On April 5th, Fox is set to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the network, and has plans to air a celebratory telecast that will bring back the cast of many of its most popular shows. Fox, of course, isn’t quite the network it once was. It’s now the top-rated network in the 18-49 demographic, thanks in large part to its reality programming, specifically “American Idol,” but there was a time when Fox was the only network willing to take risks on showed ignored by the big three networks. Fox, of course, has a reputation now for quickly pulling the plug on a lot of adored series, but it was Fox that once had the cajones to put them on in the first place.
In honor of its impending 25th Anniversary, I thought we’d take a look back at the programming that allowed Fox to make its mark and ultimately rise to the status of the mostly lame, toothless behemoth it has become and to remind us that, there was a time when the network was better than eight hours of “American Idol” a week.
10. Undeclared — Not quite the show “Freaks and Geeks” was, “Undeclared” possessed the same Judd Apatowan sensibility and mixed up the likes of Seth Rogen, Jason Segal, Charlie Hunnam, and Jay Baruchel in a college setting. It nailed much of the college experience, and provided some great, heartfelt comedy along the way.
9. In Living Color — It’s difficult to overlook “In Living Color’s” contributions to Fox. It was groundbreaking, in a way, for providing a stage for so much African-American talent, and it was also the rare sketch comedy show that worked as often as it didn’t. For a few years in the 90s, this was the water cooler show of the moment. It launched the careers of Jim Carrey and Jennifer Lopez, and it also made huge stars out of the Wayans Brothers.
8. Ally McBeal — I adored “Ally McBeal,” mostly for the performances of Greg Germann and Peter MacNicol, but I never quite understood the plaudits it received for being a pioneering show about women in the workplace, not when Mary Tyler Moore had broke that ground decades before. McBeal was both a boon to feminism — strong, female character at the center of a show set in a high-powered profession — and a detriment — she was annoying, body obsessed, and emotionally unstable. That aside, for a few years, “Ally McBeal” was one of the most compelling — and quirky — dramas on television, and represents the height of David E. Kelley’s long career. The show also introduced us to Portia de Rossi and Jane Krakowski.
7. Beverly Hills 90210 — Was it ever a great show? Maybe not, but for kids of the 90s, it was in our DNA. “90210,” basically a dramatic reinterpretation of “Saved by the Bell,” popularized the teen-centered soap opera and was one of the first shows to fetishize the 18-24 demo. It was appointment viewing for many years, and its inspiration can be felt in practically the entire CW schedule.
6. Futurama — Matt Groening’s “Futurama” ran on Fox from 1999-2003 (and, after an eight-year hiatus, now runs on Comedy Central). During its run, “Futurama” melded comedy, animation, and geekery to provide edgy, multi-layered, sharp social commentary, multi-dimensional characters, and heartfelt storylines all under the brilliantly simple guise of a sci-fi satire.
5. Married … with Children — It doesn’t hold up that well anymore, but if you could put aside the blatant sexism and the gender stereotypes, “Married … with Children” was groundbreaking in the way it turned the family sitcom on its head by focusing on horrible, misanthropic characters doing horrible amoral things and still managing to remain relatable. It was crass, politically incorrect, and pushed up against every boundary on network television at the time. It was mean-spirited as hell, and at times the comedy was pitch dark, but at the time, it was a better reflection of the American family than most of what was on television.
4. Firefly — Airing over the course of less than three months in 2002, “Firefly” nevertheless built one of the strongest cult audiences on television, thanks to its imaginative sci-fi premise, its winning characters, and the lasting mark it made on genre television. It remains one of the best shows ever to air on television, and perhaps tops the list of “Cancelled too Soon” television shows. It’s cancellation, however, has only served to empower its cult status, a cult status that eventually lead to a feature film that provided us with a small amount of closure, but never enough to allow us to get over the wound of its cancellation.
3. X-Files — “Star Trek” may have been the original geek show, but “The X-Files” was the modern one, a show that blended sci-fi, horror, and procedural elements with the smallest touch of romantic intrigue — never enough to alienate its viewers or even force a coupling to satiate them, but just enough to leave them curious and maybe slightly hopeful, knowing, of course, that if the two leads ever openly consummated their relationship, the series would be tainted, turned into another melodramatic soap opera, a show where the aliens, mutants, and freaks would take a backseat to arguably the best onscreen couple in the history of television, and certainly the most complicated, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.
2. Arrested Development — Fast-paced, absurd, and dense, “Arrested Development” was not just the smartest sitcom sitcom in the history of television, “Arrested Development” is the best sitcom on Fox or any other channel. Lightning fast, rife with pop culture allusions and callbacks, “Arrested Development” tested the limits of viewers’ intelligence, and demanded our attention like no other sitcom. We were rewarded accordingly.
1. The Simpsons — Despite a decade of irrelevance, it’s impossible to underplay the importance of “The Simpsons” to Fox, to modern animated sitcoms, and to modern satire. Packed with rich social commentary on family, romance, childhood, education, religion, TV, government, at its peak, no matter how biting, the commentary could never be as good as the jokes. For better or worse, “The Simpsons” is responsible for an entire generation of comedy and its impact will likely be more lasting than any other show in the history of Fox.