How Fox Has Used Its Sunday Lineup To Create TV’s Most Reliable Night For More Than 20 Years

NBC’s Thursday night lineup is now unrecognizable. Not because it’s filled with shows you’ve never heard of — Heroes Reborn is notorious for all the wrong reasons, and The Blacklist is one of the network’s few current hits; The Player is on at 10 p.m. EST, but it’ll probably be canceled quicker than you can say, “What’s The Player?” — but because of the shows themselves. None are comedies (although Heroes Reborn is pretty hilarious). Thursday nights on NBC used to be synonymous with comedies, including some of the best and most popular sitcoms of all-time: Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, The Office, Scrubs, 30 Rock, Community, and Parks and Recreation. But it’s no longer “must-see.”

That honor, for the best lineup of network comedies on a single night, now belongs to Wednesdays on ABC (The Middle, The Goldbergs, Modern Family, and Black-ish). But its closest competitor has to be Sundays on Fox, which has been a model of steady quality for the past 20 years and one of the most consistently interesting nights of television for longer than that. The shows, minus one, may have changed, but it’s never been worse than good, and it’s often the best night on TV, no matter the genre.

21 Jump Street. Married… with Children. The Tracy Ullman Show. Mr. President. Duet. That was Fox’s first Sunday primetime schedule back in 1986, when the Big Three became the Big Four. That’s one procedural that launched the career of Johnny Depp (and inspired two hit movies), a uniquely raunchy comedy that might be rebooted, the birthplace of The Simpsons, and, um, Mr. President and Duet. Minus those last two, that’s a solid group of shows, and it got even better the next year when Jump Street, Married, and Tracy were joined by America’s Most Wanted and reruns of Showtime’s It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Still, none of those shows were both a critical and commercial hit; Married… with Children landed at No. 58 in the Nielsen ratings in 1988-89, but that popularity came with reams of negative press.

Then came a little show about some yellow freaks you might have heard of, and Fox was finally invited to the big kids’ table.

The first episode of The Simpsons, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” premiered on December 17, 1989. It was watched by 26.7 million people, and the rest of the season went up from there, all the way to 33.5 million for “Life on the Fast Lane.” In all, The Simpsons finished as the 28th highest rated show of the 1989-90 season, Fox’s biggest hit yet. Married… with Children enjoyed having a culture-grabbing lead-in, as its ratings increased by more than 2 million people from the season before. Fox was on a roll.

And cocky. Fox moved The Simpsons to Thursday night to compete against one of the most popular comedies on TV, The Cosby Show. It was a ballsy move for an upstart network, which was exactly the point. The time change was a brilliant marketing stunt, inspiring write-ups in the New York Times. “While the Huxtables strive to be warmly heartening,” John J. O’Connor wrote, “the Simpsons fasten, when you least expect it, on unsettling realities.” He then quotes Lisa wondering if she’ll one day need a psychiatrist from season two’s “Dead Putting Society,” and adds, “That’s the kind of Simpsons moment that should give The Cosby Show good cause for concern.”

With The Simpsons momentarily elsewhere, let’s break down what Fox’s 7-10 p.m. lineup has looked like over the past 25 years, sorted by the different eras it’s gone through. Get ready for a lot of MacFarlane.

The No Simpsons Era

1990-91: True Colors, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, In Living Color, Get a Life, Married… with Children, Good Grief
1991-92: True Colors, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, In Living Color, Roc, Married… with Children, Herman’s Head
1992-93: Great Scott!, The Ben Stiller Show, In Living Color, Roc, Married… with Children, Herman’s Head
1993-94: Townsend Television, Martin, Living Single, Married… with Children, Daddy Dearest, The George Carlin Show

Fox was willing to take a flyer on shows other networks wouldn’t touch. A surreal comedy about a teen girl? Sure. A sketch series with a mostly black cast? Why not. Chris Elliott dying in nearly every episode? You bet. The original Inside Out? Of course. Not to mention The Ben Stiller Show, with its before-they-famous writers room of Judd Apatow, David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, and Dino Stamatopoulos, and The George Carlin Show, which gave Carlin his own sitcom. (It’s no Shining Time Station, but what is?) Fox embraced weird comedies and shows with minority casts, long before they became the only network to adopt sci-fi shows. Meanwhile, CBS had Murder, She Wrote.

The Without an Identity Era

1994-95: Fortune Hunter, The Simpsons, Hardball, House of Buggin’, The Critic, Married… with Children, Wild Oats, The George Carlin Show, Dream On

It’s not really an “era,” because it only lasted one season, but man, that one season was a mess. Fortune Hunter, which only lasted five episodes, was replaced by “Encore Programming,” then a Simpsons rerun, an unnecessary Get Smart remake, and finally, “Specials, with Encore Programming.” The Simpsons and Married… with Children never budged from their 8 and 9 p.m. time slots, but six shows, including The Critic (it didn’t stink!) and edited repeats of HBO’s Dream On, followed Fox’s best known series. With the exception of Dream On, which doesn’t really count, none of them lasted longer than two seasons.

The Space and Animation Era

1995-96: Space: Above and Beyond, The Simpsons, Too Something, Married… with Children, Misery Loves Company
1996-97: Big Deal, The Simpsons, Ned & Stacey, King of the Hill, The X-Files
1997-98: The World’s Funniest!, The Simpsons, King of the Hill, The X-Files
1998-99: The World’s Funniest!, The Simpsons, That ’70s Show, Family Guy, The X-Files

Before The X-Files became a Sunday staple, there was Space: Above and Beyond, a fabulous and oft-forgotten sci-fi series that only lasted one season. But it was nominated for two Emmys and a Saturn Award. Meanwhile, The X-Files moved from Friday to Sunday four episodes into season four, when the show was at the peak of its popularity. It would stay at 9 p.m. until the end of its run in 2002. Mike Judge’s dry King of the Hill was constantly shuffled around the schedule, especially when NFL games ran long, but it never strayed from Sunday night, an impressive feat when you consider it was on for 13 dependably funny seasons. With all due respect to the misleadingly named The World’s Funniest!, two more staples premiered in the late ’90s: That ’70s Show, and Family Guy, which we’ll get to in a minute.

The Matt Groening Era

1999-2000: The World’s Funniest!, Futurama, King of the Hill, The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, The X-Files
2000-01: Futurama, King of the Hill, The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, The X-Files
2001-02: Futurama, King of the Hill, The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, The X-Files
2002-03: Futurama, King of the Hill, The Simpsons, Oliver Beene, Malcolm in the Middle, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, The Pitts

Seth MacFarlane would come define to Fox Sunday nights, but, well, Matt Groening did it first. Futurama was a worthy follow-up to The Simpsons, a clever workplace comedy that regularly used the entire universe as its office. But it wasn’t the only quality sitcom to premiere that season. Malcolm in the Middle was well-defined right out of the gate (it’s a great pilot), and barreled along with a quiet confidence and fantastic cast for much of its seven-season run. It’s only now getting the respect it deserves. The X-Files finally (and belatedly) said farewell in 2002, and in its place came Andy Richter Controls the Universe, which gave the world the puppy suit for which we’re forever grateful, and The Pitts, which gave the world Lizzy Caplan, for which we’re forever grateful. Neither was commercially successful, and only the canceled-too-soon-list-mainstay Controls the Universe is remembered today.

The Arrested Development Era

2003-04: Oliver Beene, King of the Hill, The Simpsons, The Bernie Mac Show, Malcolm in the Middle, Arrested Development

Fox deserves a lifetime “I can’t be mad at you for canning Firefly after only one season” pass, because they gave Arrested Development, a weird and often hateful little comedy that demanded close attention, a shot. If you want to yarn some walls, you could claim that Arrested only happened because Family Guy, which sunk to No. 125 in the ratings, was canceled the year before, freeing up a slot in Fox’s Sunday night schedule. Sure, we’ll go with that. Elsewhere, The Bernie Mac Show had a half-season Sunday stay before it got lost in constant schedule shuffling. But again, can’t be mad at Fox.

The Reality Show Era

2004-05: King of the Hill, Malcolm in the Middle, The Simpsons, Arrested Development, My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss, Family Guy, The Sketch Show, American Dad!

My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss is the only reality series Fox ever scheduled on Sunday nights (Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? is technically a quiz show), and even then, it was a spoof of tripe like The Apprentice. It, along with The Sketch Show (which at least starred Kaitlin Olson, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Paul F. Tompkins), didn’t last very long, at which point, Fox went back to its bread and butter — animation and wry scripted comedies.

The Seth MacFarlane Era

2005-06: Malcolm in the Middle, King of the Hill, The Simpsons, The War at Home, Family Guy, American Dad!, Free Ride
2006-07: The O.C., The Simpsons, American Dad!, Family Guy, The War at Home
2007-08: The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Family Guy, American Dad!
2008-09: Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Family Guy, American Dad!
2009-10: Brothers, ‘Til Death, Sons of Tucson, The Simpsons, The Cleveland Show, Family Guy, American Dad!

It’s one thing when American Dad!, which dusted off the cobwebs around season three and morphed from preachy to hilarious, follows Family Guy. That makes sense. It’s another when American Dad! follows Family Guy, which follows The Cleveland Show, a Family Guy spin-off that only found its footing after it was too late. That’s a lot of MacFarlane, too much for most, especially with The Simpsons years into their decline and King of the Hill always the bridesmaid, never the bride. This is around when many previous long-time Fox watchers broke their routine, and put something else on. Gone were Malcolm, Arrested, and any semblance of a funny live-action show; the less said about ‘Til Death, Sons of Tucson, and Michael Strahan’s Brothers, the better. You were either all in on Peter Griffin, or you were out.

The Bob’s Burgers Era

2010-11: The Simpsons, The Cleveland Show, Bob’s Burgers, Family Guy, American Dad!
2011-12: Bob’s Burgers, The Cleveland Show, The Simpsons, Allen Gregory, Napoleon Dynamite, Family Guy, American Dad!
2012-13: The Cleveland Show, The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, Family Guy, American Dad!

This could still be the MacFarlane Era or the Why Did Fox Think the Abysmal Allen Gregory and Napoleon Dynamite Were Good Ideas Era, but Bob’s Burgers has been as good as season two of The Simpsons for years now, and it’s the network’s best comedy since Arrested Development. The songs alone make it an all-timer. In 2014, the Loren Bouchard-created series became Fox’s first Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program winner since Futurama 12 years prior. Hopefully the Bob’s Burgers Era never ends.

The Return to Live Action Era

2013-14: Bob’s Burgers, American Dad!, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
2014-15: Mulaney, Bob’s Burgers, The Simpsons, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Family Guy, The Last Man on Earth
2015-16: Bob’s Burgers, The Simpsons, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Family Guy, The Last Man on Earth

Bob’s still rules, but you can’t overlook the changes Fox has gone through in recent years. MacFarlane’s 73 animated series were replaced by one MacFarlane cartoon, one MacFarlane mind-trip of a documentary hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Golden Globe-winning Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and the ambitious The Last Man on Earth. It’s a stable lineup, despite the occasional Mulaney speed bump, and one that Fox could run with for as long as Will Forte feels like growing out his beard and The Simpsons stays on the air.

So, forever, or at least until 2019.