Fox is marking its 25th anniversary tonight with a two-hour special that celebrates the network’s general awesomeness over the years. It probably won’t spend much time talking about “Temptation Island” and “When Animals Attack”
Lousy trash aside, Fox has a lot to be proud of. When it debuted in 1987, it was a feisty upstart determined to go toe-to-toe with the Big 3 powers of NBC, CBS and ABC. To seize attention, it had to take bold risks and break some rules.
And even after it earned mainstream credibility, Fox mostly maintained its maverick attitude — something for which we viewers should be grateful. Programs that push creative boundaries force others to do the same, therefore making prime time a more interesting place.
With that in mind, let’s pay homage to some game-changing Fox shows that tossed a firecracker down TV’s pants:
“Married ... With Children” (1987-97): Many critics found the buffoonish Bundys to be more disgusting than delightful, but the dysfunctional clan surely brought more edge to the often-stale family sitcom. By saying and doing things that weren’t allowed on the Big 3, the show established Fox as a destination for offbeat programming.
“The Simpsons” (1989-present): Many viewers practically had a cow when they first laid eyes on the dysfunctional yellow-skinned family from Springfield. However, objections to the show’s subversive attitude waned as it became clear that this wasn’t just a brilliant cartoon, but one of the best TV comedies, period. The makers of “South Park,” “Family Guy” and others will be forever in its debt.
“In Living Color” (1990-94): With its multi-ethnic cast, this bawdy sketch-comedy/variety show established itself as a fresh alternative to “Saturday Night Live.” Aimed at hip, young viewers, the humor was broad, sometimes crass, but never vicious. And it introduced us to talented newcomers, including the Wayans brothers, Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx and a “Fly Girl” named Jennifer Lopez.
“Beverly Hills, 90210” (1990-2000): Yes, this sun-dappled soap contained the familiar Aaron Spelling trademarks: Beautiful (and wealthy) people living in a beautiful locale. But it also brought some real-life grit to the teen drama as its characters confronted an onslaught of serious issues, including date rape, suicide, drunken driving, abortion and AIDS. Along the way, it spawned a flood of youth-centric shows.
“The X Files” (1993-2002): Conspiracy theories, paranoia, alien invasions, really bad juju and an abundance of sexual tension — this supernatural cop show fed upon it all. In the process, Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) became TV icons, and the series proved that there was a place in contemporary prime time for intelligent, well-crafted science fiction.
“24” (2001-2010): With its split screens, ticking clocks, turbocharged pace and tireless hero (Kiefer Sutherland), “24” brought new energy to the TV crime drama. It also touched a nerve by tapping into our post-9/11 anxieties and serving as a flash point in the national debate over wartime torture tactics.
“American Idol” (2002-present): Talk about a reality check. It was startling — and refreshing — to hear a brazenly blunt Simon Cowell cut deluded wannabes down to size. More significantly, the show swept us up in the intoxicating idea that a starry-eyed nobody could become a very special somebody right before our eyes. Many clones have followed, but none have equaled the impact of “Idol.”
“House” (2004-present): With shows like “The Sopranos,” the highly flawed antihero had found a home on cable, but was still largely absent from broadcast TV. Then along came Hugh Laurie’s sardonic, misanthropic, pill-popping narcissist. Marcus Welby would have been appalled, but viewers were mesmerized.