Fox’s newest unscripted series, “Cherries Wild,” is, among other things, a very easy trivia show, an opportunity to watch the dial of a giant slot machine turn, and a thirty-minute-long advertorial sponsored by Pepsi. It’s also something that no one would mistake, at the present moment, for a show appearing anywhere else. While the show may not work, that’s likely good news for Fox.
Of late, Fox has had a brand identity of almost-startling consistency. Its scripted offerings include a robust suite of animated comedies and, on the drama side, “9-1-1” and its Texas-set spinoff, both of which generate chatter the further they distance themselves from realism or even sense. And its unscripted shows — especially those rooted in music, like “The Masked Singer” and “Dancer,” “I Can See Your Voice,” and the “Name That Tune” reboot — are so committed to their bits that they achieve a sort of sublime inanity. What “Cherries Wild,” the most rudimentary and least satisfying of the bunch, shares, at least, is a sort of innocence, a sense of itself as dedicated to amusement before other cardinal virtues.
This is, perhaps, a fine place for the upstart network that, through its history, gave us “Married… with Children,” “The Simpsons,” and “Melrose Place” to end up; Fox was the network that oversaw the decoupling of taste from what was mainstream. And it still looks different from its competition: CBS, for instance, used the Super Bowl to market its “CBS Originals” as upmarket and something close to premium. That network, like ABC and NBC, tries to split the difference between prestige and mass, and has the help of a corporate-partner studio to produce shows for them. The Fox network was uncoupled from 20th Century Fox Studios when Disney bought the latter. Since then, it’s made a show of being lean, throwing its shoulder into reality and into only those scripted shows that could potentially land with a broad audience.
This is leaving some potential unfulfilled, perhaps. It’s hard to imagine that former AMC Networks chair Charlie Collier expected to be the king of music-and-costume content after having presided over the “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Walking Dead” era for the cabler. The network he stepped into in 2018 had a recent history of awards-courting creative ambition; a little more than a decade ago, Fox was home to shows including “House” and “24” and even more recently to “New Girl” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” none of which would quite fit on the network’s air today. The commitment to the undemanding has its downsides: “Call Me Kat,” the net’s most recent comedy debut, is almost performatively hackneyed, as if trying to create a parody of a sitcom. But if this sort of throwback — to the goofiest of network sitcom history — is less-than-welcome, much of the rest of Fox’s programming slate suggests a way forward of sorts.
To wit: Much of broadcast is chasing, still, a goal that seems to be slipping further away: A scripted series that can come close to the complexity — and the critical praise — of what’s on streaming or premium cable, while fulfilling the commercial imperatives networks have always faced. (Those creators who’ve managed to thread that needle in recent years, including Shonda Rhimes, Kenya Barris, and “9-1-1” creator Ryan Murphy, have tended to be lured to streaming.) Consider the race to match the success of the only recent broadcast show to have done something like this, NBC’s “This Is Us,” with would-be drama crossovers like “A Million Little Things” on ABC or “Council of Dads” on NBC. And with few exceptions, crime or legal dramas with more on their mind like “9-1-1” tend to embrace a stagy sort of darkness without the complexity or depth that cable allows.
Fox has opted out of this race for now. (The writing, perhaps, was on the wall at the 2019 Emmys — an awards show that most years is a showcase for a network’s marquee talents, and one that two years ago was taken up with “Masked Singer” bits.) And it’s a decision that both would seem from the outside to make a sort of business sense but also one that actually does serve the audience. We already have cable and streaming services to provide content that pushes creative and artistic boundaries; while it would be nice if the free public airwaves could accommodate more of the same, there’s a creative conservatism that comes with being available to all, and even more that comes with standards of decency and the interests of advertisers.
In an era of consumer choice, why try to re-engineer that which can be done more effectively by those with more resources and fewer guardrails? The best that can be said for Fox’s offerings that don’t work, like “Cherries Wild,” which premieres Sunday, is that they are very conscious of what they are — and the same is doubly true for those that do. That networks have a shrinking place in our culture can tend to overshadow that what is “shrinking” is still “big.” Bringing showmanship to those programs that exist within the TV diet as dessert rather than nourishment is a goal that makes a lot more sense than trying to reverse the flow of time and bring back the old network era. The new era for networks, perhaps, can be a little more fun.