In the 1990s, the internet was a fairly new phenomenon and tons of teens still turned to TV for the life lessons that would get them through. From ‘80s hang-ons like Saved by the Bell to whole new series and even genres, the teen shows of the ‘90s tackled the tough issues that plague adults to this day. Everything I know about adulting, I learned from the hit, and sometimes miss, teen comedies and dramas of the 1990s.
Just Saying “No”
Every kid who spent time in an arcade in the late ‘80s through the ‘90s remembers video games yelling at them how winners don’t do drugs and presidential seals filling the screen before the games start. Not doing drugs was often portrayed as “Just say ‘no,’” making the whole thing sound much easier than it actually is. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a big hit at the time, and its stars weren’t about to shy away from their responsibilities to viewers.
The show brought the problem of methamphetamines, some of the most dangerous drugs of any era, into the prime time living rooms of American families. No longer just telling teens to say “no,” the Fresh Prince showed how the drug affected loved ones and made the realities of meth use all too real. The episode featuring the drug that would later inspire the “Not Even Once” campaign left viewers with a much better sense of the situation than any presidential logo ever could.
Creative Problem Solving
Not all adulting involves such heavy topics, and the teens on Weird Science taught us that a little innovation (and some science-fiction wizardry) can go a long way to solving almost any problem. Teens Gary and Wyatt combine science and sorcery to outwit big brother Chet, portrayed hilariously by a young Bill Paxton, at every turn.
Dads across the world benefit from the creative solutions and fun approach to problem solving this show delivered. Weird Science features creative problem solving that is equal parts MacGyver and I Dream of Jeannie, and fans loved it. In a time long before Mythbusters would bring the special effects world to everyday users, techno-genie Lisa was magicking up all sorts of hijinx that sometimes required real science to undo. Or sometimes just knowledge of how to blow out a sink with an air compressor, which is something Chet could have handled even without magic.
Talking the Hard Talks
A great many of the teen shows of the ‘90s tackled sitting down with teens, or friends, and getting through the hard talks. From the dangers of drugs and guns to the risks of unprotected sex and STDs, few shows brought as sincere an approach as TV’s Moesha. During a time when The Cosby Show was one of the best-known representations of black families on the airwaves, Moesha wasn’t afraid to bring forth a powerful cast full of hip-hop stars and artists to tackle tough issues including racism, teen pregnancy and drug use.
The biggest takeaway from Moesha wasn’t that these were problems contained to urban youth or certain ethnic communities; the show taught us that we all share common issues that we can work to overcome together. It didn’t draw discriminatory lines, but it broke barriers without shying away from controversial characters and themes. It reminded us that everyone matters and that sometimes talking things through really is the best solution.
When it came to responsibility, few shows could come close to what we saw in the ‘90s from Boy Meets World. In the span of a single episode, we saw Cory and the rest of the beloved characters tangle with underage drinking and its consequences. Reminders of abusive family abuse, physical abuse of loved ones, and the seemingly endless specter of alcohol abuse dominated this once-in-a-lifetime episode that rings true to this day.
Like many shows of the ‘90s, Boy Meets World is now available online for the current generation, and even updated versions like Girl Meets World are following in its footsteps. We don’t yet know if the sequel will have the chops to follow in the original’s responsible footsteps, but we sure hope it does.
Taking a Well-Deserved Break
After all of these heady moments, one thing that almost every show taught us was that sometimes you just have to take a breather. Kids would regularly disappear into lockers when chased by their bullies or problems and get some needed time to puzzle things out. Or in the case of the Secret World of Alex Mack, dissolve into a puddle and move around stealthily to find more clues. But shapeshifters don’t count.
Apart from buying our own adult-sized school lockers, the best chance for relief is to take a breather at home. Light a few candles, put on some rocking ‘90s tunes and just chill for a bit. Take a spa day or spend some time and money at an old school arcade, like the kids in Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. The best lesson the teen shows of the ‘90s had to deliver was that there are plenty of hard times out there, but escape is as close as the nearest school locker, closet or quiet and empty room. There you can think things through and just breathe for a moment, before you get back to actively adulting. Synchronize Swatches!