Television

How Fox's 1997 Sunday Night Lineup Ate the Universe

Our reality is now Fox Mulder, Dale Gribble, Chief Wiggum, and a home movie of a guy getting hit in the groin.

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Our modern age of cartoon absurdity and baroque paranoia existed in miniature for an evening each week in the mid-1990s. Sunday nights on Fox, it was possible to marinate your mind in the anti-authoritarianism of The Simpsons, the populism of King of the Hill, and the free-ranging suspicions of The X-Files, thus spiritually preparing yourself for the world to come.

If you really wanted to prepare yourself, you could tune in an hour earlier for a fourth show. Long before anyone with a phone could load a home movie onto the internet for anyone else to see, you could catch a stunted Hollywood preview of that universe on The World's Funniest!, Fox's ripoff of ABC's America's Funniest Home Videos. (The Fox version wasn't quite as family-friendly as ABC's—an ad touted one episode as "an hourlong tribute to getting hit where it hurts the most.") On World's Funniest, of course, you couldn't share your clips directly with viewers, YouTube-style; a centralized group of studio suits acted as a bottleneck, picking the footage they thought viewers would like and then adding canned laughter and unnecessary sound effects. But it was more participatory than traditional television, and in its awkward, stupid way it offered a foretaste of the DIY media to come.

Then the good shows started. After World's Funniest came the cartoon satire of The Simpsons, one of those vast, allusive texts, like the Bible or the I Ching, that seems to contain all that has ever been and all that ever shall be. A persistent urban legend claims that the show predicted vast swaths of the future, a belief that relies mostly on not remembering just how long various parts of our lives have been around. That joke from 2000 about Donald Trump becoming president is less impressive if you recall that Trump dipped his toe into the presidential race that year. That 1994 gag that "predicted" autocorrect seems less spooky if you're aware that autocorrect already existed back then. And that story from 1997 where Bart stands in front of a picture of the World Trade Center that looks like it says "9/11″…OK, that is pretty creepy.

But those purported prophecies aren't the chief reason those early Simpsons episodes feel so resonant today. The program's writers came from a variety of political perspectives but they shared an anti-authoritarian attitude, one that produced the ideal show for an age of plunging trust in social institutions. "The thesis of The Simpsons is nihilism," then-showrunner Al Jean told interviewer Douglas Rushkoff in the early '90s. "There's nothing to believe in anymore once you assume that organized structures and institutions are out to get you." At that point Jean's collaborator Mike Reiss piped up to offer the series' "overarching point": "the media's stupid and manipulative, TV is a narcotic, and all big institutions are corrupt and evil." The only social institution that The Simpsons has reliably presented as more good than bad is the family, and even it gets some rough treatment.

A similar spirit animated the next cartoon on the Fox schedule, King of the Hill: Its populist worldview saw danger in every institution larger than the neighborhood, with the possible exception of the Dallas Cowboys. The locals were all deranged in their own ways too, but they managed to keep each other's excesses in line. Or at least they did back then. Looking back, I can't help noticing that the four men at the center of the series—Hank Hill, Bill Dauterive, Jeff Boomhauer, and Dale Gribble—were a Texas dad nostalgic for the old days, an incel, a pickup artist, and a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist: enough material to fuel a dozen worried op-eds in 2020. One theory of Trump is that he's the president you get if those neighborhood ties fray and all the Hanks, Bills, Boomhauers, and Dales get shaken loose.

In any case, King of the Hill creator Mike Judge owned a VHS tape that he labeled "Three Dales." It featured three conspiracy theorists that he had taped off his local public access TV channel. One of them was Alex Jones.

And then there was The X-Files, an hour-long drama in which two FBI agents went rummaging through Alex Jones' nightmares. The cheap way to connect The X-Files to the present would be to say that it was a show about conspiracies and that conspiracy theories are all over the place today. But conspiracy theories are always all over the place, even when public trust is much higher—they just aren't necessarily aimed in the same direction. So that in itself isn't the big link.

The closer connection is that The X-Files was born right after the end of the Cold War, a moment when Americans no longer had a powerful external foe to serve as a focus for their fears. It became easier to cast those suspicions upward at the government, and easier to adopt a more diffuse dread about an unidentified ethereal enemy. As the present grew more confusing, the past came unmoored as well: The X-Files was constantly rewriting the history of the Cold War, looking back at the institutions that had presented themselves as protecting us and recasting them as a conspiracy against the public. That resonates at a time when the War on Terror—the great mobilizing conflict that eventually filled the space left empty by the Cold War—has been coming unspooled for several years, to the point where a politician can casually declare that the Iraq war was built on lies and then get elected president as a Republican.

And there's another connection. "The central image of threat in The X-Files is infection—a plague that may begin at any point on the globe and spread to any other," the critic Paul Cantor observed in 2001. By the beginning of 2020, viral infection had become the go-to metaphor for any number of real and alleged threats, from gun violence to Russian disinformation. And then, on top of that, we got an actual plague.

Of these programs, only The Simpsons lingers on the air—or at any rate, a zombie bearing its name is still lurching around. But all four are with us in spirit. Fox Mulder, Dale Gribble, Chief Wiggum, and a home movie of a guy getting hit in the groin: you could see them all on a Sunday night in the '90s. And if you want to see them again, just look around.

(Bonus link: I discussed The X-Files on a recent episode of the podcast Pop & Locke.)

NEXT: Trump's Bump Stock Ban Is Under Fire From His Own Judicial Appointees 

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  1. “Its populist worldview saw danger in every institution larger than the neighborhood, with the possible exception of the Dallas Cowboys. ”

    I’ve long been confused by what Reason writers mean when they say “populist” but I think I’ve finally figured it out……it just sounds better than yokel

    1. I think I’ve finally figured it out

      I’m afraid you’re going to have to keep working at it.

      1. Thanks for coming in the comments from time to time Jesse. Your work continues to be one of the bright spots at this publication.

    2. I don’t see any reason to think there’s a “Reason” consensus on the term. Just as everyone else in the media and seemingly everyone I talk to, the definition seems to be mostly in the eye of the beholder, but it’s most frequently a pejorative. I don’t think that’s what Jesse is doing here. From my reading of King of the Hill (although it’s probably been ten years since watching an episode, I’ve seen most of them at least once) he’s likely referring to how it centers it’s concerns on the every man and his standing against the tide of powers that are bigger than him both political and cultural. The show certainly takes it’s potshots at the small town Texans, but ultimately it is very sympathetic to them and their world view.

    3. You could just look up populism in a dictionary. That being said, ‘yokel’ could easily fit as a pretty good definition.


      pop·u·lism


      a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.

      ‘Ordinary people’ in that context could easily be replaced by ‘yokel’ assuming you’re one of the established elite groups (liberal progressive).

  2. In the 90’s, the show’s bureaucratic FBI was sinister. In the short-lived reboot of the series the bureau was recast in a more favorable light. It actually became a little embarrassing.

    1. Yes, but virulently anti-Trump and proudly Resistance, so that at least got that part right, even if for very wrong reasons

  3. The locals were all deranged in their own ways too, but they managed to keep each other’s excesses in line.

    I think this itself is a good point. It’s not that “average” people are any better or worse than those occupying high positions; it’s that the decentralized structures of neighborhoods, etc. are much less likely to lead to the runaway accumulation of power. Put another way, a decentralized society doesn’t really have to assume that people will behave like angels; a centralized one does have to assume that the ones at the top, at least, will behave like angels.

    1. Good reading. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I remember an old interview I read with Mike Judge where he fairly explicitly says that’s his world view. Centralized bureaucracy run by buffoons causing detachment and dehumanization is a center piece of most of his work. Intentionally or not, I regard him as one of the best libertarian writers in Hollywood.

    2. a centralized one does have to assume that the ones at the top, at least, will behave like angels.

      Which anyone with even a cursory understanding of human history should realize is a bad assumption yet we still see people clamoring for a “strongman” government to “lead” them, so long as the “right” strongman is in charge. I’m beginning to suspect that the vast majority of people are historically illiterate retards.

      1. I’m beginning to think the explicit aim of the public school system is to create historically illiterate retards. When I think back to my high school history classes, I scoff at how narrowly focused it is on the actions of the state and how smart and wise it is. Especially since the start for WWII.

        1. History? Who cares. Most public schools teach like half a semester of civics and half a semester of economics at best. And this is in high school, where a ‘semester’ doesn’t mean what it does to most adult humans.

          Tell me that isn’t by design.

  4. Boomhauer was a Texas Ranger, or at least strongly implied to be a Texas Ranger.

    1. Yeah, there was an episode towards the end of the show’s run where they showed a Texas Ranger badge in his wallet. I think there’s a fan theory that he was actually undercover the entire time and was sent to spy on Dale Gribble because the Texas Rangers actually thought he may be a threat. Of course, it’s just as likely that the badge was phony and he just used it to pick up chicks.

      1. What exterminator doesn’t need a ton of ammonium nitrate to blow up gopher tunnels?

  5. The olden days seem like they were pretty trippy.

    People would just sit down for hours in front of those old tv boxes with the radioactive bulbs in them?

    They must have said some stuff on the internet because my dad told me the internet started to become popular in 1994.

    1. You’re young and your name is Doug?

      Whoa. Trippy.

  6. I never knew that Boomhauer’s first name was Jeff until now. On the show I’ve only ever heard them call him Boomhauer. This is why I come to Reason, to learn important stuff like that.

    I keed, I keed.

  7. the NYC episode of the Simpsons is a top-five. a screenshot of the MAD Magazine scene is my background … “get me Kaputnik and Fonebone I want to see their drawings for the New Kids on the Blech . And where’s my fleshurgina pastrami sandwiches?”

    1. My favorite bit from the Simpson’s is where Homer buys stock in the Animotion animated motion-capture company and the next day calls the Automated Stock Line to check on the price of his stock. The computer voice says “Please state the company name” and Homer says “Animotion”. The computer voice says “Animotion up one and a half”, to which news Homer exclaims “Yahoo!”. The computer voice says “Yahoo up six and a quarter” and Homer looks at the phone in puzzlement and says “Huh? What is this crap?”. And the computer voice says “Fox Broadcasting, down 8”.

      1. yeah they rail on Fox a ton. and “those greedy Executive Producers” as the executive producer credits roll

  8. I suppose the only thing worse for an energetic paranoiac than being personally targeted by Big Government or Big Corporation is that Big Government and Big Corporation don’t know or care about them.

  9. Did they really put all the jerks in the North Tower?

    1. +1 klau kalash

  10. If you think the Simpson’s WTC reference is weird, have you ever seen the X-Files sister show “The Lone Gunman” predict 9/11 six months before it happened with a frightening level of accuracy?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmmOVSmmdwk

  11. I’ve been watching King of the Hill from the beginning with my kid. What a great show. Basically wholesome, but edgy enough to be entertaining. And it would probably be impossibly controversial today.

  12. “One theory of Trump is that he’s the president you get if those neighborhood ties fray and all the Hanks, Bills, Boomhauers, and Dales get shaken loose.”

    YOU’RE DEPLORABLES PEOPLE! BITTER CLINGERS!

  13. I don’t remember the fake America’s Funniest Home Videos show at all. The Simpsons, yes, and King of the Hill later on. XFiles, of course. What about In Living Color? Much more important to me. It covered items like race and homophobia and street dancing (kidding).

    1. Family guy started in the 90s too. And, like the simpsons, was very funny for a while, and on Sunday nights.

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