Dumbstruck: A Brief History of ’90s TV Rom-Coms
Why do fools fall in love? It’s more fun that way, especially when it comes to all of those characters who were struck dumb by matters of the heart in a wave of popular 1990s TV comedies.
Top of the will-they-or-won’t-they list, dominating the decade’s pop-culture watercooler chatter, were those friends with benefits from NBC’s top-rated sitcom Friends. New generations continue to fall for this funky and funny sextet of young New Yorkers.
It seemed everyone had a rooting interest in the relationship of Ross and Rachel, played with varying degrees of charm and exasperation by David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston. Their on-and-off courtship was delightful to behold, also maddening whenever one or the other insisted on a “break,” but we never doubted they were meant for each other.
More of a surprise, their BFFs Monica (Courteney Cox), Ross’ sister, and sardonic Chandler (Matthew Perry), each famously unlucky in love, found each other after four seasons of living across the hall. (It happened in London, when they were attending Ross’ misguided wedding to Emily.) Fans cheered, but a shocked Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) screamed, “My eyes! My eyes!” when she first spotted them in a clinch. She got over it.
Sometimes it was love at first sight, like with Dharma & Greg, the daffy romantic comedy that made a star of Jenna Elfman as Dharma, the raised-by-hippies free spirit who impulsively marries buttoned-down San Francisco lawyer Greg (Thomas Gibson). Worlds collide as opposites attract, and yet a good time was had by all.
One of the more unusual ’90s pairings, because by its nature it stayed platonic, was that of Will & Grace, the enduring hit (revived in 2017, 11 years after it went off the air) that was groundbreaking for its time in depicting a gay lead character, Will (Eric McCormack). His roommate and soulmate, Grace (Debra Messing), was a neurotic interior decorator who leaned on Will for emotional support. Each had turbulent dating lives — Grace was even married for a time (to Harry Connick Jr.) — but they always ended up back together, bonding over trashy TV and takeout food like any other unconventional New York couple.
Such as Jamie and Paul Buchman of Mad About You, which like Will & Grace enjoyed a recent revival in 2019. Played by four-time Emmy winner Helen Hunt and series co-creator Paul Reiser, their glory years of the 1990s were spent in a frenetic urban domestic bliss, adding a daughter, Mabel, in the sixth season. This show was mad about classic comedy, inviting legends like Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis and Ed Asner as guests. Carl Reiner even reprised his role from The Dick Van Dyke Show as Alan Brady, prompting Jamie to declare “Oh, Paul!” in homage.
Is it news to you that Paul once leased his old bachelor pad to a certain Cosmo Kramer of Seinfeld fame? There’s also a Seinfeld connection to another wackily married ’90s couple, Doug and Carrie Heffernan (Kevin James and Leah Remini) of the decidedly middle-class The King of Queens. Her dad, Arthur, who lived in their basement, bore a striking resemblance to George Costanza’s similarly cranky father Frank. He often got on deliveryman Doug’s case, and nerves, but King’s real fascination for viewers was what long-suffering Carrie ever saw in her man-child of a husband.
It takes all kinds. And with all due respect to Rachel and Monica, if there was a “That Girl” of 1990s TV rom-comedy, it was Ally McBeal, the pratfalling and hallucinating heroine (Calista Flockhart) who grooved to her own lovelorn but kooky tune — occasionally with a mocking Dancing Baby.
Sometimes, love means never having to say you’re normal.
This story originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Remind Magazine.