The 1990s: an excellent time to be raised by a television set. Looney Tunes are great — and believe me, you’ll find no greater authority on the works of Bugs Bunny than I — but there was something special about the kids TV fare of the Clinton era. Call it edginess if you want, but Saturday morning often had a wit that felt downright conspiratorial. There are supercuts on YouTube of the hidden dirty jokes in “Animaniacs,” for example, and the stakes on surprisingly sophisticated animated superhero shows like “Batman: The Animated Series” often felt more than a little adult.
If you want to marinate in your ’90s (and early 2000s) nostalgia, the age of streaming entertainment is a good time to be alive. Here’s what kids shows are available on a few of the big streaming platforms, with no illusions of completion but a commitment to thorough browsing on my part.
HULU“Doug”: When it comes to ’90s cartoons, Hulu simply cannot be beat. Nickelodeon cartoons (“Nicktoons,” for the uninitiated) like charming Bildungsroman “Doug,” for example, are a one-way ticket to more blissfully ignorant times. I have a Quailman costume you can borrow if you want to wear while watching this. “Rugrats”: This babies-doing-non-baby-things toon went on way too long and added too many babies no one cared about, but there are probably some still-clever gags in the early seasons. Mostly worth puzzling over the relationship dynamics of their parents — Angelica’s mom and dad are yuppie goals.“Hey Arnold!”: Some retrospectively mature themes of romantic obsession, inner-city life and figuring out why stoop kids won’t leave their stoops.“Invader Zim”: Technically an early 2000s show, but there’s bleed-over in any decade. Hot Topic made a lot of money off of this alien toon.“Samurai Jack”: See above in regard to timeframe, but this show (which is about to get a revival) is legitimately breathtaking to watch and dark as all get-out.“Spider-Man”: Oozing the now-quaint computer effects of the time, this serialized Spidey adaptation best captures the soap-operatic angst of the Stan Lee-Steve Ditko-John Romita run on the comics, for my money, featured plenty of comic book cameos and never talked down to kids. Though instead of having Gwen Stacy get thrown off a bridge like in the comics, Mary Jane Watson gets shunted into dimensional limbo, which actually seemed more terrifying, since they would cut to her hurtling through a wormhole and screaming every few episodes toward the end of the series.“Spider-Man Unlimited”: Picks up where the previous show left off. Has something to do with Spidey, Venom and Carnage being stuck on a different planet with animal people. Makes you miss Kingpin. Cool new costume made of nanites, though.“X-Men: The Animated Series”: I wasn’t allowed to watch this because it mentioned evolution, but man … that theme song rips. Also, this version of Storm is a direct inspiration to an entire generation of gay men. She’s basically an Angela Bassett that shouts at clouds and flings lightning.“Dexter’s Laboratory”: Of all the Cartoon Network original series, this was my favorite. The formula always worked: Boy has secret lab underneath house and talks like a Bavarian dictator, sister comes in every episode and pirouettes her way into creating utter chaos.“Powerpuff Girls”: Rightfully beloved as a smart, stylish superhero joyride.“Dragon Ball”: Originally aired in Japan in the 1980s, but most kids in the U.S. got it the next decade. Really, you would want to focus on “Dragon Ball Z” for ’90s authenticity, but alas, that installment in the franchise is not streaming.“Sailor Moon”: Along with the “Dragon Ball” franchise, this is probably the first thing you think of when you think “’90s anime.” Strong female friendships and magic battles: What else do you need?“Garfield and Friends”: Hands down, the best conga theme songs in all of TV history. The comic strip is a sad, unfunny joke these days, but this cartoon was peak fat cat.“Inspector Gadget”: Technically it aired in the ’80s, like “Dragon Ball,” but I won’t tell if you won’t.“Digimon”: Widely seen as a Pokemon ripoff (there is furious online debate on this issue), it gleefully wallowed in some Y2K technobabble about the “digital world.” Unlike Pokemon, it is dark and the monsters are absolutely scary.“Extreme Ghostbusters”: Slimer … but extreme.“The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog”: It’s an adaptation of a Sega videogame, and it’s not going to give you pathos, but Jaleel White (aka Steve Urkel from “Family Matters”) voiced the titular blue speed demon, so it’s got that going for it.“The Baby-Sitters Club”: I did not watch this live-action show and know nothing about it. I just wanted to let you know it’s there.
NETFLIX“Animaniacs”: Come for the aforementioned hidden ribaldry (including a truly classic gag involving Prince), stay to realize that the antics of the Warner siblings 100 percent hold up in 2017. Nothing comes closer to Bugs and Daffy.“The Magic School Bus”: There’s a Kate McKinnon reboot in the works, but Miss Frizzle’s child endangerment is still good for a science lesson or two.“Pokemon Indigo League”: Also known as the original Pokemon series. The interpersonal dynamics between Ash and Charizard were surprisingly complex.“Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers”: And “Power Rangers Zeo,” and “Power Rangers Turbo,” and “Power Rangers In Space” ...“Big Bad Beetleborgs”: Sort of like Power Rangers, but the kids are younger, the super suits are insect-themed, everything takes place in a haunted house for some reason and there’s a ghost that looks like Jay Leno and Elvis Presley fell into a particle collider. Absolutely insane. I loved it.“Bill Nye, the Science Guy”: Sure, Nye is having a renaissance, but he seems genuinely over it these days, don’t you think? Things were simpler in the ’90s.“Goosebumps”: “Tales from the Crypt” minus the sex and violence. I was not allowed to watch it, so you tell me.
AMAZON PRIME“Batman: The Animated Series”: For the most part, the nostalgia programming on Amazon Prime is dire. When you scroll through the cartoons, you might assume that some of them are fake shows someone put on the list to pad it out. The streaming service has a couple stars in its sky, though. “Batman: The Animated Series” is a seminal work of art — this is not exaggeration — with pioneering animation, complex plots that transcended the genre at the time (Mr. Freeze, man) and some voice-work that changed the game. All who attempt to voice Batman and the Joker instantly pale to the talents of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, so much so that those two actors pretty much still have a monopoly on the gigs when they want them on new animated Batman installments. And if you like Harley Quinn, well, this is where she got her start.“Superman: The Animated Series”: The other crown jewel in Amazon Prime’s possession. It’s does not loom as large in the cartoon canon, but it’s underrated, in my opinion. This toon’s world-building of Krypton, Smallville and the retro-futuristic Metropolis is rich. Voice actors Clancy Brown and Dana Delaney lay down definitive takes on Lex Luthor and Lois Lane, respectively. “The Adventures of Tintin”: Like I said. Deep cuts, man. Deeeeep cuts.“Bobby’s World”: I mean, I watched it, but what animation exec in 1990 was like, “You know what kids love? Howie Mandel!”“Toxic Crusaders”: Probably the same exec: “You know what kids love? Shock exploitation studio Troma’s film ‘The Toxic Avenger’! Let’s put the main character in a cartoon and have him fight environmental threats.” Fun fact: This show predated “Captain Planet and the Planeteers.”
OTHER STREAMS WORTH STREAMIN’On MTV.com, you can catch Gen X faves like “Beavis & Butt-head,” “Daria” and “Aeon Flux.” There’s also early-2000s cartoon “Clone High,” which I think you can safely grandfather into the whole “’90s kid” vibe.On AdultSwim.com, “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” is available to beam straight to your eyeballs, which is a late-night game-changer, in my opinion. What other recreational activities you choose to pursue while watching is up to you.
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