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 happen to watch Fox on Sunday night nowadays, you’ll find a lineup featuring The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, and three episodes of the Seth MacFarlane Program.
While these shows vary somewhat in tone and approach, they all fall under the category of animated sitcoms centered around families.
It has been quite some time since live-action content made its way into the evening’s programming, and there are no plans to alter this anytime soon. It’s all about Animation Domination now and for the foreseeable future.
However, during the early days of Fox in the 1980s, Sunday evenings offered a much more varied selection of programming. In 1988-1989, which marked the network’s second year on the air, it was the first time they maintained a consistent Sunday lineup throughout the entire season.
Despite the changing seasons, one aspect that remained constant was the limited programming week on Fox, with only Saturday and Sunday slots available. This restriction meant they couldn’t dedicate an entire evening to a single type of show.
Instead, they had to utilize Sunday, which had already become the more prestigious of the two nights by 1988, to showcase the diverse range of content they could offer.
When viewed as a whole, this varied lineup exemplified a network that (to borrow a more contemporary slogan) was incredibly daring, audacious, and unmistakably Fox.
But what did it signify to embody the essence of Fox circa the fall of 1988? The most fitting responses (and the shows that endured the longest) can be discovered in the 8:00 p.m. time slot, a rather peculiar pairing in the realm of television.
At first glance, “America’s Most Wanted” and “Married… With Children” couldn’t have been more dissimilar. The former was a sincere endeavor to apprehend fugitive criminals, with host John Walsh earnestly appealing to viewers for any assistance they could provide.
Meanwhile, the latter was an exceedingly broad sitcom centered around a dim-witted shoe salesman named Al Bundy and his equally unintelligent family.
One might assume that “America’s Most Wanted” attracted concerned citizens as its audience, while “Married… With Children” catered to the same easily amused, rowdy individuals who populated the show’s live studio audience.
That may hold true, yet these two share several notable characteristics (aside from the possibility that individuals could be upstanding citizens who both detest criminal activity and enjoy off-color, often sexist humor).
They were both cost-effective to produce, which undoubtedly provided significant support to the budding network— “America’s Most Wanted” was structured like a news broadcast, and “Married… With Children” was filmed on videotape.
More notably, both were unprecedented in the realm of television. While sitcoms had previously featured unlikable characters, they had always possessed some redeeming qualities.
The Bundys, on the other hand, took pride in being unabashedly terrible. Similarly, no weekly series had ever directly engaged viewers on such a critical issue as the pursuit of fugitive criminals.
Both shows were crafted with the intention of sparking discussions among viewers—whether it was about the outrageous and often offensive remarks made by Al Bundy or the fugitive criminals they needed to remain vigilant about.
This strategy proved successful in both instances. “Married… With Children” had an impressive run of 11 seasons, while “America’s Most Wanted” achieved an astonishing 23 seasons, concluding in 2011.
Nevertheless, the objective extended beyond merely generating chatter about these specific programs; it aimed to ignite conversations about the exhilarating new television network, Fox.
The remaining shows in the lineup aimed to achieve the same goal, but none did it as forcefully as the evening’s first offering, “21 Jump Street.”
Recognized today primarily as the platform that launched the careers of Johnny Depp, Holly Robinson Peete, and some of Dom DeLuise’s children, the show was perceived at the time as a modern, inventive spin on a familiar concept.
Much like “The Mod Squad” from two decades earlier, the series revolved around attractive young police officers who assumed the roles of teenagers to apprehend high school-aged criminals. Naturally, this premise allowed the producers to address issues ranging from drug abuse to the perils of sexual promiscuity, but this didn’t deter viewers.
It was a rarity for teen-targeted shows to broach such topics at all, making it all seem refreshingly new and groundbreaking.
At 9:00 p.m., FOX scheduled two shows that foreshadowed future programs on the network in multiple ways.
“The Tracey Ullman Show” was notably known for showcasing cartoons featuring the Simpson family, which served as the initial glimpse of the animated comedy that would eventually dominate the night.
However, it also marked the network’s first venture into sketch comedy, laying the foundation for subsequent hits, whether they were considered cult favorites or mainstream successes, like “In Living Color,” “The Ben Stiller Show,” and “MadTV.”
While it might be a bit of a stretch to draw direct parallels with series such as “American Idol” or “X Factor,” “The Tracey Ullman Show” did incorporate frequent musical performances.
In any case, sketch and variety programming have played substantial roles in defining Fox’s identity over the years, and “Tracey Ullman” served as the herald of this trend.
Following Ullman’s program was “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” a sitcom featuring yet another comedian renowned for his distinct style. Interestingly, this show wasn’t originally a Fox production; its episodes had been created for Showtime over the preceding two years.
In the series, Shandling ostensibly portrayed himself as a neurotic stand-up comedian. While one might expect a comparison to be drawn with NBC’s “Seinfeld,” the two shows shared only a superficial resemblance.
Unlike Jerry Seinfeld in the latter series, Shandling consistently shattered the fourth wall, acknowledging the artificiality of the show and directly addressing the audience with monologues. (A similar approach had been employed by George Burns in the 1950s but had largely disappeared in the intervening decades.)
In later years, Fox experienced varying degrees of success with shows like “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Titus,” and “The Bernie Mac Show,” all of which featured lead characters who enjoyed addressing the camera directly.
The last show in the block, which, oddly, spanned three and a half hours and left the final thirty minutes to local affiliates, was “Duet.” This show didn’t quite align with the emerging image of the network.
It revolved around two couples: one down-to-earth and in the dating phase (played by Mary Page Keller and Matthew Laurence), and the other a pair of sophisticated yuppies (portrayed by Alison LaPlaca and Chris Lemmon, the Colin Hanks of his era).
Originally conceived as an attempt to create a more refined, Cheers-style comedy for adults, it gradually took on a more comedic and farcical tone, ultimately transforming into a broader series titled “Open House,” with LaPlaca’s character transitioning into the real estate business.
Fox simply wasn’t prepared to sustain such a straightforward, laid-back show, and the low ratings of “Ben & Kate” in 2012-13 suggest that not much has changed in this regard.
Despite Fox’s success in various aspects, they couldn’t manage to make this particular show work. “Duet/Open House” remained low-rated throughout its entire broadcast.
Nevertheless, it did manage to endure for a respectable two and a half years, which is the same duration Fox later afforded “Arrested Development.” (In a sense, this makes “Open House” the equivalent of “Running Wilde” for its generation.)
“Duet” points to the path followed by all those low-rated gems that Fox valiantly kept on the air longer than strictly necessary, spanning from “Futurama” to “Fringe.”
But not Firefly. Pretty much everything except Firefly.