By Anthony Strand
Right On Schedule is a series looking at a network’s primetime schedule for one night during one TV season. It aims to examine the shows in relation to one another, TV as a whole, and sometimes even the culture as a whole.
Fox Sundays (1988–1989)
7:00 21 Jump Street
8:00 America’s Most Wanted
8:30 Married… With Children
9:00 The Tracey Ullman Show
9:30 It’s Garry Shandling’s Show
If you tune in to Fox on Sunday night these days, you’re going to see a lineup consisting of The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, and three episodes of Seth MacFarlane Program. Those shows are differ somewhat in tone and approach, of course, but they’re all animated sitcoms about families. It’s been years since live-action poked its head into the night’s programming, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon. Animation Domination now, Animation Domination forever.
But back in Fox’s early days, the 1980s, Sundays presented a much more diverse evening of programming. 1988–1989 was actually the network’s second year on the air, but it was the first to feature a stable Sunday lineup through the entire season. One thing that didn’t change over the summer was the brevity of Fox’s programming week—just Saturday and Sunday, which meant that they couldn’t afford to devote an entire night to one type of show. They had to use Sunday (already the more prestigious of the two nights by 1988) to show all of the different things they were capable of.
When taken all together, this diverse lineup announced a network that (to borrow a more recent slogan) was so bold, so brash, and unquestionably Fox.
But what does it mean to be so Fox, circa fall 1988? The best answers (and the longest-lasting shows) are found in the 8:00 p.m. hour, one of the strangest pairings ever to share space on television. At first glance, America’s Most Wanted and Married… With Children couldn’t be more different. The former was an earnest attempt to catch fugitive criminals, with host John Walsh begging viewers for any help they might have to offer. The latter was an extremely broad sitcom about a knuckleheaded shoe salesman named Al Bundy and his family, all as dumb as him. You might imagine that AMW‘s fanbase consisted of concerned citizens, while MWC would appeal to the same easily-amused, screeching goofballs who made up the show’s studio audience.
That might be true, but the two have several notable features in common (aside from the fact that people could very well be good citizens who both hate crime and love off-color, frequently sexist jokes.) They were both cheap to produce, which was undoubtedly a big help to the young network—AMW was formatted like a news broadcast, and MWC was shot on videotape. More importantly, both were unlike anything ever seen on TV before. Sitcoms had featured unlikable characters, but they’d always had something to redeem them. The Bundys were proudly, unrepentantly awful. Similarly, no weekly series had ever appealed directly to viewers on such an important matter as the pursuit of crooks on the lam.
They were both designed to get viewers talking—about the crazy and horrible things Al Bundy said, and about the criminals they needed to watch out for. It worked in both cases. MWC ran for 11 seasons, while AMW ran for a staggering 23, finally ending in 2011. However, the goal wasn’t just to get people talking about these particular shows, but about that exciting new channel, Fox.
The rest of the lineup aimed to do the same thing, but no series did it more aggressively than the evening’s opener, 21 Jump Street. Best known today as the launching pad of Johnny Depp, Holly Robinson Peete, and some of Dom DeLuise’s sons, the show was seen at the time as a fresh, innovative take on an old concept. Similar to The Mod Squad 20 years earlier, the series was about beautiful young police officers pretending to be teenagers so they could bust high school-aged criminals. Of course, this allowed the producers to moralize about issues from drug abuse to the dangers of sexual promiscuity, but that didn’t matter to viewers. It was rare for shows targeted at teens to address those subjects at all, so it all felt fresh and new.
In the 9:00 p.m. hour, FOX scheduled two shows that each anticipated future shows on the network in multiple ways. The Tracey Ullman Show, of course, featured cartoons about the Simpson family, the first hint of the animated comedy that eventually took over the night. But it was also the network’s first-ever sketch show, the predecessor to such hits (cult or actual) as In Living Color, The Ben Stiller Show, and MadTV. It would be a stretch to say the series has much in common with American Idol or X Factor, but it did feature frequent musical performances. In any case, sketch and variety have been huge parts of Fox’s identity over the years, and Tracey Ullman served as the announcement.
Ullman’s program was followed by It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, a sitcom starring another comedian with a singular style (and one that wasn’t actually a Fox original, since these episodes had been produced for Showtime over the previous two years). Shandling ostensibly played himself, a neurotic stand-up comedian. It might sound like I’m about to talk about how it served as a precursor to NBC’s Seinfeld, but the two shows bear only a passing resemblance. Unlike Jerry Seinfeld on that series, Shandling regularly broke the fourth wall, acknowledging the show’s artificiality and delivering monologues directly to the audience. (George Burns had done the same thing in the 1950s, but the format had disappeared in the intervening decades.) Years later, Fox had varying degrees of success with shows like Malcolm in the Middle, Titus, and The Bernie Mac Show, three other comedies whose title characters loved talking at the camera.
The final show in the bloc (which was, oddly, three and a half hours long, leaving the last thirty minutes up to local affiliates) was Duet*, which didn’t fit the network’s burgeoning image. It focused on two couples—one who were down-to-earth and dating (Mary Page Keller and Matthew Laurence), the other a pair of slick yuppies (Alison LaPlaca and Chris Lemmon, the Colin Hanks of his generation). Originally an attempt to do a more sophisticated, Cheers-style comedy for adults, it became sillier as it went along, eventually morphing into a much broader series called Open House, with LaPlaca’s character selling real estate. Fox just wasn’t ready to sustain such a simple, laid-back show (Ben & Kate‘s poor ratings in 2012–13 suggest that not much has changed).
For all of the facets it pulled off successfully, Fox just couldn’t make that one stick. Duet/Open House was low-rated for its entire run. But it did hang on for a solid two and a half years, the same length of time Fox would later give Arrested Development. (Which makes Open House the Running Wilde of its generation, in a way.) Duet points the way towards all of the low-rated gems that Fox gamely kept on the air for longer than they needed to, from Futurama to Fringe.
But not Firefly. Pretty much everything except Firefly.
(*I couldn’t find a reasonable place for this in the post, but I couldn’t leave it out: Maybe Duet‘s most lasting legacy at Fox was in the casting of Batman: The Animated Series. La Placa and fellow Duet regular Arleen Sorkin voiced Baby Doll and Harley Quinn, respectively—two of that show’s most memorable villains.)
Next: CBS Mondays 1973–1974
Previously on Right On Schedule: NBC Fridays (1968-1969)