The small crumb of good luck in the shit pile of bad luck that is the pandemic is that at least it had the decency to strike during the age of Peak TV. But we’ve all been stuck at home for a while, and there’s only so much Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and The Americans you can re-binge without burning out. That’s when you need to look back — back to the old, often bad, and utterly comforting television of your youth.
Whether you’re a child of the 1970s or grew up in the new millennium, here are a slew of the kids’ shows, cartoons and family-friendly TV of your youth to take you back to a simpler, safer time. All you need to do is grab a mediocre TV dinner, flop down on the couch and snuggle up under a cozy, warm blanket of nostalgia.
Note: If these aren’t enough, take a look at more cable TV package-esque streaming services like Fubo, Philo and Sling TV. And if you don’t have cable or satellite TV at all, you can usually watch the major network shows on their apps, too, while both Amazon Prime and Hulu can hook you up with HBO and Starz subscriptions
Little House on the Prairie (Amazon Prime). The legendarily wholesome Michael Landon stars as the patriarch of the Ingalls family, who run a small farm in Minnesota during the late 1800s in this legendarily wholesome TV series. It’s so classic that not only did it run for nine seasons, it’s trended twice on Twitter this month alone — first for having not one but two prescient episodes about pandemics and quarantines, and then when a 1977 clip surfaced profoundly calling out white privilege. It’s earned a rewatch.
What’s Happening!! (Crackle). Three African-American kids living in L.A. navigate high school, girls and more in this classic sitcom that kept the emphasis on the “com.” While it only ran for three seasons initially, it was popular enough to not only stay in syndication forever, but get a revival in the mid-1980s called What’s Happening Now!! thanks in no small part to its beloved breakout character, Fred “Rerun” Stubbs (played by Fred Berry). Sidney Poitier, Jimmy Carter and Maya Angelou were all fans — think you know better than them?
The Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman (NBC.com). Although Mark Wahlberg has been threatening to make a big-budget movie adaptation for years, this 1970s TV favorite remains pristine. After a nasty crash, astronaut Steve Austin (Lee Majors) is given bionic limbs and an eye and sent out as a reluctant secret agent for the U.S. government, as is Steve’s ex-girlfriend and tennis player Jaime Summers (Lindsay Wagner) after a parachuting accident. Both shows are still a lot of cheesy fun and, more than 40 years later, The Six Million Dollar Man remains the best series to ever feature a cyborg meeting Bigfoot.
The Electric Company (HBO Now). While it was always overshadowed by the Muppet monolith known as Sesame Street, this educational PBS series was also a mix of comedy skits and animated segments teaching literacy, vocabulary and grammar. It not only boasted the very first live-action incarnation of Spider-Man, it also featured Morgan Freeman’s first appearance on film. Much more unfortunately, Bill Cosby was part of the show’s first season, but if you can get past that, couldn’t we all stand to learn a little more grammar?
- All in the Family (Crackle)
- Battlestar Galactica (NBC.com)
- The Brady Bunch (CBS All Access, Hulu)
- Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (NBC.com)
- Charlie’s Angels (Crackle)
- Fantasy Island (Crackle)
- Good Times (Starz)
- Happy Days (CBS All Access)
- Incredible Hulk (Amazon Prime, NBC.com)
- The Jeffersons (Starz)
- Lancelot Link (Amazon Prime)
- M*A*S*H (Hulu)
- The Partridge Family (Amazon Prime, Crackle)
- Schoolhouse Rock (ABC.com)
- Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? (Boomerang)
- Sesame Street (HBO Now)
- Shazam (DC Universe)
- Super Friends (DC Universe)
- Wonder Woman (DC Universe)
The Wonder Years (Hulu). Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) is just a kid growing up in the late 1960s with a gruffly conservative dad, a slowly liberated mother, a shitty older brother, a nerdy best friend and, of course, his crush Winnie (Danica McKellar), who also became the fictional crush of countless real-life boys. The Wonder Years is equally as dramatic as it is funny, but what makes it so great is how authentic it feels. Not only does it nail that whirlwind experience of coming of age, but also the melancholic pleasure of looking back at the innocence of your youth. While this beloved, Emmy-winning sitcom always makes the “best TV shows of the 1980s” lists, when was the last time you rewatched it? It’s even better than you remember.
Murder, She Wrote (Amazon Prime). Although it was one of the most popular and longest-running shows of the 1980s (it didn’t stop until 1994), Murder, She Wrote has become something of a cult favorite. That’s partially because it’s deeply funny that anyone could accidentally find herself at the center of 264 individual murders, but it’s also probably the most family-friendly show about murder ever made. Angela Lansbury stars as author Jessica Fletcher who solves mysteries when she isn’t writing about them. Careful viewers can not only solve the case themselves, but watch out for a cavalcade of guest stars including pre-fame George Clooney, Bryan Cranston and Joaquin Phoenix.
Who’s the Boss? (Amazon Prime). A quintessential 1980s sitcom, Who’s the Boss? is pure televised comfort food. Tony Danza is a macho ex-baseball player who becomes the housekeeper for the single, career-focused Angela, played by Judith Light. There’s the will they/won’t they romance, kids that constantly need to have wisdom imparted to them and an older woman with a voracious sexual appetite, courtesy of Angela’s mother Mona, played by a ceaselessly scene-stealing Katherine Helmond. Is the show great? Not at all, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good time. Throw it on and just let the 1980s wash over you.
Robotech (Amazon Prime, Tubi, Vudu). While there are certainly some people who count Robotech as their favorite 1980s cartoon, it never reached the popularity of other series like Transformers, He-Man and G.I. Joe. That’s because it was one of the first serialized cartoons in America, and it also had a strong love story that was considered “grody” by many a young boy. But this is also what makes it so good, as the show follows fighter pilot Rick Hunter as he fends off invading aliens called the Zentraedi while floundering in a love triangle between his prim commanding officer Lisa Hayes and aspiring pop star Minmei. It’s a great sci-fi soap opera at any age.
- Alf (Amazon Prime, Tubi, Vudu)
- The A-Team (Amazon Prime)
- Danger Mouse (CBS All Access, Netflix)
- Diff’rent Strokes (Starz)
- A Different World (Amazon Prime)
- DuckTales (Disney+)
- Dukes of Hazzard (Amazon Prime)
- The Facts of Life (Crackle)
- Family Ties (CBS All Access)
- Full House 1987 (Hulu)
- G.I. Joe (Starz, Tubi)
- The Greatest American Hero (Amazon Prime, Pluto, Tubi, Vudu)
- He-Man & She-Ra (Starz)
- Knight Rider (NBC.com, Starz)
- Magnum, P.I. (Amazon Prime)
- MacGyver (CBS.com)
- Miami Vice (NBC.com, Starz)
- My Two Dads (Crackle)
- Roseanne (Amazon Prime, Crackle, Pluto, Vudu)
- Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (Netflix)
- Punky Brewster (NBC.com)
- The Smurfs (Boomerang)
- Star Trek: The Next Generation (Amazon Prime, CBS All Access, Hulu, Netflix)
- Transformers (Starz, Tubi)
- Voltron (Starz)
Doogie Howser, M.D. (Hulu). While Neil Patrick Harris rewrote his entertainment legacy as the womanizing ultra-bro Barney in How I Met Your Mother, he practically erased his previous best-known role as Doogie Howser. This is a damn shame, because Doogie Howser is an extremely fun 1990s series that deserves to be part of the pop-culture lexicon for all time. It was a show about a kid so damned smart he became a fully licensed doctor at 14 (please watch the opening credits above to see his other bananas achievements). That means the show paired medical drama with standard teen issues like wondering whether to have sex, a completely wild premise that deserves a reboot — thank goodness Disney just announced one last month.
Gargoyles (Disney+). The Disney Afternoon programming block was known for goofy adventure series like Chip n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers, Darkwing Duck and, well, Goof Troop. Gargoyles was an anomaly, a darker action series in the vein of competition cartoon Batman: The Animated Series. But instead of superheroes, Gargoyles turns its namesakes into noble warriors by night who transformed into the better-known stone building adornments during the day, and had also been zapped a millennium into the future to modern-day 1994. That’s a lot to deal with even before an evil billionaire decides to destroy them, and that’s before an amalgamation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream characters send them around the globe. The show’s been off the air for more than two decades and its fans are still hoping for a sequel.
Parker Lewis Can’t Lose (Crackle). Admittedly, this show could be easily summed up as “Ferris Bueller but 1990s as hell.” It seemed like a TV rip-off of the film when it debuted in 1990, as the titular star’s main qualities were an aversion to school attendance and a penchant for directly addressing the audience, while his main antagonists were his stuffy principal and a younger sister who loathed him. But Parker ended up being a lot more likable than noted asshole Ferris, as his schemes included starting a pirate radio station, helping his many friends get out of trouble and turning the school’s giant, monosyllabic bully Kubiak into a good guy. There’s a reason Parker Lewis Can’t Lose lasted three seasons while the official Ferris Bueller TV series only lasted 13 episodes (he really couldn’t lose).
Felicity (ABC.com). Tweens and teens alike fawned over this series, starring Keri Russell as Felicity, who decides to enroll in the University of New York to follow her high school crush Ben (Scott Speedman). This is a patently terrible idea, but she then meets her dorm’s hunky resident advisor Noel (Scott Foley). The two strike up a romantic relationship — and what do you know, Ben realizes he has feelings for the girl he had barely known. Felicity spends her four years at college (and four TV seasons) trying to figure out her feelings but, more importantly, trying to figure out who she is as a person as adulthood looms. Despite its charmingly down-to-earth, romantic drama, it was created by J.J. Abrams, long before he made Star-based War or Trek. It’s very strange how that worked out, but if you’re looking for college drama, look no further.
- Animaniacs (Hulu)
- Batman and the DC Animated Universe (DC Universe)
- Boy Meets World (Disney+)
- Beverly Hills 90210 (CBS All Access, Hulu)
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (Hulu)
- Darkwing Duck and Rescue Rangers (Disney+)
- Dawson’s Creek (Hulu)
- Doug (Disney+, Hulu)
- Dragon Ball Z (Funimation)
- Family Matters (Hulu)
- Friends (coming to HBO Max)
- Gundam Wing (Crunchyroll, Hulu)
- Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (DC Universe)
- Married… With Children (Hulu)
- My So-Called Life (ABC, Amazon Prime)
- Quantum Leap (NBC.com)
- Pokémon (Netflix)
- Power Rangers (Netflix)
- Rugrats (Hulu)
- Sabrina the Teenage Witch (CBS All Access)
- Saved by the Bell (Hulu, NBC.com)
- The Simpsons (Disney+, Hulu)
- South Park (Hulu, coming to HBO Max)
- Spider-Man (Disney+)
- TaleSpin (Disney+)
- Third Rock From the Sun (Amazon Prime, Crackle, Tubi, Vudu)
- Tiny Toon Adventures (Hulu)
- Xena, Princess Warrior (Syfy.com)
- The X-Files (Hulu)
Degrassi: The Next Generation (Amazon Prime, Tubi). Canada’s beloved Degrassi franchise began way back in 1979, but it hit the big time with Degrassi: The Next Generation in 2001, thanks in no small part to airing in America on Nickelodeon’s TeenNick channel. The series was an unflinchingly honest look at modern high school life, including stories about date rape, hard drug use, sex (including oral, which usually doesn’t exist in the world of teen shows) and much more. It was so popular that it ran for 15 seasons, won awards from around the world and was the most-watched Canadian drama series period, including the age brackets from 13 to an astonishing 54. With 387 episodes, that’s nearly six full days of entertainment, assuming you don’t sleep.
Smallville (Hulu). Because we live in a world where comic book characters have dominated entertainment for more than a decade, it can sometimes be tough to remember a few superheroes made it to the small screen before that. Case in point: Smallville, the long-running CW show about the early life of Clark Kent (Tom Welling), before he became Superman. It was appointment viewing for nerds who loved seeing the series cram practically every major Superman character into the hero’s life before he ever put on his red cape and blue tights; the show even began with Clark and his eventual archenemy Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) as best friends. The show feels a bit dated compared to the 900 or so superhero series currently on TV, but if this list proves anything, it’s that “dated” doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining.
Everybody Hates Chris (CBS All Access, CW Seed, Hulu). Take the format and nostalgia of The Wonder Years, move it to the 1980s and subtract the smug idolization of white suburban America, and you’d have Everybody Hates Chris, Chris Rock’s sitcom based on his own experiences growing up. The show managed to be laugh-out-loud funny while still tackling the very real, very unfunny realities of racism and classism, which earned it some very deserved critical acclaim. Played by Tyler James Williams, Chris uses his wits and wit to deal with a transfer to a mostly white school, his immensely popular brother Drew and scheming sister Tonya, and the fact that most people do seem to hate him for no reason whatsoever. If that sounds a bit bleak, rest assured it’s much funnier than that sounds and, much like his namesake, things end up working out for Chris. Also, Terry Crews stars as Chris’ dad, so there’s that.
Avatar: The Last Airbender (Netflix). If you haven’t heard of this deeply cherished Nickelodeon cartoon, you need to know three things: 1) It has nothing to do with James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi flick; 2) it also has very little to do with M. Night Shyamalan’s execrable live-action adaption The Last Airbender; 3) it is a wonderful, charming, addictive TV show even if you don’t give a damn about magic martial artists wandering through an East Asian-inspired fantasy world. That’s because the titular airbender Aang, waterbender Katara, her brother Sokka and tiny badass Toph are rich, fully realized characters thanks to the series’ pitch-perfect writing, which encompasses goofball comedy and heartbreaking drama, sometimes in the same episode.
- 7th Heaven (CBS All Access, Hulu)
- 8 Simple Rules (ABC.com)
- Battlestar Galactica (Syfy.com)
- Ben 10 (Hulu)
- Doctor Who (coming to HBO Max)
- Everwood (Amazon Prime)
- Firefly (Hulu)
- Friday Night Lights (Amazon Prime, Hulu, NBC.com, Starz)
- Gilmore Girls (Netflix)
- Hannah Montana (Disney+)
- How I Met Your Mother (Hulu)
- Invader Zim (Hulu)
- Kim Possible (Disney+)
- Lost (Hulu)
- Malcolm in the Middle (Hulu)
- The Office (Netflix)
- One Tree Hill (Hulu)
- The Suite Life of Zack & Cody (Disney+)
- Supernatural (Netflix)
- Teen Titans (DC Universe)
- That’s So Raven (Disney+)
- Veronica Mars (Hulu)
- The Wizards of Waverly Place (Disney+)
- X-Men: Evolution (Disney+)