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Fox at 25: Crazy, sly but still somehow honourable

The other day on the Fox News Channel – as the 2½ people who watch it in Canada can confirm – Bill O'Reilly went ballistic about Glee.

The topic was a recent Glee episode about a transgender teenager who struggled with gender identity. O'Reilly was incensed by the episode, which, he barked, encouraged "dopey kids" to experiment with homosexuality and potentially encouraged these kids to declare themselves transgender: "They might go out and experiment with this stuff," he said.

Yeah, whatever. But there is a point to telling this story. And it is not to play into the idle speculation that Glee will soon be banned in Alberta. It is to emphasize that Fox is a multilayered thing. O'Reilly is on Fox News criticizing certain storylines on Glee, which is carried on the main Fox channel.

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The Fox network is now a quarter-century old. The 25th birthday was marked on Sunday by a two-hour thing called Fox 25th Anniversary Special. It was slight and goofy, and hardly a fitting appreciation of 2½ decades of Fox madness. Mind you, it did poke fun at its wildest and weirdest moments. That's a very Foxy quality.

Who can forget the outrage over such shows as The Swan, Temptation Island, When Good Pets Go Bad, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, Married by America, My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé and Joe Millionaire?

Yet, for all the cheesy, sleazy reality shows, the history of Fox is more honourable than abhorrent. For a start, the establishment of a fourth network in the 1980s was a challenge to the orthodoxy and blandness of U.S. television. While NBC, CBS and ABC sneered at the start-up, they eventually became terrified of Fox.

From the beginning, Fox illuminated the poverty of programming on the other three networks. In the early 1990s, Living Single, New York Undercover and Martin showcased black talent and illustrated the nervousness of CBS, ABC and NBC about appealing to an African-American audience. When In Living Color became a phenomenon (and made stars of Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Lopez and Jim Carrey), every sketch comedy show on every other network looked wilted and lame. And, of course, The Simpsons and King of the Hill changed everybody's mind about animated TV for adults.

Fox's drama department also showed a knack for developing shows that could connect with a national mood better and faster than anybody else. The X Files probably looked like a misfire to some when it aired but the series (starring total unknowns David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) was in sync with a paranoid sensibility that was just below the surface of U.S. culture. Its drama 24 has the same air about it – a show with a fantastical premise that was perfectly timed.

There was Ally McBeal, with its strange blend of legal drama, dark comedy and, with Calista Flockhart as Ally channelling what many women viewers were feeling about shifting sexual politics, office politics and the politics of being ultra-skinny. At the same time, Fox shifted everything about television's portrayal of family life. In an apparently ongoing attempt to redefine how working families are portrayed – from Married ... With Children to Malcolm in the Middle and Family Guy – Fox gave viewers a portrayal of the family unit more raw and real than anything ever seen on the other networks.

American Idol changed television for a decade, proving that, even as the TV landscape splintered and audiences moved to specialty channels, it was possible to air a TV show that viewers of all ages and backgrounds watched avidly.

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Fox was also forgiven often by people who write about TV. It has always been more genial with the press than its competitors. It paid attention to all reviews and coverage. Me, I remember answering the phone one day, years ago, astonished to find a Fox executive arguing with me about something I'd written about Beverly Hills 90210. He'd didn't care that I write for a Canadian paper and the Nielsen ratings didn't cover Canada. He was up for an argument about his show.

Fox publicists have told me scurrilous stories about TV celebs and sent thank-you notes after I paid attention to a show or an actor they felt deserved serious coverage. Nobody else does that, ever.

That, too, is part of what Fox has done in challenging the orthodoxy – there isn't much cordiality and respect for the press in the TV racket. Fox News is another matter. But O'Reilly can rant all he wants about Glee – it's a groundbreaking, magnificent show. Tonight's episode (Fox, Global 8 p.m.) is called Dance with Somebody and it's the glee club's homage to Whitney Houston.

For all its indecorous moments, the Fox network has provided more incisive and intelligent programming than other networks and we'd be poorer without it.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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