25 Years, 25 Huge Risks: In Praise of the Fox Network's Daring Reputation

Twenty-five years may seem like a long time for a network—that's a quarter of a century! But in human years, twenty-five is not very old. If you think of Fox as a human being, it's just reached the age where it's finally starting to get its life in order. It's considering moving into its own place, wondering whether grad school is a good idea. It's finally starting to have interesting things to talk about with other grown-ups. Twenty-five is an exciting age!

As such, we'd be remiss if we marked Fox's twenty-fifth birthday—which the network is celebrating this Sunday with a two-hour anniversary special—without giving credit where credit's due: No network has ever been as consistent of a risk-taker as Fox has. Though its experiments have ended in both success and failure, Fox remains an invaluable and praise-worthy champion to the odd, weird, and bracingly original. If you like TV and things that are different, it's hard to do better than Fox. Sure, it's often mistreated or destroyed its own darlings, but it's still incredible to think about the number of oddities it's aired over the years.

So to celebrate the occasion, we've compiled a list of our twenty-five favorite biggest, riskiest, and most original Fox experiments. Happy birthday, big guy! (And please consider using your birthday money to renew Fringe.)

1. The Tracey Ullman Show (1987-1990)

The risk: Primetime sketch shows are still risky today, and this one even revolved around a British woman with a flair for emotional comedy. Also, what was with the weird, animated yellow family who appeared every now and again?

Success or Failure? Success! The Simpsons. 'Nuff said.

2. The Ben Stiller Show (1992-1993)

The risk: Despite being centered on the progeny of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, this sketch show was fronted by four unknowns who took on youth culture and the MTV generation in such a bitingly accurate way that it basically guaranteed low ratings.

Success or Failure? Failure at the time, but appreciated later.

3. Parker Lewis Can't Lose (1990-1993)

The risk: At first written off as a bland rehashing of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, this fourth-wall-breaking sitcom was fast and colorful and had the nerve to put a confident, good-looking guy at the center of its shenanigans.

Success or Failure? Success! This series remains a nostalgia piece for a specific age group.

4. In Living Color (1990-1994)

The risk: It would be accurate to say that an African-American fronted sketch show hasn't happened very often in TV history.

Success or Failure? SUCCESS!

5. Prison Break (2005-2009)

The risk: The show's TITLE was a spoiler. Sure enough, Prison Break's fundamental premise changed from season to season, creating an interesting problem for Fox marketers hoping to draw in new viewers.

Success or Failure? Success.

6. Herman's Head (1991-1994)

The risk: Oh, just another three-camera sitcom in which the main character may be suffering from debilitating schizophrenia.

Success or Failure? Success.

7. Greg the Bunny (2002-2002)

The risk: Everybody loves a single camera, behind-the-scenes-of-Hollywood comedy about a SENTIENT PUPPET that stars a murderer's row of funny alternative comedians, right? They should've titled this Low-Rated Cult Classic just to be clearer.

Success or Failure? Failure.

8. American High (2000-2000)

The risk: A truly great, thoughtful documentary series profiling Illinois high school students who filmed themselves with camcorders.

Success or Failure? Instant failure at Fox, critical acclaim when it was rescued by PBS (!).

9. Glee (2009-Present)

The risk: A musical TV show. A MUSICAL TV SHOW. Say what you will about its fluctuating quality, this show did not seem like a good idea on paper.

Success or Failure? Success.

10. Get a Life (1990-1992)

The risk: This cult classic was a super-meta deconstruction of sitcoms that starred Chris Elliott as a grown man living at home. Also it was co-written by Charlie Kaufman. Yes, that Charlie Kaufman.

Success or Failure? Medium success then, but loads of retrospective acclaim since.

11. When Animals Attack (1996)

The risk: Before YouTube, people needed an outlet for raw footage of animal attacks, you know? Fox was the first network to really go there.

Success or Failure? Success, obviously!

12. Arrested Development (2003-2006)

The risk: Tons of ink has been spilled about this show in the intervening years, but let's admit it was a difficult series to embrace from the get-go: A dense, serialized sitcom with tons of characters and dizzying storytelling. Great as it was (is?), it's no mystery why more people didn't jump on board.

Success or Failure? Both!

13. My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss (2004-2004)

The risk: Remember this? It was a full-fledged parody of The Apprentice that remains one of the more hilarious (and underrated) reality show takedowns of all time.

Success or Failure? Failure, alas.

14. That '70s Show (1998-2006)

The risk: A period sitcom that heavily incorporated drug use. Sure, NOW we know it was a conventional, charming show. But still, that's quite a premise to get past.

Success or Failure? Success. We been Kutcher'd!

15. America's Most Wanted (1988-Present)

The risk: Oh, this is just a show that enlisted viewers to help bring down real criminals AND WE DID and still do to this day.

Success or Failure? Success.

16. Temptation Island (2001-2003)

The risk: Keep in mind that reality shows were still a new thing for network television in 2001. Now remember just how presciently crass this was: A reality show that actively encouraged committed couples to break up.

Success or Failure? Brief success followed by laughing-stock infamy.

17. 24 (2001-2010)

The risk: A show that ostensibly unfolded in real time! With cougar attacks and everything!

Success or Failure? After some post-9/11 weirdness, huge success.

18. Ally McBeal (1997-2002)

The risk: A law procedural about a woman who frequented a covers-only piano bar and routinely hallucinated visual metaphors made out of '90s CGI. (That's how creator David E. Kelley pitched it, right?)

Success or Failure? Success. (We won't bring up the weird, weekly half-hour remix, Ally).

19. Alien Nation (1989-1990)

The risk: An early movie-to-TV adaptation before such a thing was commonplace, this was a sci-fi cop drama in which half the characters were downtrodden aliens. Plus its title remains one of the most depressing puns ever to grace a TV Guide.

Success or Failure? Failure?

20. Wonderfalls (2004-2004)

The risk: More mental illness whimsy: A local shopgirl begins to communicate with animated tchotchkes. Any questions?

Success or Failure? Failure then, success in retrospect.

21. Action! (1999-1999)

The risk: A fast-paced, mean-spirited look behind the scenes of Hollywood several years before Entourage was but a twinkle in Mark Wahlberg's eye.

Success or Failure? Immediate failure.

22. 21 Jump Street (1987-1990)

The risk: A police procedural about cops posing as high school students! How had nobody thought of this before?

Success or Failure? This year's slightly ironic movie remake was a HUGE success. Plus, you know, the whole Johnny Depp thing.

23. Firefly (2002-2003)

The risk: The subject of Joss Whedon's most tragic mistreatment by a network, Firefly was a Western-influenced sci-fi serial aired out of order and then summarily disposed of. Still, though: What an odd show to greenlight in the first place.

Success or Failure? Failure (on Fox's part mostly)

24. American Idol (2002-Present)

The risk: A twice-weekly karaoke contest in which a British man verbally eviscerates the singers in front of a live audience, and then viewers VOTE for a winner by telephone. I mean, honestly. That's bizarre.

Success or Failure? Um, success.

25. The X-Files (1993-2002)

The risk: A detective procedural about paranormal activity filmed with cinematic production values and serious scares. A genre show that treated strange occurrences seriously? Where would we be today without The X-Files?

Success or Failure? Success.

So those are our twenty-five favorite Fox gambles. What are yours?

Fox's 25th Anniversary Special airs this Sunday, April 22 from 8-10pm on... Fox! And be sure to show up early: At 7pm, the network is re-airing the pilot of its first-ever show, Married... With Children.