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The Saddest Moments In Popular '90s TV Shows

The 1990s brought us some incredible television content, much of which is still watched and enjoyed today. The lingering popularity of some of these shows has even been strong enough to generate spinoffs or reboots. To name just a couple, Netflix released Fuller House in 2016, a sequel to the original Full House series that ran from 1987-1995, and Twin Peaks returned for its third season a whopping 26 years after the finale of season two. Meanwhile, without a spinoff or reboot of its own, Friends still remains as popular as it was when it aired from 1994-2004, if not more so; after moving to HBO Max in 2020, it became the number one show on the streaming platform.

Considering viewers' strong grasps on these shows, it is safe to say that audiences have developed and maintained emotional bonds to them and their characters. These bonds make the emotional moments of television even more powerful and poignant. While dramas such as Beverly Hills 90210 or X-Files are bound to have their sad moments, even the funniest of '90s sitcoms had their more somber scenes. Here's a look back at the saddest moments from popular '90s TV shows.

Ross and Rachel break up: Friends

One of the most famous will-they-won't-they storylines on modern television, Ross and Rachel's off-and-on relationship captivated audiences throughout Friends' lengthy run. After officially getting together in season two's "The One with the Prom Video," Ross and Rachel dated seriously for a year until Ross' jealousy over Rachel's new job and her coworker Mark led to their infamous "break." When Ross, under the impression that their break meant broken up, slept with another woman, Rachel was heartbroken. In "The One with the Morning After," Ross and Rachel ultimately ended things when Rachel was unable to forgive Ross.

Despite the pair eventually ending up together, many Friends fans have come to the conclusion over the years that they were actually a terrible match. Yet whether you were rooting for them or not, the breakup episode is a sad one to watch for several reasons, chief among them how heartbreaking it is for each character to experience.

Rachel tearfully tells Ross she believed he would never hurt her and Ross must deal with the fact that he permanently altered any relationship they could have, romantic or otherwise. This isn't only heartbreaking for the couple, but for the other friends, all of whom are eavesdropping on the conversation from another room. After watching two of their best friends find happiness together, they now have to watch it fall apart. For viewers rooting for the couple, it's arguably the saddest moment over the course of their relationship. And as for viewers opposed to the coupling, it may be sad for a different reason: knowing that this moment is not actually the end for Ross and Rachel.

Lindsay sees Kim's tough home life: Freaks and Geeks

It only aired for a single season in 1999, but Freaks and Geeks has garnered an impressive amount of appreciation over the years from fans who've belatedly mourned its cancellation. The show's humor remains sharply funny — a major reason why the show's more popular now than it was when it was actually on the air. That being said, some of the most memorable moments came during more emotional scenes.

A standout example is the dinner scene in the fourth episode, "Kim Kelly is My Friend." After butting heads initially, Kelly decides to try to get along with Lindsay and invites her to dinner with her family. Lindsay, upset with how Kim has been mistreating her, is reluctant but ultimately agrees. During the dinner scene, it is clear where Kim gets her mean tendencies, as her parents continually put her down. At one point, her mother disregards her when Kim insists a teacher was behaving inappropriately toward her. The conversation escalates to yelling between the mother and daughter, including Kim's mother telling her that all she does is "tramp around." When her mother threatens to take her car away, Kim and Lindsay rush off in it, leaving her mother shouting at her to never come back.

It's a necessary scene in the series, giving some much-needed development to Kim's character and putting her previous actions into perspective. Still, despite the clarity it gives to Kim, it's hard to watch a mother repeatedly dismiss her own daughter.

Will's father leaves again: Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Even if you haven't seen the show, you likely know the premise of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air from the wildly popular theme song, in which Will Smith narrates how he ends up living with his aunt and uncle in the titular affluent neighborhood. The song does not, however, tell you that the character of Will was abandoned by his father as a child, leaving his mother to raise him alone.

Will's father, Lou, returns unexpectedly in the season four episode "Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse." He begins spending time with Will, asking for forgiveness for leaving, and invites him on a summer road trip. Will is clearly happy to have his father back in his life and is convinced he has changed, while his Uncle Phil is extremely skeptical of Lou's sudden reappearance. When he expresses his concern to Will about Lou's intentions, Phil and Will argue.

At the end of the episode, Lou leaves again, trying to make it out before Will sees him — but Will arrives just in time, suitcases in hand, to see his dad take off yet again. After Lou leaves, Will tries to brush it off, saying he's made it this far without his father and he can continue on just fine the same way. But Will eventually breaks down to Phil, lamenting with the heartbreaking final line of the episode, "How come don't he want me, man?"

Class dismissed: Boy Meets World

Debuting in 1993, Boy Meets World ran for seven seasons, allowing viewers to watch Cory and his friends go from young middle schoolers to full-fledged young adults. In the series finale, the series' beloved couple Cory and Topanga depart their hometown of Philadelphia for New York City, where Topanga has landed a law internship. While Cory is initially freaked out by the move, he eventually comes around to it, especially after his best friend Shawn and Cory's brother Eric decide to move to New York too.

Instead, it is the goodbye the group must have with their long-term teacher and Cory's neighbor, Mr. Feeny, that makes for one of the most memorable and saddest television moments of the decade. Mr. Feeny remained their teacher through their entire adolescence, moving with them between grades. And as a neighbor to Cory's family, he naturally developed a close bond with Cory and his friends, often offering advice and guidance. Despite insisting that he thought of them strictly as students, it was clear Mr. Feeny cared about each of them.

In the final scene of the series, each of the characters thanks Mr. Feeny personally: Topanga says he was like a father to her, Eric tells him he taught him how to be a good person, Shawn thanks him for never giving up on him, and Cory says he'll always be with them. After his former students leave, Mr. Feeny tells the empty classroom, "I love you all, class dismissed."

The death of Laura Palmer: Twin Peaks

The mystery drama Twin Peaks, which premiered in 1990, wasn't exactly an uplifting series. Following an FBI investigation into the murder of a local high school prom queen, Laura Palmer, the show is inevitably full of somber moments. One of the most memorable comes just 12 minutes into the first episode, when Laura's parents find out she has died.

Laura's mother, Sarah, calls her husband Leland to tell him that she doesn't know where Laura is. As Leland tries to calm her down, he spots Sheriff Truman, who is there to tell him the devastating news. Before Truman can say anything, Leland begins to put it together, as does Sarah through the phone. When Leland asks if it's about Laura, Truman responds, "I'm afraid it is." Leland drops the phone and Sarah's muffled, yet painful, screams can still be heard. Leland, whose crying is quieter but just as poignant, utters, "My daughter is dead." Back on Sarah's end, she is seen still screaming and crying.

While Twin Peaks has plenty of crazy and intense moments, this one, rooted in pure human grief, is easily one of the saddest. Additionally, the detail of Leland and Sarah figuring out their daughter is dead — versus missing or injured — before they are directly told subtly sets the tone for the dreamlike and bizarre tone of the show.

Jesse says goodbye to Michelle: Full House

It's known as a feel-good family comedy, but the foundational premise of Full House is quite melancholy: after his wife's death, Danny Tanner asks his brother-in-law and a close friend to move in to help him raise his three daughters. Still, over its eight-season run, the show delivered many entertaining and hilarious moments, and has remained a generational touchstone for many.

Because the girls are growing up without a mother, the bonds they make with their Uncle Jesse and Joey are some of the strongest and most affecting of the series. So when Jesse, after getting married, is getting ready to move out of the house, the girls are, of course, feeling emotional about it. Michelle, as the youngest, is having the hardest time accepting Jesse's move, and the scene in which Jesse must say goodbye to her is one of the saddest of the show.

Firstly, the moment in which Michelle, under the impression that they are all moving to Jesse's new home, packs up all of her things is already solemn enough. But then, after their exchanging of goodbye gifts — Michelle gives Jesse her stuffed pig, Jesse gives Michelle his framed pink bunny from the wall of his old room — and exchanging of actual goodbyes, Michelle is left moping on her bed. Even though Jesse will still be around the house all the time, seeing Michelle's heartbreak makes the distance to the viewer seem as vast as it does to Michelle.

Toni's death: Beverly Hills, 90210

One of the most popular shows of the '90s, running for virtually the entire decade, was the ensemble teen drama Beverly Hills, 902010. It followed a group of friends living in the wealthy city of Beverly Hills, California from high school into early adulthood. In season one, twins Brandon and Brenda Walsh must adjust to the culture shock of moving from Minneapolis to Beverly Hills. Although it was frequently campy, the show dealt with plenty of weighty topics, from date rape to alcoholism and more, and took on an emotional and sensitive tone throughout its run, with plenty of sad moments along the way.

One of the saddest had to be the death of Toni, shortly after she and Dylan were married. Toni was tragically mistaken for Dylan after Toni's father hired an assassin to kill Dylan — in retaliation to Dylan planning revenge against Toni's father for his own father's death, before his relationship with Toni developed. Dylan, after receiving word that something wrong might be happening, found Toni dead in the car after being shot multiple times. His desperate, heartbroken screams while he held Toni's dead body were ear-splitting and agonizing.

Khadijah breaks down: Living Single

From 1993 to 1998, Living Single followed six friends living in Brooklyn thorough their personal and professional lives. Over its five seasons, it produced countless hysterical moments between the six friends and their antics. Some of the show's most unforgettable moments, however, were its more serious ones.

While it was an ensemble show, the character of Khadijah could more or less be considered the protagonist. Right away Khadijah, the editor of the fictional magazine Flavor, is depicted as ambitious and hard-working. In the third season, she takes a second job as a security guard at a retirement home to pay for improvements at the magazine when a rival publication threatens the well-being of the business. Adding on is the stress of her ex-fiancé seeing somebody new. Khadijah begins acting erratically and losing sleep. On the advice of her mother, she reluctantly sees a psychiatrist, where she finally faces her growing depression.

After Khadijah acts fidgety and restless during the session, Dr. Bryce informs her that she sees signs of anxiety and possible bipolar depression. Khadijah begins to cry as she responds, "I'm not depressed, I'm happy. I'm the happiest person I know." It's the first step Khadijah takes toward facing the pressure she puts on herself and its effects on her mental health. It's a hard first step to watch, especially as Khadijah continues to try to downplay what she's going through. And when Khadijah decides to continue therapy at the end of the episode, it's a sigh of relief for the audience as much as it is for Khadijah.

Melissa is shot: The X-Files

Following FBI special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, The X-Files spanned 202 episodes during its original nine-season run, starting in 1993. The show's central pair worked on unsolved cases involving paranormal activities; Mulder, a believer in the paranormal, was paired with Scully, a medical doctor, to offer possible rational explanations for his findings. Unsurprisingly, The X-Files had its fair share of deaths, but one of the saddest and most shocking was easily the murder of Scully's sister, Melissa.

While Scully and Melissa had their differences — Melissa was a firm believer in the paranormal, while her sister remained a skeptic — the two sisters deeply care about each other. So when Melissa died in the first episode of season three, it was piercingly sorrowful from the moment it happened, especially because Scully was indirectly a reason for her sister's death. When Melissa entered Scully's apartment while Scully was out, she was mistaken for her sister and killed by two assassins who were there for Scully. It's even more heartbreaking watching this episode now, knowing that, while Scully would eventually find justice in catching the man who did it, she would never quite find peace.

Carl confronts his fellow police officers: Family Matters

From 1989 to 1997, Family Matters chronicled the lives of the Winslows, a Black family living in Chicago. At the start of the show, married couple Harriette and Carl invite Harriette's recently widowed sister Rachel and her child to come stay with them and their three children. Much like the other family sitcoms of its time, Family Matters offered warmth and emotion within the comedic premise of every episode. Some of these emotional elements came in the form of quite serious — and saddening — topics, such as in the season five episode "Good Cop, Bad Cop."

In this episode, the Winslows' oldest child, Eddie, gets pulled over for a failed turn signal. The interaction with the cops gets ugly when the cops cuff Eddie lying down — something that he later tells Carl only happened because he was "a Black person in a white person's neighborhood." Later, Carl confronts the cops who pulled Eddie over, making for a memorable and poignant scene, one that still rings true today — and rings loudly.

The older of the two cops claims Eddie fit the profile of a carjacking suspect, but Carl insists this isn't true. Carl continues to shoot down every excuse, asserting the altercation happened merely because Eddie is a Black man. When the older cop storms out, Carl asks the younger one why he likes being a cop, and he responds that he wants to make a difference when it comes to "good guys against the bad guys." To this, Carl responds, "Your partner is one of the bad guys."