Over the weekend, Fox celebrated its 25th birthday. The New York Times took the occasion to reflect on Fox's irreverent and pop-culture-defining programming in a piece aptly titled, "Fox Network at 25: Blazing Trails and Burning Bridges":
Fox has been characterized by boldness from the start. Having decided to break up the cozy triopoly held by ABC, CBS and NBC by creating the first nationwide broadcast network in nearly 40 years, Barry Diller and Rupert Murdoch stole one of NBC’s brightest young executives, Garth Ancier, then 28, to be their entertainment president. When the young Fox network was struggling to expand in the early 1990s, it established itself by taking the National Football Conference, and John Madden, away from CBS.
That gloves-off approach in business has been matched by a pragmatic, laissez-faire approach in programming that has yielded better results than generally acknowledged. Fox may not have had a very high percentage of the best shows of the last 25 years — probably only “The Simpsons” and “The X-Files” qualify — but it has had more than its share of adventurous and interesting ones, the kind that people talked about and that were quickly imitated, from those early sitcoms to “The Ben Stiller Show,” “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “Party of Five,” “Ally McBeal,” “24,” “Glee” and, yes, “American Idol.”
What has set Fox apart from its stodgier competitors over the years is the lack of a house style — its programmers have followed their desire for water cooler chatter wherever it led them — at the same time that it exhibited a welcome tolerance for outrageousness and provocation. That kind of freedom can have ugly consequences, like the network’s dive into the tawdriest end of the reality-TV pool in the early 2000s with things like “Temptation Island” and the torture-porn game show “The Chamber.” (Though even there, the improbably successful dating show “Joe Millionaire” was ahead of its time.)
At twenty-five years old, Fox is the same age as the millennial generation that grew up watching its television programs. For many of us, our childhood memories and cultural idioms come straight from those outrageous and provocative television shows. The Simpsons, perhaps Fox's most iconic show, was an especially important part of our pop-cultural upbringing. According to Mark Liberman, the director of the Linguistic Data Consortium, Fox's The Simpsons "has apparently taken over from Shakespeare and the Bible as our culture's greatest source of idioms, catchphrases and sundry other textual allusions." Homer's "D'Oh!" and Bart's "eat my shorts" are embedded into our cultural lexicon.
I didn't watch that much television as a kid, but I loyally tuned in to reruns of The Simpsons every afternoon around 5 pm. The Simpsons was not just my favorite show, it was an obsession. I memorized all of Bart's prank phone calls and crass witticisms; I followed Lisa's plight as a misunderstood loner; and I even bought a book that showed me how to draw the strange and distinctive cartoon figures from the show (the only thing it taught me was that I couldn't draw to save my life).
As the Times piece points out, Fox has never shied away from controversy--and The Simpsons, though beloved by many, was condemned far and wide during its heyday. Cultural and political leaders like Bill Cosby and George H.W. Bush publicly denounced its vulgar depiction of family life. Outside of the United States, the show also ruffled feathers. China banned it from prime-time television and Venezuela, calling the show unsuitable for children, does not allow it to be aired on TV during the morning hours.
I was living in Canada during those years, the '90s, and I remember having this English teacher who, as far as I could tell, didn't really teach us much, but would stand at her podium, lecturing us about the ills of the world. She would fill us in on the details of the war in Kosovo, denounce America as a nation of gun-toting buffoons, and--frequently--get into a tizzy about how awful The Simpsons was. "Completely inappropriate for children," "racist," and sexist" were a few of the charges she levied against the show--and, in her criticism, she wasn't too far removed from the show's detractors in authoritarian China and Venezuela, and its critics in the United States, a country that she hated so much (I'm sure the writers of The Simpsons would have found a delicious irony in this). At the time, I reasoned that if someone like that--my teacher--hated the show so much, then it must be even better than I realized.
And I don't think that was far from the truth. One reason The Simpsons could unite (in criticism) people who were otherwise so far apart ideologically is that it was an equal opportunity discriminator. In its politically incorrect way, it poked fun at everyone--republican and democrat, American and Canadian, religious and atheist, slacker (Bart) and perfectionist (Lisa), and even Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox.
That's what I found so charming about the show. But that's also what its critics found so threatening. The show cuts everyone down to size, which is not only funny, but humbling. Of course, if you consider yourself morally or otherwise above everyone else, you don't want to be cut down to size--and certainly not in a way that makes people laugh at you.
Just the other day, I thought of this when I saw a clip from the show that teasingly referenced my college. In the clip, Mr. Burns has just arrived at his cell in jail:
Burns' First Cellmate: Hiya, pal! I guess we're just two white-collar criminals.
Mr. Burns: Oh, thank God. I thought you might be a hardened tattooed criminal.
Burns' First Cellmate: Nah, they don't turn out too many of those at Dartmouth.
Mr. Burns: Dartmouth? Guard, get me away from this brute! Get me out this instant!
Burns' First Cellmate: Got my Masters at Virginia, the public Ivy.
Mr. Burns: Guard!
It's funny because it's true--and that's the beauty of the show.