entrepreneurial neighbor Kramer, and his ex-girlfriend and platonic chum Elaine. This “show about nothing” actually turned out to be a substantial hit, with hip performances by an expert quartet.
The Simpsons (1989- ) One of the longest-running cartoons in history follows the follies of bulbous Homer and Marge Simpson and their children, Bart, Lisa and Maggie. With a powerful combination of imagination, love and lunacy, the program proves that when nothing is sacred, everything is funny, including politics, celebrity and the nuclear family itself.
Frasier (1993-2004) After an excruciating divorce, Cheers’ elegant therapist returned home to heal — only to reopen old conflicts with his rival shrink brother and rough-edged ex-cop Pop. Stage veterans John Mahoney, David Hyde-Pierce, Jane Leeves and Peri Gilpin kept the jousting quick, sophisticated and, at times, painfully honest.
Friends (1994-2004) One of the most popular sitcoms in history focused on six twenty-somethings finding their way in New York City. From the neat freak to the womanizer to the single mom to the folk singer to the paleontology prof, all were bright and attractive, with light plights and witty solutions.
Spin City (1996-2002) Before “West Wing,” Michael J. Fox and Barry Bostwick provided an acerbic peek behind the scenes of American politics. The City’s mayor was long on image but short on acumen. The diminutive deputy mayor was just the reverse, and he went to frantic, farcical lengths each week to give his boss’s errors a positive twist.
Everybody Loves Raymond (1996- ) Ray Barone is a prosperous, well-married sportswriter living on Long Island. Sounds like a prescription for Happily Ever After — except for Ray’s parents, who like to barge in unannounced, his sardonic cop brother likewise, plus some colleagues and neighbors whose motto is “Why have it simple when you can have it complicated?”
Will & Grace (1998- ) They’re more than friends, yet less than lovers. As it happens, he’s gay and level-headed; she’s straight, nutty and needy. Without preaching, this odd couple manage to vividly illustrate the contemporary values of acceptance — and even empathy.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000- ) The first “realticom” is unscripted, autobiographical and shot on authentic locations. As if in a home movie gone bad, Seinfeld co-creator Larry David stars as himself, quarreling with his closest friends, claustrophobically trapped in a lifestyle he can neither take nor leave. David’s deadpan delivery and reckless candor make the show an extra-edgy hoot.