How Streaming Brought About A ‘90s Sitcom Renaissance

The generation that never knew life without the Internet is finding comfort in shows that aired before they were born.

By Evie Solheim4 min read
How Streaming Brought About A ‘90s Sitcom Renaissance friends NBC

The plethora of ‘90s sitcoms available on streaming platforms is introducing Generation Z to iconic television shows (and fashion trends) that were on the air before they were even born. Open up social media and you’ll likely see today’s teens showing off outfits inspired by The Nanny, Friends, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and even Seinfeld.

Y2K obsession may be going strong among Generation Z, but in the words of a ‘90s kid you may have heard of before – Taylor Swift – nothing comes back stronger than a ‘90s trend. 

So when did this ‘90s renaissance start? Will it ever end? Read on to find out.

Old Show, New to You

It could be argued that streaming services realized viewers could be just as energized by 20-year-old content as new content with Netflix’s $100 million deal to stream Friends starting in 2015. (HBO Max has since outbid Netflix for the streaming rights to Friends for a jaw-dropping $500 million.)

The cast of Friends, NBC/Warner Brothers.

Friends, an extremely popular show that debuted in 1994, was marketed like a brand-new show in the 2010s despite the fact that many of Netflix’s younger viewers weren’t even born in the mid-nineties. A few years ago, you couldn’t walk into a Target without encountering displays of Friends-themed t-shirts and Central Perk mugs. College students became obsessed with the same show that entertained their parents two decades earlier, imitating Rachel Green’s style and arguing over whether Joey or Chandler is cuter. 

The ‘90s sitcoms enjoying new relevance today can be divided into two categories – young adults making their way in the big city and high school kids coming of age in the suburbs. Friends is decidedly in the former category, as are Sex and the City and Seinfeld. In the latter category are shows like Boy Meets World, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Saved by the Bell. (Full House is a combination of the two, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer defies categorization, but I’ll get to that later.)

Original cast photo from Seinfeld, Columbia Pictures.

Pretty much all of these shows are just a click away for Gen Z. But with the avalanche of new content that Zoomers are bombarded with every day, why are these ‘90s sitcoms winning out?

Reason #1: ‘90s Heartthrobs Have Still Got It

The dreamy guys of ‘90s sitcoms are reason enough to watch! There are too many to list them all: John Stamos as Uncle Jesse in Full House, Matt LeBlanc as Joey in Friends, Will Smith in Fresh Prince, and Mario Lopez and Mark-Paul Gosselaar in Saved by the Bell

John Stamos in Full House, ABC/Warner Brothers.

Did I mention it’s also super fun to notice some of today’s hottest actors doing bit parts in ‘90s sitcoms before they skyrocketed to fame? Bradley Cooper played one of Carrie Bradshaw’s love interests in season two of Sex and the City, James Marsden played Maggie’s short-lived boyfriend in The Nanny, and Paul Rudd made guest appearances as Phoebe Buffay’s boyfriend in Friends. Watching ‘90s sitcoms is like an Easter Egg hunt!

Reason #2: The Fashion of ‘90s Sitcoms Lives On

You can’t talk about ‘90s sitcoms without talking about the fashion of their leading ladies. Fran Fine’s wardrobe mixed high and low, Sabrina Spellman’s wardrobe was colorful, whimsical, and girly, and Rachel Green’s wardrobe was simple enough that girls are still imitating her with the basics they have in their closets. 

Tyra Banks played stylish Jackie Ames in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, NBC/Warner Brothers.

There’s a wholesome feeling surrounding ‘90s sitcom fashion. Starlets could be perfectly fashionable without wearing revealing clothes, and many young women today are bringing back ‘90s styles like turtlenecks, longer hemlines, and high-waisted jeans as a rejection of the highly sexualized styles being marketed to them. 

Even if they’ve never watched a full episode of a ‘90s sitcom, Gen Z girls are almost guaranteed to come across social media posts recreating ‘90s characters’ looks. For example, Morgan Ryan, a.k.a. Ms. Maverick Muse, an Instagrammer with more than 40,000 followers, encouraged her followers to dress up as Fran Fine this Halloween.

“If I had to pick one fashion icon who has influenced me the most it would be Fran Fine, aka Fran Drescher,” Ryan wrote on Instagram. “Quirky, bold, authentic and absolutely downright stylish. I think she is a true fashion icon, she took so many risks on that show and honestly rocked most of the runway looks better than the models in my opinion. I remember watching bits and pieces of this show growing up in the 90s but I’ve recently started rewatching now that I’m older and able to appreciate the fashion and humor more and I’m realizing how good the writing is!”

Reason #3: The Reboot Factor

Although the American television sitcom dates back to 1947 (I’m not kidding!), ‘90s sitcoms are a big part of contemporary pop-culture because their stars are still enjoying successful careers. Some, like Will Smith, have totally outgrown the small screen for huge success as A-list actors. Others, like Courteney Cox, have continued to hone their comedic chops on television. 

And since there’s nothing new under the sun, and pretty much everything that comes out of Hollywood is a reboot in some form or fashion, many ‘90s sitcom stars are signing on to bring their characters to a whole new generation (and cash that paycheck). 

Award-winning sitcom Frasier, which ran from 1993 to 2004, will be rebooted by Paramount+, and the new show could be available in 2022. Fuller House, a reboot of Full House, ran on Netflix for several seasons and featured many original cast members playing grown-up versions of themselves. Netflix updated Sabrina the Teenage Witch as The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina in 2018, although the remake was more 1692 than 1992.

Perhaps the most hotly anticipated reboot, Sex and the City spinoff And Just Like That, will premiere on HBO Max in December, starring three of the four original cast members. Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays Sex and the City leading lady Carrie Bradshaw, weighed in on the characters’ appeal to Gen Z and Gen X alike in a recent Vogue interview.

“14-year-old girls walking the dog with their dads call out to me, ‘I can’t wait!’” she told Vogue. “I think young women still really relate to this story. It’s about finding friendships that matter, looking for work that fulfills you, and pursuing love, even when it drags you, bloodied, down the street.”

Even Fran Drescher of The Nanny fame has signaled she’s open to a reboot, according to Insider. While such reboots are often considered fan service, they can also introduce beloved ‘90s characters to a whole new generation.

Needless to say, all of these reboots and spinoffs have sparked interest among Gen Z to check out these “vintage” shows. Reboot news has also highlighted how different the entertainment market was in the ‘90s compared to now. Streaming services like Netflix have faced criticism for canceling popular shows after one or two seasons to maximize profits. Conversely, the television market of the ‘90s allowed some shows to have slow-burn success, with shows like Friends and Full House running for eight to ten seasons.

Reason #4: The ‘90s Were a Simpler Time

It’s not cliché to say the ‘90s were a simpler time. The Twin Towers hadn’t fallen, people communicated face-to-face rather than online, and the economy was good. For Generation Z, most of whom don’t remember America pre-9/11, ‘90s sitcoms offer a sense of comfort and stability they can’t quite put their finger on. 

And while plenty of ‘90s sitcoms did try to tackle the political and cultural issues of the day, writers were more concerned with telling a good story than signaling that their characters had the right politics. There’s so much mixed messaging surrounding female characters today, but ‘90s leading ladies could be confident, feminine, funny, and kind all at the same time. Buffy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a show that combined comedy, action, horror, and romance, so I’ll let it slide in the sitcom category) is a favorite among today’s young women.

The cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 20th Century Television.

“The thing I loved about Buffy was how she was very feminine and girly even but also badass,” said a friend of mine who’s on the cusp between Millennial and Gen Z. “She was like, sure I might have to kill a vampire at 6, but I’m not about to miss my study date with a cute classmate at 7!”

Haven’t explored the world of ‘90s sitcoms yet? It’s not too late! Here are some classic ‘90s sitcoms and where to stream them:

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