15 ‘90s Cult Classics That Would Make Excellent TV Shows
Television shows based on cult films are all the rage right now. Animal Kingdom, a dark Australian film released in 2010, has transitioned successfully to a TV series (with a few bumps along the way). The Coen Brothers 1996 classic Fargo has been both a critical and commercial success as an hour-long drama, with its third season beginning April 19th. In addition, many other TV shows based on cult classics are in the works: The Lost Boys is going to be a TV show with Veronica Mars mastermind Rob Thomas at the helm, and so is Tremors, complete with original stars Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward.
Considering that a few of these TV shows based on cult films were released in the 1990s (Tremors and Fargo, while The Lost Boys was released in 1987), we got to thinking about how a ton of movies from that decade would also work—maybe even work better—in television format. Here are 15 ‘90s Cult Classics that Would Make Excellent TV Shows:
15. THE BIG LEBOWSKI
Ever wonder what life was like for The Dude, say, from ages 18-35? Since his recreational habits include driving around, bowling, and “the occasional acid flashback,” we think a TV series — most likely a prequel — that focused on the early adult adventures of The Dude, Donny, and Walter would be a welcome way to revisit this cherished-by-many late ‘90s classic. The Coen Brothers’ work has translated well from film to television with the aforementioned Fargo, and we think it would here, too — think Terriers meets Weeds, with a pinch of Workaholics.
An hour-long drama would allow for season-long arcs, like the crime caper/kidnapping plot in the film, while also having room for character-centric episodes (what was life like for Walter when he returned home after the war? Who was The Dude’s first love? And wouldn’t ANY flashbacks of Donny as an awkward teen be welcome?) Many may scoff at a TV reboot of Lebowski, but most fans of Breaking Bad had trepidations about a prequel, and then they watched Better Call Saul.
14. BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER (1999)
This campy summer classic — it’s set in a camp designated to straighten out gay teenagers — could have been ridiculous and terrifying. Instead, it’s a fun satirical romp that has maintained a loyal cult following. Orange is the New Black‘s Natasha Lyonne stars as Megan, a high school cheerleader with an almost unhealthy obsession with pink who, to the dismay of her uptight parents, finds herself attracted to other girls. They promptly send her off to True Directions, where heteronormativity is foisted upon everyone there. But when one of the camp instructors is RuPaul Charles out of drag, the satire and social commentary start seeping into every scene.
The film would translate well to television for several reasons, chief among them being its setting, themes, and the timeliness of its subject matter. A 30-minute format would probably work best, with each episode featuring its characters finding new and creative ways to resist or get out of True Directions. This format would also allow the further development of its side characters, who weren’t as present as they could have been in the film. Plus, couldn’t RuPaul take a few minutes away from Drag Race to guest star or even potentially headline?
13. OFFICE SPACE (1999)
We know what you’re thinking. “Didn’t they make this show already, and wasn’t it called The Office? Not quite. Fans of both this much-beloved Mike Judge creation and the US/UK TV shows know that while there are similarities (disgruntled employees, criticism of the drone-like environment of many office jobs, etc), there are more differences than commonalities. (Lumbergh is a wretched human being and would make for a great season-long human antagonist, while Michael Scott is a kind-hearted marshmallow; Office Space isn’t a mockumentary — it’s a black comedy with gags that would play just as well on television.)
A TV reboot of Office Space would have to land on the right network (HBO, Starz, maybe AMC at 10 PM) and have the right characters (Milton and Lumbergh are musts), but if those elements were in place, and if Mike Judge were involved somehow, we have no doubt its dark workplace humor would translate well to the small screen.
12. METROPOLITAN (1990)
Writer/director Whit Stillman received an Oscar nod for best original screenplay for this film, his debut cinematic effort. Starring a cast of relative unknowns and set in and around Manhattan, Metropolitan examines a group of preppy college students and their world of affluence, intelligence, and privilege – the film has literal debutant balls, and the term “urban haute bourgeoisie” is proudly used by one character to describe the group.
But the film cannot be reduced to a bunch of rich kids pontificating about their status and interests — although that element is certainly there. The film is a richly textured examination of the internal struggles and insecurities we all face, regardless of wealth or stature. It features smart, introspective, and complex characters, as well as a critical examination of love and yearning. For example, when hearing his friend call the group “urban haute bourgeoisie,” or U.H.B. for short, Nick, the group’s cynic, notes out loud that the acronym would be pronounced “uhb,” bringing to light the ridiculousness of the term, and revealing a depth of character and an inner struggle that would translate well to television.
11. LOVE JONES (1997)
A unique take on contemporary love stories, Love Jones stars Nia Long as Nina, an up-and-coming photographer, and ‘90s indie staple Larenz Tate as Darius, a poet/writer. The film is a critically acclaimed look at the complications of love, timing, and relationships, and it left audiences seriously yearning for more. A television show based on the film would be an excellent way for fans to get their much clamored for continuation and further exploration of Nina and Darius’ relationship.
That’s not to suggest that only fans of the film would flock to the TV show. Nearly everyone can relate to the film’s unflinching take on romantic notions versus actual reality, and a Love Jones TV show would fit perfectly in today’s TV landscape. While some of the film’s elements feel a bit dated (Darius’ obsession with spoken word poetry, or Nina getting jealous over messages left on his answering machine, for example), these things could easily be modified and updated to make the show more contemporary in feel.
10. REALITY BITES (1994)
Ben Stiller directed and starred in this angst-filled Gen X masterpiece. The film featured a stellar ensemble that included Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, and Steve Zahn, and we think it would work just as well as a contemporary TV show with a cast of struggling, educated Millenials trying to find their place(s) in an ever-evolving job market.
The movie was all about a moment in time — the year or so after college graduation, where adulting moves from abstract concept to, well, reality. A TV series could expand upon that moment, as well as further explore the struggles many young adults face while trying to find their respective places not only in the workforce, but in relation to others, and to the world. The film had a good balance of humor and brevity (Janeane Garofolo shines as the dry, sarcastic member of the group, and characters like both hers and Zahn’s would have to be present to maintain that humor), and like many entries on this list, would fit right in today, considering contemporary issues like unemployment and the costs of student loans.
9. THE LAST SUPPER (1996)
This 1996 black comedy starring Cameron Diaz and Courtney B. Vance as liberal grad students who host weekly feasts that end up turning deadly for invited guests whose politics they find uncouth would make a seriously fantastic TV show. The film is centered on and around five graduate students who live together in a huge house to share expenses while also venting about the injustices involved in conservative politics. When one roommate brings home a stranded hitchhiker who turns out to be a Nazi-sympathizing racist (played memorably in the film by the late, great Bill Paxton) who then threatens them, they end up stabbing him to death, which starts a deadly string of events in motion.
They agree to invite a new dinner guest over every week — someone the planet would be better off without — and if that person can’t be reasoned with, they give him or her a drink of poisoned wine. The Last Supper would make a perfect TV show because it has a built-in format for a different and unique guest actor every week, and it would allow the characters more time for their actions to sink in. Considering today’s tumultuous political climate, it could be a perfect conduit for cultural and political comedy and/or satire.
8. GAS, FOOD, LODGING (1992)
Starring Ione Skye and a teenaged Fairuza Balk as sisters stuck waxing wistful in a dusty small Southern town while living with their mother, a down-on-her-luck waitress, this film was as depressing as it was thoughtful. A TV interpretation of the film should still have both of those elements, because those things are prevalent in the lives of the film’s core characters, all of whom are decidedly female.
There aren’t many TV shows that feature three strong female leads, but in Gas, Food, Lodging, women are the primary characters in the script; the male characters in the story tend to be rough desert winds, blowing in and out of the lives of the females, while the females stay ruefully grounded. The film’s many drifters provide another guest star-friendly element, and the varying ages of the three female leads (one is a teenager, one is in her early ‘20s, and their mother is a very young 40-something) would provide a rare forum for female stories and voices we don’t typically see or hear on TV much these days.
7. PUMP UP THE VOLUME (1990)
Sure, deejays and radio in general are outmoded relics of yesteryear, but the characters, themes, and overall message present in Pump up the Volume would fit smoothly in contemporary times — and in television format. The film’s alliterative protagonist, Mark “Hard Harry” Hunter, (played by Christian Slater) is an introvert who vents his frustrations about injustices in society on his pirate radio station. Give “Hard Harry” a podcast, or a YouTube channel, and the makings for an updated take on this thoughtful film are in place.
The current television terrain is rough when it comes to intelligent yet realistic teen dramas — there just isn’t much genre work that encourages critical thinking out there. Making this movie into a TV show could change that. The film also features a smart and believable love story that would translate well to television, giving audiences a young couple they could both learn from and root for.
6. TO WONG FOO, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING, JULIE NEWMAR (1995)
Patrick Swayze, John Leguizamo, and Wesley Snipes starred as road-tripping drag queens in this mid-‘90s romp. The film explores gender and identity politics in fun and creative ways, and would fill a huge gap that only shows like Transparent currently occupy. The cast is racially diverse — another area in which modern TV is still lagging behind on in a major way — and seeing three diverse male leads explore gender roles and sexuality on a prime time drama would be a nice addition to current programming on any network or streaming service.
An hour-long drama format for the reboot would be ideal. The show could focus on the drag queens’ cross-country car trip, or it could focus instead on what happens when their car breaks down in a small country town. Watching the townspeople react to and learn from three people vastly different than anyone they currently know is a perfect fish-out-of-water tale, sure, but it’s also an opportunity to create mind/eye-opening moments about tolerance and acceptance.
5. EMPIRE RECORDS (1995)
On many levels, this is not a quality film. It has a plot that’s flimsier than most coffee filters and more than one underwritten character — and record stores aren’t exactly a thing anymore. But all of these issues could be easily remedied in a television show. A TV reboot of Empire Records could work as either a 30-minute sitcom, or an hour-long dramedy, and it could nail the nostalgic factor by being set in the past, with its characters refusing to cross the digital divide the ways shows like Empire (no relation) have.
The film also featured a soundtrack that was arguably better and more successful than the film itself, so music would have to be a crucial element of the show. At its core, though, Empire Records isn’t just about the ways we love or even need music. It’s a story about a disaffected group of young people who neither stand out nor fit in, so they seek solace in each other. If that’s not a concept worthy of further exploration, we don’t know what is.
4. DARKMAN (1990)
Marvel’s next foray into television should be a TV reboot of Darkman. While the film was an original screenplay written by Sam Raimi, it feels like a genuine comic book story (Marvel did create a few limited edition comics based on the film back in the early ‘90s), and its hero, Dr. Peyton Westlake, would fit in just fine on television today.
Westlake is a scientist trying to perfect a type of artificial skin that would help burn victims when he becomes a burn victim himself after being attacked by members of the mob with ulterior motives. Left for dead, Westlake survives the horrific burns, escapes the hospital, and goes on to continue his work while also seeking revenge on the people who scarred him permanently. We’re not the first to think that making this film into a television show is a good idea — it has been tried once before, in 1992, unsuccessfully. But we can’t help but think the TV-verse has changed drastically since then, and with the backing of, say, the Marvelverse, the second time could be the charm. Plus, it can’t be any worse than Iron Fist, right?
3. EXISTENZ (1999)
David Cronenberg’s futuristic exploration of virtual reality, consciousness, and video games isn’t so futuristic anymore — and we think it would make an intriguing and timely television show. Its exploration of virtual reality and conscious awareness makes it a sort of Matrix-meets-Westworld hybrid — but from the mind of Cronenberg, who has a very vivid, and disturbing, imagination.
The film’s two main characters, video game creator and designer Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Ted (Jude Law), a trainee with her company, are thrown together after an assassination attempt on Allegra’s life. Worried the only copy of her eXistenZ game may have been damaged in the assassination attempt, Allegra needs someone to plug into her VR game with her to test it out. And plugging in is a literal process — the VR game is inserted through players’ spinal columns, and once plugged in, people can no longer tell whose reality they’re in: theirs or someone else’s. Considering virtual reality is not only still around, but is being advanced in multiple ways, this film would make a unique TV show that would terrify people of many ages.
2. HACKERS (1995)
Hackers wasn’t a great film by any means — at times, it was clichéd, bland, and hokey — but it had potential throughout, and it’s that potential that could be fully realized in the form of an hour-long drama. The film follows its protagonist, Dade (Johnny Lee Miller), an 18-year-old computer genius/hacker and his group of geeky, quirky fellow hacker friends. Complications arise when they face off against an evil genius (played in the film by Fisher Stevens) who heads up security at a multinational corporation and plans on framing the talented teens for his own malfeasance.
Despite being over 20 years old, the film’s characters and subject material would fit in nicely in contemporary times. These days, hacking is more than just a hot button issue, and it’s one that could make for riveting drama if handled and examined with care. The supporting characters (which included a hilarious Matthew Lillard and a feisty, young Angelina Jolie) could also be developed more fully in a TV show, allowing us not to root solely for Dade, but for everyone involved.
1. STRANGE DAYS (1995)
This film had some very dark and disturbing moments, and, coupled with its extreme vulgarity, the TV show version of Strange Days would be more at home on an HBO or a Showtime. Like eXistenZ, Strange Days imagines a world in which virtual reality has taken over. Inhabitants of the film’s world get “jacked in” by attaching “squids” to the bases of their skulls. Getting “jacked in” means that they can live vicariously, seeing and feeling other peoples’ lives. But watching these characters experience and/or watch other peoples’ realities can be a terrifying thing, as it turns out, particularly when some of those realities involve them helplessly watching the murder(s) of others, or in extreme cases, themselves.
The film’s anti-hero, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) would make a strong central character, and the idea of entering someone else’s reality could be explored in numerous ways, chief among which is the idea that one cannot enter the reality of someone else without leaving their own reality altogether. It’s dense stuff, but we think a Strange Days TV show would be every bit as absorbing as Dollhouse or Westworld.