Like the rest of you, we've been binge-watching a lot of Friends on Netflix lately. (Poor Julie. She never had a chance against Rachel, did she?) And that takes us back to the mid-1990s: an era before DVRs and on-demand viewing, when we as a nation loved Friends, Seinfeld, and ER so much that we would sit through anything — literally, anything — that NBC chose to plop down between those shows.
NBC knew this, of course, and took full advantage, using those Thursday 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. timeslots to air some of the most forgettable sitcoms ever to draw 15 million viewers a week. The Single Guy? Caroline in the City? Suddenly Susan? You may not have liked them, but you damn sure watched them.
But maybe we're being unfair. Maybe some of these in-between shows really were hidden gems, deserving of a second look. (Probably not. But maybe!) So we've gone back and re-examined the 11 "other" sitcoms that aired Thursday nights on NBC from the fall of 1994, when Friends premiered, to the spring of 1998, when Seinfeld went off the air.
And then we ranked them — on a sliding scale, of course.
[Note: Mad About You aired at 8:00 p.m. before Friends during the 1994-95 season, but since it never aired between Friends/Seinfeld/ER, we're not counting it. And actually, if you've caught it recently in syndication on FXX, it's not bad! A little dated, of course, but pleasant enough. #TeamBuchman.]
11. Union Square (1997-98; 13 episodes)
With all due respect to the hardworking actors in this cast photo: Who the hell are these people?
Okay, we do recognize Harriet Harris, so great as Frasier's morally bankrupt agent Bebe (look, she's on some kind of cellular phone!), and Constance Marie, who'd go on to star on George Lopez. But overall, this is an uninspiring lot, and an uninspiring show: Marie starred as Gabriella, a lawyer who quits to write plays and looks for inspiration in a Union Square café. She clearly picked the wrong café.
This one was so bad, NBC didn't even bother trying to move it to a different night to milk a second season out of it. Despite averaging nearly 20 million viewers in its freshman season, Union Square closed its doors after just 13 episodes. And we never got to see that play Gabriella was writing.
(We would include a YouTube clip of Union Square here… but we couldn't find any! It's as if NBC has wiped every last trace of this show off the planet. Did it actually exist? We're questioning our own sanity at this point.)
10. Boston Common (1996-97; 32 episodes)
This college comedy snuck into the slot between Friends and Seinfeld in the spring of 1996 and reaped the benefits, ranking in the Nielsen Top 10 that season. But alas, it has not aged well. Actually, forget aging: It was never that good in the first place.
Stand-up comedian Anthony Clark starred as a good ol' Southern boy who dropped off his little sister at a Boston college, and ended up staying after falling for a cute coed (Traylor Howard). Creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan were a couple years away from Will & Grace, and Clark (Yes, Dear) and Howard (Two Guys and a Girl; Monk) would find greater success with other TV shows. But we won't sugarcoat it: This is fairly awful stuff.
You can watch the entire pilot here, though, if you'd like! Highlights include: the fiddle-heavy, Dave Matthews Band rip-off theme song; and Clark referring to an African-American woman as "Sister Souljah" in the first four minutes:
9. Madman of the People (1994-95; 16 episodes)
A sitcom starring Dabney Coleman as a cranky old newspaper columnist? The kids will love it!
The basic concept here: Coleman's character, Jack "Madman" Buckner, needed to move his old white guy shtick "into the '90s," so his newspaper hired… his daughter, Meg! (A woman in the newsroom? What will they think of next?)
The supporting cast included a young Craig Bierko and TV staple Concetta Tomei (China Beach, Providence), and airing at 9:30 between Seinfeld and ER put Madman in the Nielsen Top 20. But a stodgy Dabney Coleman didn't really fit in with the hip, young vibe of the rest of the night; NBC stopped the presses after one season.
Well, at least it went on to win four consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series! Oh wait, that was Mad Men. Never mind.
8. The Single Guy (1995-97; 44 episodes)
For us, The Single Guy stands as the perfect specimen of Must-See TV mediocrity: It starred an actor no one was particularly excited about (Jonathan Silverman, of Weekend at Bernie's "fame") in a concept no one was particularly excited about: He's single! And his friends are married! Are you laughing yet?
Mostly, it felt like a half-assed photocopy of better NBC sitcoms: e.g. Jonathan and his friends hung out at a coffee shop called… The Bagel Café. We did get Ming-Na Wen as the wife of Silverman's best friend before she traded up to ER, and Hollywood legend Ernest Borgnine as a kindly old doorman. (And yes, that's Mark Moses — aka the jerk on Mad Men, aka the jerk on Homeland — cuddling Jessica Hecht in the cast photo.)
But it was The Single Guy's Thursdays-at-8:30 timeslot that kept it in the Nielsen Top 10… that is, until NBC shifted it to Wednesdays midway through Season 2 and it met a swift end. But not before we got this awkward Friends crossover with David Schwimmer. (This scene would never air on network TV these days. And for good reason.)
7. Suddenly Susan (1996-2000; 93 episodes)
Sorry, we keep getting this one mixed up with Veronica's Closet. This is the one with Brooke Shields, not Kirstie Alley, about a San Francisco magazine, not a lingerie company. But it doesn't speak well for Suddenly Susan that we can't even remember the basic premise: Susan wrote a column about being single, we guess?
A supporting cast that includes Judd Nelson, Kathy Griffin, and Nestor Carbonell isn't half-bad. And Susan scored great ratings when it sat between Seinfeld and ER; it was TV's fourth highest-rated show (!) for the 1996-97 season. But it moved to Mondays in Season 2… and you know the rest.
Actually, despite middling ratings, Susan somehow managed to stick around for another three seasons. And we're sure we watched our fair share of episodes, but we have trouble recalling a single one. Maybe the most blandly generic entry of the Must-See TV era — and that's saying something.
6. Hope and Gloria (1995-96; 35 episodes)
There are some decent building blocks to this sitcom about two mismatched female neighbors: Cheers writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner are the creators, and the cast included TV vet Cynthia Stevenson, a pre-Just Shoot Me! Enrico Colantoni, and the late, great Taylor Negron. Plus, who doesn't love Alan Thicke playing a pompous TV host?
Still, the show never popped, really: After a brief stint on Thursday nights, it shifted to Sundays for the 1995-96 season, and ratings sank like a stone. Still, we can enjoy these opening credits, which play like a parody of '90s sitcoms:
5. The Naked Truth (1995-98; 55 episodes)
Remember when Téa Leoni was being trumpeted as "the next Lucille Ball"? We do… but just barely.
Here, she played an award-winning photographer who goes through a nasty divorce and is reduced to snapping paparazzi pics for a sleazy tabloid. Two and a Half Men's Holland Taylor played her boss, leading a rotating cast of supporting characters and an onslaught of quippy, media-savvy punchlines.
And we do mean "rotating": Truth (which actually aired on ABC for a season before moving to NBC) underwent a major reboot in each of its three seasons, with Leoni and Taylor as the cast's only mainstays. Yep, that's Chris Elliott and Community's Jim Rash — with hair! — in this Season 3 cast shot.
All the changes pretty much guaranteed The Naked Truth's fate: Despite a cushy few months in the post-Seinfeld slot, it never found a consistent audience, and Téa Leoni was freed up to become the next Julianna Margulies. (Madam Secretary, Sundays at 8 on CBS!)
4. Fired Up (1997-98; 28 episodes)
We recognize a lot of familiar faces in this lineup: There's NYPD Blue's Sharon Lawrence as a recently canned executive, sitcom queen Leah Remini as her former assistant who takes her in, and Royal Pains star Mark Feuerstein, and… OH MY GOD IS THAT JONATHAN BANKS?
Yes, kids, the bad-ass hitman from Breaking Bad was once a wacky character on an NBC sitcom. Banks played Guy, a restaurant owner who relentlessly pursued Lawrence's character; every time she tried to push him away, he just said, "Ohhh, yeah!" Like he was a lecherous Kool-Aid Man or something!
We gotta say, we had no intention of watching this show ever again — but it might be worth it just to see Mike Ehrmantraut slinging one-liners in front of a live studio audience. We're bumping this up a few spots on the list, just for him.
Oh, look! We found a full episode on YouTube, with plenty of Banks. Enjoy.
3. Caroline in the City (1995-99; 97 episodes)
Let's start with the good news: Four seasons is a solid run for any TV show, and Caroline only aired on Thursdays for one season before moving to the bitter wasteland of Tuesday nights. (Don't try to tell us Tuesday nights are also Must-See TV, NBC. They can't all be Must-See TV!)
Lea Thompson starred as a comic-strip cartoonist (remember those?) who's unlucky in love, along with Malcolm Gets as her dry-witted colorist Richard and Amy Pietz as her dancer best friend Annie. It was… fine, if not particularly memorable. And look, Chandler Bing was on once, hitting on Annie in a video store (remember those?):
Here's the main problem: The whole series, we were supposed to be rooting for Caroline and Richard to get together… but Richard was so clearly a gay man, it made no sense. They had zero romantic chemistry. Like, none. If this had come along a few years later and Richard was allowed to be Caroline's gay BFF, maybe we could've bought in. But this sham of a romance? No. Just... no.
Points deducted for this incredibly sad (and still active!) official "Web site" that clearly hasn't been updated since Y2K. It's not too late to join the Caroline Club, guys!
2. Veronica's Closet (1997-2000; 66 episodes)
Okay, this is the Kirstie Alley one. Friends creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman brought us this comedy starring the Cheers alum as the head of a successful lingerie company… who's also splitting up with her cheating husband. (Apparently, if you're a woman starring in a '90s NBC sitcom, you've either just lost your job or your husband.)
Veronica's Closet had one of the stronger casts on this list: Alley was always a sitcom pro. Kathy Najimy had nice chemistry with her as Veronica's number two, Olive. And the star power of Mr. Dan Cortese is indisputable. (Plus, her assistant Josh, played by Wallace Langham, was actually allowed to be gay! Well, not until the series finale… but still!)
Like The Naked Truth, Closet underwent a lot of retooling between seasons; Ron Silver was introduced as a villainous businessman in Season 2, then killed off in Season 3. A move to Mondays was the final nail in the coffin. But clips like this one, with Alley in her patented whiney-sobby mode as Veronica mourns the loss of her beloved dog, will live on forever on YouTube:
1. Just Shoot Me! (1997-2003; 149 episodes)
On longevity alone, this one has the competition beat: This sitcom about the inner working of fashion magazine Blush lasted a whopping seven seasons. It actually debuted on Tuesday nights in the spring of 1997 before enjoying a few months between Friends and Seinfeld in Season 2. But NBC moved this show all around the schedule for years and still couldn't kill it. Just Shoot Me! is a survivor, dammit!
And for a '90s network sitcom, you could do a lot worse. The cast was charming enough, highlighted by a smarmy David Spade and a hopelessly vain Wendie Malick (both Emmy nominated, thank you very much). Yes, we'd much rather have seen the brilliant NewsRadio get the call up to Thursday nights. But we're grading on a curve here, and against this sorry lot, the slightly above average Just Shoot Me! stands tall.
Bonus points for giving us David Cross as Elliott's brother Slow Donnie — the basis for probably the best single episode of any show on this list. "Donnie wants a kiss like on Showtime!"