No matter how many incredible new TV series are being released on a yearly basis by TV networks and streaming services, audiences are always going to find a way to make hits out of the most generic and unimaginative shows. That was certainly the case in the 1990s, where so many mediocre sitcoms became inexplicably popular that it seemed like entire studio audiences were being heavily bribed before tapings began.
Here are 10 highly-watched sitcoms from the 1990s that most people who are honest with themselves can agree were pretty terrible in most ways. Note, however, that this doesn't necessarily make the shows unwatchable, as guilty pleasures exist for a reason. First up, the show that finally gave pop culture the unspellable grunt it had been missing.
The 1990s was a key era for stand-up comedians landing giant network series, and 1991 was apparently the perfect time for Tim Allen's domesticated hyper-machismo and his "there isn't a problem that can't be solved with a lawnmower engine" mindset to latch themselves onto American audiences' brains. Home Improvement, which also launched Pamela Anderson into the TV stratosphere, got even bigger as Allen's film career took off and its young actors' faces were plastered across teen magazines. But, sweet Jesus behind a fence, how did this lowest common denominator brand of humor become the most-watched show on TV at any point? While there were some perfectly fine episodes during its eight-season run, it quickly reached a point where it was humanly impossible not to know every episode's narrative arc based on any random 60 seconds of footage, and Tim Taylor became a live-action cartoon that undercut whatever emotional beats were getting shoehorned between celeb cameos and props getting demolished. I always thought Home Improvement was extremely terrible, but we can all agree it's kinda bad, right?
If we're being honest, even footage of children playing solitaire would have earned massive ratings if NBC aired it during the heyday of Must See TV Thursdays, but Veronica's Closet got the call in 1997. Putting Cheers vet Kirstie Alley in a post-Seinfeld slot was a no-brainer, but unfortunately for audiences, the brains behind this show - Friends creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman - came nowhere near replicating either the comedic or sustained ratings success of their flagship sitcom. Though the idea of a woman intelligently working her way to the top of a field was a good premise to start off with, the titular not-really-adult love shop was not the storyline-provider that it should have been, and not even the solid central cast could save the show from misguided creative decisions like the additions of Ron Silver and Lorri Bagley. (Or having Dan Cortese in the first place.) We can all agree Veronica's Closet was kinda bad, right?
Ellen is without a doubt an important piece of TV history for featuring Ellen DeGeneres' titular character coming out as a lesbian, and quite loudly at that. But while the show could sometimes showcase just what made DeGeneres so enjoyable as a stand-up comic, it was also wildly uneven in so many other ways, as best exemplified by the behind-the-scenes revamps that added and subtracted characters, among other modifications, without explanation. To top it off, the show's biggest moment brought on an initial backlash that settled into merely negative criticism as the plotlines focused too strongly on the character's sexuality, taking the sitcom into dramatic territories that didn't land well with viewers. We can all agree that Ellen is pretty bad, but that botched time on the air is forgivable since it allowed the comedienne to find her calling as a much-beloved morning talk show host, right?
My distaste for Full House and my fascination with its awfulness are so equal and smooshed together that not even Jesse's thinnest greased-up hair follicle could slip between. This show is the epitome of cornball family sitcoms, with an extended family of characters whose most memorably awful moments number in the thousands across eight seasons. It's easy to grasp how this exercise in anti-cynicism took over the TVs of wholesome families that didn't want the more adult fare being offered by a growing lineup of cable shows, and it's equally easy to grasp that those people still exist, bringing into existence multiple seasons of the revival Fuller House. It's not like the 2016 version of this family is any more critically lauded, either, but while that should probably be the subject of disapproval or derision, there's a very specific form of comfort this continued universe provides. Still, we can all agree that Full House is kinda bad-going-on-horrendous, right?
Dharma & Greg
Jenna Elfman has the kind of bubbly charisma that should be present somewhere on TV every fall season, but the actress hasn't yet had a series survive beyond its initial season in the years since ABC cancelled Dharma & Greg in 2002. To be fair, I was almost fond of Dharma and Greg during its first season or two, largely due to cast members like Elfman and Susan Sullivan, but creators Dottie Dartland and Chuck Lorre could only do so much with the basic premise of Hippie vs Yuppie as the years went on. Season 5 spent a multi-episode arc on Dharma's car crash recovery and Claudia Schiffer appeared later in the year as one of Greg's coworkers. Forgivable out of context, perhaps, but both signs that this show was no longer tethered to its foundation. We can all agree that Dharma & Greg was kinda bad, right?
Who's the Boss?
Technically, Tony Danza's Who's the Boss? spent more years in the 1980s than the 1990s, but it also hit syndication in those later years, so there was nowhere to hide from both new episodes and repeats for quite a while. But a bigger question than the one posed by the title is, "Who's the simp who let this show stay on the air for eight seasons?" As it usually goes, the first seasons of Who's the Boss? were a fine enough substitute for just staring at a blank TV screen, and the show played with cultural and gender stereotypes in a somewhat interesting way. But as the years of Tony and Angela's "will they/won't they/why am I still watching" went on way too long, the show was basically memorable for the always fantastic Katerine Helmond and for Alyssa Milano turning into a sex symbol. We can all agree Who's the Boss? was kinda bad, right?
If you like Craig T. Nelson, football and nine years of stories ranging from merely okay to only slightly better than running suicide sprints in the sun, then you may still have not really enjoyed the NBC sitcom Coach all that much. Kicking off in 1989, years before football would find itself in the middle of one controversy after another, Coach was admittedly kind of cool for the guest stars that would show up, with many football legends from all eras making appearances. But if there was a way to see all those players in a context that didn't involve watching the dunderheaded Dauber earn studio audience laughter, that'd be the better angle. Coach was a hit for a while, though, and NBC execs tinkered, last year, with a trip back into the world of Hayden Fox, but then canned it after presumably remembering that Kyle Chandler's Coach Taylor is the only one the network needed anymore. We can all agree Coach was kinda bad, right?
Step by Step
It's almost hard to rag on a sitcom from ABC's TGIF lineup, since the majority of them were created to appeal specifically to the parts of family units that weren't out and partying on Friday nights. Still, credit goes where credit is due, and Step by Step was a testament to how fascinated TV audiences are with watching dumb characters exist. Like The Brady Bunch if the family house had glue fumes floating through the air conditioner vents, Step by Step was anchored by the on-display libidos of Patrick Duffy and Suzanne Somers, though the calamity-filled plots usually centered on several of the non-amiable kids getting into trouble or doing untold numbers of other moronic things. And let's not even get into the depths of inanity that is Cody. Not the worst that TGIF had to offer, Step by Step wasn't exactly a highlight, either, and I think we can all agree it was pretty bad, right? Except for how it made me want to ride a roller coaster every time the opening credits played.
1996 was the kind of year when trying to turn Brooke Shields into a sitcom star seemed like a good thing to do, and Suddenly Susan did a good job of making each of its four seasons forgettable enough that you might have also forgotten that Brooke Shields was a sitcom star. Not that she was terrible as the titular magazine columnist finding her way around single life again, but there was a reason the show only spent one year on the Must See TV lineup before being shifted to Monday nights, where Suddenly Susan lost not only lost millions of viewers over the next three years, but also central cast members Judd Nelson and Andrea Bendewald. (As well as the late David Strickland, but that's something else entirely.) Season 4 completely revamped everything, from the fictional magazine to the actual writing staff, and not even the inclusion of comedy genius Eric Idle could save this sinker. We can all agree Suddenly Susan was kinda not-so-suddenly bad, right?
Saved by the Bell
Pruned from the same tree of broadly shoveled schlock that bore the fruit of Full House, the Saturday morning staple Saved by the Bell presented the life of the average teenager as imagined by adults guzzling Jolt Cola through day-glo funnels while playing Casio keyboards with their sneaker-covered feet. Saved by the Bell is unequivocally awful, from the hack jokes to the bizarro musical moments to the arrival of Tori, but that's also its biggest charm, since there was only ever the smallest window of time for people to actually watch Saved by the Bell without a first-edition cell phone-sized glob of irony. It launched some careers and presented the opportunity for other careers to careen wildly out of control, and there's nothing else quite like it. (Not even you, California Dreams.) We can all take a time out and agree that Saved by the Bell is kinda bad, right?