The ’80s and ’90s were great decades for TV, especially for sitcoms. These years introduced some of the best and the longest-running ones to date. They made people laugh and want to tune in at specific times each night of the week to see what their favorite families and characters had got up to
These sitcoms were also meaningful to those growing up in those decades as they covered topics that were considered off-limits or taboo. In some cases, they touched on topics in a way that had never been done before within the sitcom world.
While the impact these sitcoms had on pop culture and TV history wasn’t recognized back then, today, fans are able to recognize how ground-breaking the shows really were.
It was a defining moment when Ellen DeGeneres’ character, Ellen Morgan, officially came out as gay as DeGeneres had also revealed her sexuality publicly in real life as well.
It was one of the first American sitcoms to feature a main character who was not only gay but celebrated coming out on air. And the fact that the actor who played her was openly gay in real life as well caused a lot of controversy. Even though the show was canceled, seemingly due to the backlash surrounding the coming out of DeGeneres’ character, it did break barriers for the LGBTQ+ community, both on-screen and off.
On the surface, Roseanne was just a hilarious sitcom that depicted a working-class American family dealing with everyday problems. From raising rebellious teenagers to financial struggles, the Conners did their best to make ends meet and put food on the table.
But this was what made it unique. It was the first TV series to portray what many called a real, relatable American working-class family. One that wasn’t glamorized for TV. This show broke barriers in depicting a family that was going through things many people were in real life. The concept continues in the current revival/spin-off series The Conners.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996)
Another sitcom that was viewed as a simple comedy, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was much more than that. Not only did it show the dichotomy between classes, with the Banks as a wealthy, upper-class family and Will as a young man from the streets of Philadelphia, but it also touched on serious topics as well.
While issues were always approached with a comedic tone, as the cast revealed in the recent reunion special, there was always truth behind the laughs, often relating to race. One of the most powerful episodes in this respect was the racial profiling case, where Will and Carlton were pulled over by the police after they presumed the boys had stolen the car. While Will, having grown up in a rough neighborhood, understood what was happening, Carlton couldn’t comprehend why they were pulled over.
One of the silliest sitcoms of the late ’80s, and an often forgotten gem of the decade, ALF saw an average middle-class family take in an alien life form that crashed into their garage. They came to see ALF like one of the family, even if they had to hide him from prying eyes.
Whether intentional or not, the series was an interesting look at the idea of immigration and illegal “aliens,” touching on the themes of acceptance, unconditional love, and understanding those who come from different backgrounds.
Only the tail-end of this war comedy-drama aired during the ’80s, but it was ground-breaking, nonetheless, for that time period. Following a team of doctors and other support workers in a surgical hospital serving the army, it was ground-breaking in several ways.
It shed light on the realities of war and was also the first network series to display partial nudity, albeit briefly. The series is not only the top-ranked show of the ’70s, but it is also considered one of the best sitcoms to ever grace the small screen.
The Golden Girls (1985-1992)
At the time, a sitcom centered around four women with very few male characters was unheard of. And one centered around four mature and single women? That was even more unusual.
Yet The Golden Girls, which was created by a woman, broke ground for mature female actors who never thought they could lead a show that was popular, much less one that would go on to become iconic. Today, female-led shows are common. But back then, Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia were some of the first to make a go at it and succeed, becoming the second-highest-ranked sitcom of the decade, according to IMDb.
The Cosby Show (1984-1992)
A sitcom that not only portrayed an extremely wealthy Black family, but one with a strong female lead, was really ground-breaking at the time. While the father was an OB/GYN and the mother was a lawyer, the pair were still able to raise five children together in their lavish home despite their demanding jobs.
The show and characters also managed to transcend race, being popular with both Black and white viewers due to its comedic material being family-centered. The Cosbys were one of the first respected Black families to be shown on television.
Murphy Brown (1988-1997)
Following in the footsteps of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which was the original ground-breaker in the ’70s, Candice Bergen played Murphy Brown, a powerful female journalist and news anchor in her 40s. She was strong, independent, and bucked every conceivable stereotype about who or what a woman should be.
Murphy Brown, which was one of the longest-running sitcoms from the ’90s, came back for a short-lived revival in 2018. However, it didn’t last long as it was canceled after a single season. Nonetheless, the original was ahead of its time.
Will & Grace (1998-2006)
One of the first sitcoms to be centered around openly gay characters, the premise of Will & Grace was unique: Will and Grace are best friends who share a special bond and live together. They would otherwise be romantically linked if it weren’t for one small detail: Will is gay. He came out after the pair dated in college.
While there has been pushback due to the fact that Eric McCormack, who played Will, isn’t actually gay in real life, there’s no denying the series had an impact in portraying gay people in a positive light. The show was revived for three more seasons, 12 years after it originally ended.
Seinfeld is famously known as the sitcom that was pitched as a “show about nothing.” And it really was. Four single friends living in New York City navigate the mundane doings of daily life, from careers to dating, having lunch in the local café, and getting up to silly antics.
Much of the show focused on meaningless conversations about, well, nothing. Yet it remains one of the funniest shows to have ever been on television. It broke ground, diverting from the standard sitcom format that requires actual storylines and pivotal moments. Every episode stood on its own yet was never really about anything more than a silly conversation or a ridiculous bet. According to IMDb reviews, the series ranks as one of the best sitcoms of the decade.