Some of the best shows — and also some bad but very notable ones — debuted in 1989.
Last week, I realized for the first time that three of my all-time favorite shows debuted in 1989. And these aren’t just three of my all-time favorites — they’re three of the most legendary shows of all time.
I started researching other shows that debuted in 1989 and almost immediately realized that TV development peaked that year. Much like rock music in 1974 (according to Homer Simpson) or Major League Baseball the year we all buried our heads in the sand because man, Sosa and McGwire were both sockin’ some dingers.
Here are 11 TV shows that debuted in 1989, in order of how much of a contribution I feel they made to 1989’s place in TV history.
11 | Family Matters debuts (9/22/1989)
Importance: Say what you will about the quality of the show (try watching one now without cringing)… but it did create one absolutely iconic character. (No, not you, Eddie. Or you, (swallowing vomit) 3J.) And with Urkel, there were like four iconic catchphrases. Somewhere, deep in his underground lair, Tyler Perry is still wondering if Madea will ever reach the beloved status of Steve Urkel. (Spoiler: No.)
10 | Quantum Leap debuts (3/26/1989)
Importance: A really cool high concept show that would never have made a major network today. It probably would’ve been on SyFy, if it were made at all. And then no one ever would’ve seen it.
The show was also at its best in 1989 and the other early years before it spiraled out of control with the stunt leaping. (By the last season, Sam leaped into the following people’s bodies: Lee Harvey Oswald, Dr. Ruth, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe’s chauffeur, his great-grandfather, and finally in the series finale, himself as a baby.)
9 | Doogie Howser, M.D. debuts (9/19/1989)
Importance: Man, that Neil Patrick Harris was such a ladies’ man. (Note the use of the apostrophe after the recent debate sparked by The Ladies Man in 11 Grammatically Incorrect Movie Titles.)
8 | American Gladiators debuts (9/16/1989)
Importance: If they’d only been a little more organized and felt a little less overproduced, I think this could’ve become a real sport. I distinctly remember worrying deeply when American Gladiators debuted, for I was a diehard WWF fan and saw this as a direct threat to pro wrestling. I mean… Hulk and the Million Dollar Man and the Brooklyn Brawler were cool and all, but they never raced around in giant, colorful spheres or ran through an obstacle course while someone shot 100-mile-an-hour tennis balls at them out of a cannon.
7 | The Arsenio Hall Show debuts (1/3/1989)
Importance: Even though it didn’t last long, the fact that it made a pretty significant cultural footprint shows that it was on to something. I still think this show was somewhat ahead of its time. The late-night format wasn’t quite worn out enough yet for Arsenio to be a game-changer. Twenty-two years later and we’re still kinda waiting for that game-changer.
6 | COPS debuts (3/5/1989)
Importance: In the pre-Internet era it was sometimes hard for Americans to find doses of superiority. COPS introduced us to reality TV and made sure we never doubted our own intelligence again.
5 | Baywatch debuts (9/22/1989)
Importance: Until then, dictionaries actually had to define the word “gratuitous.”
4 | America’s Funniest Home Videos debuts (11/26/1989)
Importance: Not only was it singlehandedly responsible for the camcorder boom, but it made everyone fall in love with short, homemade, low-quality video clips featuring people, animals and kids doing stupid, reckless and painful things. Without America’s Funniest Home Videos there might not be a YouTube.
3 | Saved by the Bell debuts (8/20/1989)
Importance: Best teen show ever.
Also, made sure that none of us would ever try any of the following 11 things: Caffeine pills, throwing a birthday party in the principal’s office, untested acne cream, using a flash to blind our enemy when he’s the principal’s car, using Rosh Hashanah as an excuse to go to a baseball game, subliminal messages, rigging a raffle, cheating on someone at The Attic, rigging a radio contest to Hawaii, alienating a friend because he’s bad at radio on the eve of a major fundraiser where his talents could be useful, or uprooting a school from Indiana to California.
2 | Seinfeld debuts (7/5/1989)
Importance: Best traditional sitcom ever.
I say “traditional” because Seinfeld is cut from the classic four-camera/laugh track model, unlike Arrested Development which is the single-camera/no laugh track model. Watching Seinfeld today is really interesting — some of it is painfully ’90s, but 95 percent of the humor is still as spot-on now as it was then. The OJ trial jokes are a major component of that flatlining five percent.
1 | The Simpsons debuts (12/17/1989)
Importance: Best show ever.
Well… the best show behind Police Cops, The Gabbo Show, Me Wantee, Admiral Baby, Ethnic Mismatch Comedy #644, Kidz Newz, When Animals Attack Magicians, Knight Boat, McGarnigle, MTC: Monkey Trauma Center, and, of course, Don’t Go There.