What began as a minor character on MTV's Beavis and Butthead grew into five seasons of beloved stories, following the quintessential misanthropic 90s teen and her observations on small town life. Daria was everything generation X viewers could relate to: she was sharp, intelligent, sarcastic, and painfully aware of how out of place she was among her peers. While the characters on Daria were definitely exaggerations, they weren't too far off from people we all knew and could identify: the beautiful cheerleader and her vapid boyfriend, the academic woman of color who was an outsider in an entirely different way, the powerfully cool best friend and her hot, untouchable brother, and parents who tried their best, but ultimately just never understood their kids. Daria held depth, charm, and a tone that felt relatable instead of dire. It was easy to laugh with her over episodes of Sick Sad World, to blush with her when Trent touched her hand, to cringe with her with her teachers embarrassed her, and to cry with her when Tom came between her and Jane. Modern shows could learn so much from this handful of animated shows, especially how teenagers interact with each other.
2. Aeon Flux
Mysterious, avant-garde, stylish, and sleek, this animated heroine was the pinnacle of edgy. Aeon Flux premiered in 1991 on MTV's Liquid Television as a six-part serial of short films, followed in 1992 by five individual short episodes. In 1995, a season of ten episodes aired as a stand-alone series. Aeon Flux was created by Korean American animator Peter Chung, who was known for his dystopian sci-fi style. The angular, androgynous Aeon was a bondage-dressed spy engaged in ambiguous espionage between the waring countries of Monica and Bregna. Although continuity is basically absent of the series, some things are clear: Aeon's nemesis is also her occasional lover, political intrigue and anarchist leanings define society, and the visual narrative is unreliable at best. Chung's experimental style was a huge success, gaining a massive following for his esoteric show. Chung intended Aeon Flux to be a reaction to cliche Hollywood action films, existing as a way to inspire the audience wonder about the wider context of these action heroes, evoking thought about their true desires and motivations. Since nothing else has ever been quite as bold, artistic, and graceful as Aeon Flux, it's safe to say he succeeded.
3. The Maxx
Based on a long running comics series of the same name, The Maxx was a faithful adaptation of Sam Kieth's work, following a social worker named Julie and her possibly imaginary hero, Maxx. Maxx inhabits two worlds: the real world, where his true self is a homeless vagrant, and the surreal world of the Outback, where he exists as a ferocious warrior, sworn to protect Julie's ideation of herself as the Jungle Queen. The series is complex, trusting it's audience to understand the delicate, painful backstory of the Outback and why it swallows both Maxx and Julie. Both the comics and the animated series are powerful, exploring themes of survival, female empowerment, feminism, control, and, ultimately, acceptance. The abstract storytelling, blended with an all-too realistic foundation, creates a meaningful story, especially for anyone surviving in spite of the odds stacked against them. Never has MTV put out such a beautifully crafted series, sympathetic to the source material without sacrificing innovation.
4. The State
This short-lived sketch comedy was the birthplace of such talents as Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and Kevin Allison. Premiering in 1993 and running through 1995, the bizarre, self-referential series was widely considered to be the best of it's kind since Monty Python. The cast would go on to co-create hits like Wet, Hot American Summer, Reno 911, The Baxter, and Stella--but The State was where the talent really shined. It's impossible to describe the hilarity of the skits, suffice it to say teenagers hadn't ever seen anything as absurd, relevant, and addicting as the sketches the troupe produced. While other ensemble sketch comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live and Kids in the Hall have major success and fan followings, The State pushed boundaries in a unique way, tapping into the zeitgeist of surrealism found in up and coming shows such as Ren and Stimpy and The Adventures of Pete and Pete.
Before reality TV was carefully curated scandal, some shows were portraying authentic-feeling characters in real life situations. This scripted series featured college-aged kids exploring sexuality, diverse relationships, and sexual orientations. The vignette style series launched some major careers, including Christina Hendricks, Brandon Routh, Jennifer Tisdale, and Sarah Lancaster. But it wasn't just the budding all-star cast that made it great, it was the frank, honest approach to sexuality. It ran for six seasons with an ever-evolving cast engaging in refreshing discussions about body autonomy, self-discovery, and promiscuity. It never condescended it's audience, instead bringing them into the fold with a resonating intimacy no other show has ever quite emulated. While it was shocking and sexy, it didn't exploit the characters. Modern day vignette romances could learn a lot from re-watching Undressed, and we wish they would.