Dark ’90s Dramas That Changed TV Forever

TV dramas wouldn’t be where they are now without the ’90s shows that tested the waters, broke through the mainstream, and took our expectations of the genre to a whole new level of maturity.

These were the ’90s dramas that led the way.

The X-Files

Although it was strange and off-the-wall, The X-Files had significant mainstream success, with ten seasons and two feature films.

One of the best crime-solving partnerships in TV history, FBI special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigated unusual and unsolved cases – and their supernatural origins.

With Mulder’s theories and Scully as his science-backed foil, the duo were on the edge of discovering a massive government conspiracy. You always knew how dangerously close they were when their archnemesis, the Smoking Man, appeared.

My So-Called Life

This dark, angsty show about teen life lasted exactly one season. Airing right after Kurt Cobain committed suicide and just before the O. J. Simpson case, MSCL defined a pivotal moment for a generation.

Brainy writing, painfully awkward characters, and the culmination of Angela, Brian, and Jordan’s love triangle in the final episode – MSCL was epic and challenging from start to finish.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

High school angst and nocturnal evil forces trying to end the world? That’s Buffy. With its constant tug-of-war between good and evil, supernatural and human, Buffy was genuinely wacky, frightening, and emotional – and kept us coming back for more.

The core cast of Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, Anthony Head, David Boreanaz, and James Marsters were magical and made us wish we could’ve joined the Scooby Gang, too. 


The first four years of its 15-year reign were the most powerful, with an incredible cast that showed us that colleagues could be cruel, emergencies could be gruesome, serious decisions carried dire consequences, and some decisions really are a matter of life or death.

The early days of ER pulled back the surgical curtain on everyday events (no rocket launchers going off at that point) like when everything goes wrong during a standard delivery, or what working through a blizzard of catastrophic events could be like. It was gritty, had a shocking sense of realism, and forever changed the way we saw the doctors and nurses we interact with in real life.

Twin Peaks

The bizarre drama that rules them all.

David Lynch’s Twin Peaks was the most surreal suspense drama on TV, with its dark paranormal plotlines, mysteriously sinister undertones, and creepiest, most eccentric characters to match.

For all of these traits, Twin Peaks won both critical acclaim and a cult following; it became the blueprint for many other crime dramas that focused on detectives with special or psychic abilities. Unfortunately, the intensity of plot twists and turns and the inability to move the plot forward (who killed Laura Palmer, already?) led to the show’s demise.

Which ’90s TV dramas were appointment TV for you?