As an ’80s baby who was truly raised by the ’90s, I will forever be grateful for the robust number of stellar and diverse Black voices and artists that shone bright during what I feel was a golden age of television. While comedy may have felt like King, we never had a shortage of dramatic moments on these sitcoms or big sweeping television dramas that centered our stories and created new narratives about our communities. So, here is my love letter to 10 must-see shows that shaped my life of television and truly inspired my career.


Brandy Norwood, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Lamont Bentley, Yvette Wilson, Marcus T. Paulk (front), Countess Vaughn, and William Allen Young in Moesha

(Photo by ©Paramount Television/courtesy Everett Collection)

Premiering in 1996 with a six-season run and starring the multi-hyphenate Brandy Norwood — stream her album “Never Say Never” and thank me later — as the titular character, Moesha was a quintessential ’90s coming-of-age sitcom following her and her best friends Hakeem (Lamont Bentley), Niecy (Shar Jackson), and Kim (Countess Vaughn). While rooted in comedy, Moesha was steeped in real subject matter touching on teen pregnancy, long-lost siblings, and even tough familial relationships.

After the loss of her mother, Moesha essentially became the woman of the house, helping to manage things for her father Frank (William Allen Young) and brother Myles (Marcus T. Paulk). So her ever-growing and ever-challenging relationship with her stepmom, Dee (Sheryl Lee Ralph, currently starring in Abbott Elementary), plays a central role in the show; having another mother figure and woman in the house wasn’t always an easy adjustment. Still, the two eventually found common ground and an expansive relationship rooted in love and respect that worked for them. Not only is Moesha a character who everyone can relate to some way, but the show encompasses what it means to navigate life’s challenges and the idea that it is ok to make mistakes, take lessons in accountability, and be prepared for whatever may come next. The magic is in the realistic life lessons that each story holds.

“The writers manage to approximate the way that people actually speak. Moesha is not marred by the embarrassing racial assumptions, cliches and gestures that make other sitcoms parodies of themselves.” — Esther Iverem, Washington Post, Feb. 5, 1996


Queen Latifah, John Henton, Kim Coles; bottom from left: Mel Jackson, Kim Fields, and Erika Alexander in Living Single

(Photo by Gwendolen Cates/©Warner Bros. Television)

Premiering in 1993 with a five-season stint, Living Single was stacked with a legendary cast who could do comedy with their eyes closed. Following the complex dating lives of six singles in New York City, the sitcom was one of the first times I saw wildly talented and brilliant Black 20-something career professionals thrive. As a child who had always dreamt of making it in the Big Apple, when I finally moved there, I realized that my experience wasn’t too far from the adventures these friends embarked upon. Their authentic on-screen experiences gave rise to a richness, fullness, and boldness that allowed me to see the actualization of this life I dreamed of and gave me the confidence to flourish as my true self, just like I had seen.

Kim Fields‘ Regine boasted an insanely diverse and unique fashion, a multitude of hairstyles that only Black women can understand, and a determination to get the quality of man she deserved in life, while Queen Latifahh’s Khadijah experienced ups and downs as an entrepreneur. Kim Coles’ Synclaire was optimistic and intensely sincere as she followed her passion in a city that people oftentimes find so difficult to survive that it can harden them, and Erika Alexander’s Maxine demonstrated brilliance and an unwillingness to be anything other than herself, allowing her walls to come down with Kyle (T.C. Carson) as she learned being vulnerable could be another bold expression of who she is. And then there was John Henton’s Overton, who could fix anything and everything, but seeing him love Synclaire — this sensitive, bright light — out loud in a way that was steadfast was a sight to behold. Living Single contained so many beautiful multitudes that were a breath of fresh air and allowed space for Black women and men to see ourselves reflected in a variety of ways.

“These are four very talented actresses. Coles is one of the best physical comedians on television. But it’s Latifah who gets most of the best lines and commands viewer attention with her presence.” — David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun, Aug. 22, 1993


Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell in Kenan & Kel

(Photo by ©Nickelodeon)

Premiering in 1996 and running for four seasons, this sitcom starring Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell crowned the duo as the undisputed Nickelodeon Kings of Comedy, quickly solidifying their space as comedy giants for decades. A spin-off on the heels of their remarkably talented run on All ThatKenan & Kel centered on two teenagers in Chicago and their high school adventures and schemes. The series continued to push comedic boundaries with innovative storylines, perfect timing, and a rare blend of brotherhood and physical comedy that showed how, even as young adults, Thompson and Mitchell were experts at playing off of each other and integral in expanding the network’s comedy brand. Kenan & Kel kept me laughing, but it wasn’t until I got into the business that I realized how truly revolutionary it was to have these two young Black men at the epicenter of comedy on a major network and how seeing them be naturally funny and innovative impacted television for years to come.

“The good news is that the zingers come a mile a minute, and if mindless comedy is what you’re after, there’s plenty of the fluffy stuff to be found here.” — Emily Ashby, Common Sense Media


Jonathan LaPaglia, Patti D'Arbanville, Malik Yoba, Michael DeLorenzo, and Lauren Velez in New York Undercover

(Photo by ©Universal)

What can I say about one of the most iconic procedurals ever to grace our television screens? If you missed the four-season run that started in 1994, you missed gut-wrenching, action-packed, and suspenseful storylines. You missed a show that seamlessly integrated topics impacting the world during its time. You missed a showcase of great music and fire performances from some of the best musicians around. Indeed, watching the duality of both New York Undercover and Living Single made me fall in love even more with New York City, a character in its own right in both shows, for its grit, heart, and expansiveness.

While the show was centered on Detective J.C. Williams (Malik Yoba), his partner Detective Eddie Torres (Michael DeLorenzo), and everything they faced on the force, the true heartbeat of the show was the relationships. J.C. and his former partner Chantel (Fatima Faloye) showed the joys and challenges of co-parenting their son, G (George Gore II); we knew no matter what obstacles arose, they loved G with everything they had and wanted to make sure he felt that love equally from both parents. J.C. and G’s open, honest, and growing relationship was something to behold, a necessary display of Black fatherhood, with J.C. adjusting his parenting style with G based on how he himself was raised. Growing up, New York Undercover felt like a once-in-a-lifetime drama for me, with its innate way of evoking every emotion in almost every episode.

“The strength of this show is in the characters of Williams and Torres. Mr. Yoba and Mr. DeLorenzo have wasted no time getting perfectly on target.” — John J. O’Connor, New York Times, Sept. 21, 1994


Dawnn Lewis, Glynn Turman, Cory Tyler, Kadeem Hardison, Lou Myers, Darryl M. Bell, Cree Summer, Jasmine Guy, Charnele Brown, Jada Pinkett Smith in A Different World

(Photo by Gary Null/©NBC)

Though it debuted in 1987, A Different World ran for six seasons and was a staple of ’90s television, and it remains a classic for every new generation that discovers it. Putting Historically Black Colleges and Universities on the map through the fictional Hillman College, A Different World truly broke the mold on television by depicting one facet of Black students’ collegiate experiences. With storylines that touched on the ever-changing relationships between kids and parents, especially when the kids are coming into adulthood; navigating differing opinions as roommates; and relatable broke college student life, A Different World subverted the idea that Black colleges weren’t top-tier educational experiences while also celebrating how Blackness is never a monolith. And who can forget the relationship drama-turned-love stories for the ages? A Different World made it cool for all Black kids watching to be exactly who they wanted to be, exploring all the things that interested them and made them unique while leaning into figuring out their passions and life partners. For this and more, A Different World will forever be iconic.

“What makes the show work is Lisa Bonet… I would stack her up against all the others of her ilk — the teenage actors in sitcoms — and she’s probably rank right behind Michael J. Fox already.” — Marvin Kitman, Newsday, Oct. 8, 1987


Holly Robinson Peete, Sandra Quarterman, Marquise Wilson, Mark Curry, Omar Gooding, and Raven-Symone in Hangin' with Mr. Cooper

(Photo by Bob D’Amico/©ABC)

You know a show is good when En Vogue does the theme song. Premiering in 1992 and on air for five seasons, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper starred Mark Curry as a former NBA player-turned-high school teacher whose students and roommates never let a moment pass to humble him and remind him of his current life’s trajectory. While Mark was figuring out his post-NBA life, I waited seasons for him and Vanessa (Holly Robinson Peete) to finally stop playing games and put that electric chemistry to work.

Of course, I cannot forget the divine Dawnn Lewis, who not only served as the voice of reason on another show on this list (A Different World), but continued to be the voice of reason as Robin to both Mark and Vanessa in the beginning of the show. With new additions to the cast as seasons progressed, what remained the throughline was the heart the show brought to every episode, the jokes, and the love Mark had for his students. The series depicted not only what it was like for us to reinvent ourselves personally and professionally when life shook things up, but it also showed the impact and importance of Black teachers on their students’ lives and how integral Black educators are to kids not only surviving but thriving.

“With its dog-eared premise and small ensemble cast, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper depends mostly on Curry for its appeal, and the former drugstore manager delivers.” — Greg Dawson, Orlando Sentinel, Sept. 22, 1992


Tia Mowry, Tim Reid, Jackee Harry, and Tamera Mowry in Sister, Sister

(Photo by ©ABC)

Debuting in 1994 and running for six seasons with a premise unlike anything I had ever seen before, Sister, Sister followed the lives of Tia Landry (Tia Mowry) and Tamera Campbell (Tamera Mowry-Housley), a pair of identical twins adopted by two separate families who run into each other at the mall, kick-starting a story of an unexpected blended family and giving the girls a chance to truly know and discover life with each other. Sister, Sister allowed each twin to flourish while establishing their new sisterly bond. It also allowed young Black girls to make mistakes over and over again, while still being supported, uplifted, encouraged, and held accountable by their family and friends. One of the other beautiful things about the series was the romantic relationship that blossomed between their parents Lisa (Jackée Harry) and Ray (Tim Reid), a true testament to never giving up on love and being open when friendship and co-parenting bloom into something else. Sister, Sister continues to be a beautiful display of how all relationships, including familial ones, still require work, how you should never lose your identity and sense of self, even with family, and how found family is just as much family as blood.

“Once you get beyond the whimsical sitcom setup, you can see that top-notch producer Suzanne de Passe has gathered the ingredients for a pleasantly engaging half hour of Friday night family entertainment.” — Mike Duffy, Detroit Free Press, April 1, 1994


Thomas Mikal Ford, Tisha Campbell, Martin Lawrence, Carl Anthony Payne, and Tichina Arnold in Martin

(Photo by ©Fox Broadcasting Company)

When you think of Black comedians who revolutionized ’90s television, Martin Lawrence has to be on the list. Launched in 1992 for a five-season stint, Martin was simply a funny show. And I mean that as the highest compliment, because it had a way of tapping into a number of memorable characters and pushing the boundaries of what comedy could do at that time, It also portrayied regular Black friends just doing regular Black things, like the way Martin and Pam (Tichina Arnold) went back and forth, showing how we roast each other out of love. Watching Martin meant everyone, including the audience, was collectively always frustrated with Cole (Carl Anthony Payne II), knew that Tommy (Thomas Mikal Ford) never had and never would get a job, and came to expect Martin’s love and oftentimes over-the-top affections and antics for his wife, Gina (Tisha Campbell). The inside jokes from the Martin fan club were endless, and that’s what keeps it one of my forever comfort shows.

“Any given week’s plot is nothing special; Lawrence, however, is. He doesn’t just give trite jokes a spin, he turns ordinary words into laugh getters.” — Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly, March 26, 1993


Kelly Coffield, Tommy Davidson, Kim Wayans, David Alan Grier, Damon Wayans, Kim Coles, Jim Carrey, and Keenen Ivory Wayans in In Living Color

(Photo by ©20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

My introduction to sketch comedy was through the seminal show In Living Color. So first, I need to give the Wayans family, especially the creator, writer, and star Keenen Ivory Wayans, everything and more. This revolutionary comedy show showcased the brilliant talents of today’s biggest, brightest, and best talent, such as Jamie Foxx, Tommy Davidson, David Alan Grier, and so many others. In Living Color, a five-season show that began its run in 1990, gave new meaning to the word variety. I had never seen so many talented hilarious Black comedians on one stage, and it was truly a show that represented the power and magic of what happens when Black creatives create forge opportunities for themselves and their peers.

“Outrageous and exhilarating, Fox’s new In Living Color brings back wonderful memories of Saturday Night Live’s wild early days. This clever unfettered show keeps you guessing: Where will it go next?” — Hal Boedeker, Miami Herald, April 21, 1990


Tatyana Ali, James Avery, Will Smith, Karyn Parsons, Joseph Marcell, Janet Hubert, and Alfonso Ribeiro in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

(Photo by ©NBC)

Talk about a family dream! Will (Will Smith) gets plucked out of West Philadelphia and sent to Bel-Air against his will, only to receive the opportunity to reap certain benefits that wealth provides, all while remaining his authentic West Philly self. While his mother sacrificed her time with her only child in order for him to have a better quality of life, as well as access to additional choices and opportunities he may not have had in West Philly, we saw that assimilating into the Bel-Air circle wasn’t always easy for Will. Will’s story was relatable in so many ways, and while he didn’t always necessarily appreciate his mother’s decision, he was able to find himself and his tribe and get the future his mother always hoped for. Of course, that meant dealing with the various challenges that came with being one of few Black kids in his new environment. While just a small part of the picture, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air demonstrated the dynamic nature of a single Black mom and the lengths to which she would go for her kids.

“Mark my words. Will Smith is going to be a major television star. By the end of the season, he will have fan clubs across the country, and his show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, will be a hit.” — Diane Holloway, Austin American-Statesman, Sept. 10, 1990

These are just 10 of my favorite Black television shows, and I could share tons more. It is truly a great feeling to see yourself reflected in art, and these shows did that and so much more. As new shows emerge, I hope that we continue to create shows for, by, and featuring those who have lived those experiences.

Review curation by Tim Ryan and Rob Fowler.
Thumbnail image by ©NBC

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