Oh, the '90s — a decade of frosted lip gloss, infectious pop music and exceptionally crafted coming-of-age shows. Join Wonderwall.com as we recount some of the best coming-of-age stories from the decade, starting with this iconic series… "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" debuted in 1997 and has since become a beloved cult classic. The show starred Sarah Michelle Gellar as the "Chosen One" — a stake-wielding vampire slayer who, with the help of her closest allies (the Scoobies), must protect the world from the darkness of evil. From its unique "slayer speak" (the distinctive way writer-director-producer Joss Whedon's characters talk to one another) to the talented ensemble cast, "Buffy" had a lot to love. Something that especially stood out is how effortlessly he used the show's supernatural elements as metaphors for adolescence. From Angel literally turning into a monster after he and Buffy were intimate for the first time to Sunnydale High being built on top of the Hellmouth, otherwise common tropes like "boys are evil" and "high school is hell" were given to us in ways that felt authentic and new. Keep reading to see more great coming-of-age stories from the '90s…
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"Boy Meets World" starring Ben Savage, Rider Strong, Danielle Fishel and Will Friedle is another iconic coming-of-age series that debuted in the '90s. Set in Philadelphia, it followed Cory Matthew (Ben) as he navigated high school, friendships and falling in love. What's gratifying about this show is how it feels as if you've grown up with them — the show begins in middle school and follows the characters all the way through the end of college. The series never shied away from dealing with darker subject matter — domestic abuse, alcoholism and cultism were among the topics "Boy Meets World" tackled over the course of its seven seasons. But it was never done in a way that felt jarring or overwhelmingly dark — the show effortlessly balanced the seriousness of these issues with a feeling of hopefulness. "Boy Meets World" constantly reminded audiences that while growing up is never easy, seeing it through is incredibly worthwhile.
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Claire Danes starred as angst-ridden teenager Angela Chase on ABC's "My So-Called Life," which debuted in 1994. "My So-Called Life" — which also famously starred Jared Leto, A.J. Langer and Devon Gummersall — deals with the complexities of coming of age in ways that feel honest and real. From the authentic way in which the show articulates the adolescent experience to the realistic dialogue between its characters to its groundbreaking inclusion of an openly gay Latino character (played by Wilson Cruz) in its main cast, the Winnie Holzman-created series, in many ways, was the first of its kind. To this day, "My So-Called Life" is often referred to not only as one of the greatest shows gone too soon (it only ran for one season before it was canceled) but as one of the most authentic coming-of-age stories ever told on television.
Set in the fictional town of Capeside, Massachusetts, "Dawson's Creek" followed the lives of a close group of friends played by James Van Der Beek, Katie Holmes, Joshua Jackson and Michelle Williams. When the now-classic coming-of-age series debuted on The WB in 1998, it was a hit with audiences and critics alike. The show, while soapy and melodramatic, introduced us to the ever-iconic Joey-Pacey-Dawson love triangle. In a 2018 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Michelle spoke of the show's lasting impact not only on fans but on the cast too. "When something affects you while you were growing up, it kind of stays in there forever," she said. "When you're so permeable and open and trying to figure out who you are and what's going on, whatever reaches you in those moments becomes part of you."
"Moesha" followed the life of Moesha Mitchell (played by Brandy Norwood ), an upper-middle-class teen from Los Angeles dealing with the perils of adolescence. After her widowed father remarries her high school vice principal, Moesha is forced to acclimate to her less-than-ideal living circumstances. The show, which debuted in 1996 and ran until 2001, dealt with a variety of coming-of-age issues including teenage pregnancy, substance abuse and racism. "Moesha" was a refreshing teen sitcom not only because it focused on the complexities of growing up, but because it viewed life from the perspective of a young woman of color.
The show that started it all. "Beverly Hills, 90210," which debuted in 1990, is one of the most iconic teen dramas to ever grace our screens. The series followed an elite group of teenagers from the affluent city of Beverly Hills as they experienced the trials and tribulations of adolescence. The show featuring Jason Priestley, Shannen Doherty, Jennie Garth, Tori Spelling, Brian Austin Green, Ian Ziering, Gabrielle Carteris and the late Luke Perry was known for not only chronicling the ups and downs of high school and romance but for also addressing serious issues faced by teens — like alcoholism, date rape, homophobia and suicide. The Darren Star-created series is often credited with paving the way for the teen dramas that followed.
"Felicity," which was created by J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, viewed the complexities of adolescence through the eyes of Felicity Porter (played by Keri Russell), an eager, wide-eyed Californian who impulsively followed her crush to the other side of the country for college. At the 2018 ATX Television Festival, Keri reminisced about the show, which debuted in 1998. "To me, the beauty of the show was always this simple idea… the romantic idea of this chance to change your life completely," she said. "I think that was the sweetness and the beauty of the show." The series has been praised as being a melancholic, introspective take on a coming-of-age story that centered on a female lead — at its core, "Felicity" is about a young woman who's trying to find her place in the world.
Before there was "The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina," there was this show! "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," which debuted in 1996, followed the life of Sabrina Spellman (played by Melissa Joan Hart) who, under the guidance of her two peculiar aunts, learned how to safely use her witchcraft. The comedy series — which also starred Caroline Rhea, Beth Broderick and Nate Richert — hilariously depicted coming of age through a quirky, supernatural lens.
This show fills a particularly soft spot in our hearts. As stated in its iconic theme song, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" follows Will, a street-savvy teenager from West Philadelphia who's sent by his mother to live with his wealthy relatives in Los Angeles's exclusive Bel Air enclave. The African American coming-of-age sitcom was ahead of its time — it starred a then-unknown actor (Will Smith), who at just 20 had begun to establish himself as an undeniable talent in Hollywood. In addition to Will's goofy, comedic ways, audiences were also shown an honest, more vulnerable side to him — "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" expertly navigated comedy and pathos, shifting from one to the other seamlessly. Following its debut, co-creator and executive producer Quincy Jones said of the series, "Rap is not the primary focus. If you took the rap out, the show wouldn't fall apart. But rap gives you the purest street awareness."
This Judd Apatow-produced coming-of-age series is beloved by many. "Freaks and Geeks," while set in the '80s, came out in 1999 and did an exceptional job of showcasing suburban adolescence in a way that felt equal parts lived, authentic and heartfelt. The show followed the lives of Lindsay and Sam Weir — two siblings who couldn't be on more dissimilar paths. Bookish older sister Lindsay goes through a major social transition as she spends increasingly more time with the burnouts (famously played by James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and Busy Philipps) while younger brother Sam struggled to elevate his social status and get the attention of his dream girl. What resulted were hilariously written and expertly acted stories about growing up. Undoubtedly, "Freaks and Geeks" remains one of the most heartfelt coming-of-age shows from the '90s.
"Party of Five" followed the Salinger siblings as they navigated life following the tragic death of their parents. Eldest brother Charlie (played by Matthew Fox) becomes the legal guardian to his four younger siblings and must find a way to keep his family afloat as they cope with their new reality. The series — which also famously starred beloved '90s actors Scott Wolf, Neve Campbell and Lacey Chabert — emotionally tackled the intricacies of grief, growing up and coming of age. Unafraid to address topics like domestic violence, substance abuse and racism, "Party of Five" left a lasting impression on popular culture.
While this show didn't debut in the '90s, it still counts! "Saved by the Bell," which ran for four seasons until 1993, is among the most beloved coming-of-age series to date. It followed the daily shenanigans of heartthrob Zack Morris (played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and his group of friends (played by Tiffani Thiessen, Mario Lopez, Elizabeth Berkley, Lark Voorhies and Dustin Diamond) as they went through the motions of high school. The sitcom, while generally known for its lighthearted comedy, occasionally dealt with serious adolescent topics like driving under the influence, women's rights and substance abuse.
"Sister, Sister," which starred real-life identical twins Tia and Tamera Mowry, told the fictional story of two sisters who, after being separated at birth, happen to run into each other 14 years later. The sitcom, which ran for six seasons from 1994 to 1999, charted the girls' deepening bond as they came of age together.
Starring real-life siblings Joe Lawrence, Matthew Lawrence, and Andrew Lawrence, "Brotherly Love" focused on the relationships between three brothers. Following the tragic and sudden passing of their father, eldest brother Joe returns to run the family business and in the process ends up taking on a father-figure role for his two younger half brothers. The Disney show, which ran for two seasons between 1995 and 1997, explored the bond between these three brothers who came to rely on each other as they dealt with growing up and overcoming adversity.
We're all alright! "That '70s Show," though set during a groovier time, premiered in 1998 and ran until 2006. The period sitcom, which starred Topher Grace, Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, Danny Masterson, Laura Prepon and Wilmer Valderrama, focused on the lives of six teenagers in the Midwest as they came of age. Creators Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner and Mark Brazill were cognizant of the how their decision to start the show in the latter half of the '70s would impact the world in which their characters lived — namely how the sociopolitical issues of the time would shape their lives. The series addressed major moments in American history like the 1973 oil crisis, the sexual revolution and the Equal Rights Amendment.
While perhaps an unconventional pick, this adult animated MTV series is a cult classic that belongs on this list. "Daria" tells the story of Daria Morgendorffer — a blunt, misanthropic teen who, along with best friend Jane Lane, goes through the motions of day-to-day life in suburbia. Satirical and smart, "Daria" unapologetically criticized social class and conformity in popular culture. "Fiercely intelligent, it never speaks down to its audience, only to it," wrote journalist Megan Koester in 2017. Sardonic, feminist and honest, Daria's view of the world was refreshingly disparate from the norm, and despite having debuted more than 20 years ago, the series feels as modern and authentic as ever.
If there's one show on our list that exceptionally captures the essence of the late '90s, it's got to be this one. Created by Ryan Murphy and Gina Matthews, "Popular" was a coming-of-age series that followed the lives of two teenage girls occupying opposing ends of the social spectrum who are forced to come together after their parents get engaged. The series starred Leslie Bibb as popular girl Brooke McQueen and Carly Pope as bookish journalist Sam McPherson. "Popular" was often praised for its unusual depiction of common adolescent themes, with Entertainment Weekly applauding its capacity to view the high school experience "through an absurdist lens."
"Blossom," which famously starred a young Mayim Bialik as Blossom Russo, a sassy teen who lives with her father and two brothers, is another coming-of-age series that garnered a large following in the '90s. The show charts Blossom's ups and downs as a teenager and focuses on her unconventional home life as the only girl in the Russo household. Because the series briefly aired on NBC right after "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," Will Smith and Karyn Parsons even made guest appearances on the show!
"Clarissa Explains It All" starred Melissa Joan Hart as Clarissa Darling — a teenager dealing with the ups and downs of growing up from boys to school to a variety of "firsts." The series, which debuted on Nickelodeon in 1991, was the first sitcom on the network that featured a female protagonist. What also set this series apart was how Clarissa directly addressed the audience. Creator Mitchell Kriegman spoke of this decision in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2015. "The fact that I had her talk directly to the audience — you know people say 'breaking the fourth wall.' I don't believe there's a fourth wall in TV unless you put it there," he said. "And this is Melissa Joan Hart too, Melissa lightened up the frame and had an easy sense of, 'I know you, you know me, we're together here.'"
As if this wouldn't make our list! Following the success of the 1995 film of the same name that starred Alicia Silverstone, "Clueless" the series debuted on television in 1996 and became as iconic as its inspiration. The series found its Cher in newcomer Rachel Blanchard and saw the return of its original Amber (played by Elisa Donovan) and Dionne (played by Stacey Dash). While there were definite film-to-television inconsistencies, "Clueless" still managed to capture the film's magic. The series offered a fun, quirky and fashionable take on coming of age.