Rupert Murdoch and company made a bold move by starting a fourth network back in the 1980s. They're celebrating Fox's 25th Anniversary, so let's take a look at the good, the bad and the truly tragic.
Off on the Right and Wrong Foot
Their first two prime-time shows were Married with Children and The Tracey Ullman Show. Married set the tone for the brash young network -- and it was awful. Distinguishable from hundreds of other dull sitcoms only by its crudeness, the show unabashedly celebrated the grotesque Al Bundy (Ed O'Neill) and his disdain for everyone, especially his family.
Ullman's show, meanwhile, was the birthplace of The Simpsons, Fox's first real hit. While Married inspired a trend of lowest-common-denominator imitations which continues today, The Simpsons paved the way for such great adult-oriented animated shows as King of the Hill, The Critic, Futurama and South Park.
The Sketch Artists
While Fox found success with animation, live-action sitcoms were often embarrassing debacles, such as the wishfully-titled and forgotten Married spin-off, Top of the Heap. Notably, the lead actor was future Friends star Matt LeBlanc, playing a talentless boxer who goes into business with his dad (Joseph Bologna). Joey Lauren Adams (Chasing Amy) was also on hand for Kelly Bundy-like queasy underage sexpot humor.
Fox did much, much better with sketch comedy, finding success with In Living Color and MadTV, but my favorite Fox sketch comedy series was the short-lived The Ben Stiller Show, which introduced Stiller and his talented cast (including Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick, and Bob Odenkirk, who went on to co-create one of the greatest sketch shows ever, HBO's Mr. Show) to a hip audience looking for something sharper than the then-tired Saturday Night Live. Stiller was a virtual unknown at the time, but his classic takes on Bono, Tom Cruise and Bruce Springsteen still make me laugh today.
X Marks the Spot
I loved the X-Files. I was working a second-shift job, and my girlfriend convinced me to go into work a couple of hours late one Sunday night so we could watch the show together. Would it have been worth getting fired? Not really, but it was the kind of show, in those pre-DVR days, that you needed to see as it aired, so you could talk about it with your nerd friends. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson created indelible characters, while Chris Carter had a great run before the show's larger conspiracy tale began to overwhelm the week-to-week thrills.
Of course, not every supernatural effort from Fox was such a success. While Carter's follow-ups, including Millennium and The Lone Gunman, had their cult followings, the Carter-less Henry Rollins-hosted anthology series Night Visions never got any traction, despite the contributions of horror masters Joe Dante (Gremlins) and Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). I guess former punk rocker Rollins wasn't the Rod Serling of the '00s after all.
While Fox's efforts to be "cutting edge" often resulted in embarrassments like the shrill, trashy Women in Prison, it also meant they showed some really innovative programming -- albeit all too briefly. Fox has the dubious distinction of airing and then cancelling some of the best shows on television. The list includes the aforementioned Stiller, Arrested Development, Judd Apatow's Undeclared, and not one, but two brilliant Joss Whedon shows: Firefly and Dollhouse. Then there's my personal favorite, Chris Elliott's surreal Get a Life, about a 40-year-old paperboy.
No one else would have cancelled that show, but then, that's because no one else would have aired it to begin with. So cheers to you, Fox, on 25 years of going against the grain, for better or worse.