Sunday Night Fever

Sunday is the existential night of the television week. The rueful end to the traditional day of rest and the last gasp of free time before the long, hard slog of school or job ahead, it's one time when many people don't have to tape or TiVo; they're home, decompressing from the weekend or taking stock of their guilt-ridden lives.

Television viewing has for decades peaked on Sunday night, and in many households never more so than over the last five years, as HBO has exploited this emotional demographic with primetime shows that often synch weirdly with unique features of the Christian Sabbath.

The heavy talk about death and the afterlife on Six Feet Under, combined with the stained glass in the funeral chapel, is a gnawing reminder for many of us that we didn't attend church that morning. The nonstop, relentless cursing on The Wire and The Sopranos, Larry David's non-denominational sacrileges, and the blithe carnality of the Entourage guys and Sex in the City gals have always seemed more blasphemous when viewed on Sunday nights than during rebroadcasts later in the week. And for those whose Sunday morning ritual revolves around politics rather than prayer, Ali G interviewing Pat Buchanan about the search for nuclear BLT's in Iraq is extra hilarious because the faux rapper's idiotic self-confidence is not so different from the punditry style on the D.C. talk shows. (Close your eyes and it's Tim Russert browbeating Hans Blix.)

But if HBO now markets itself as the network synonymous with nervy Sunday night television, it was Fox that first proved a sizeable and loyal audience was eager for transgressive material at this time of the week. During Fox's start-up years in the early '90s, Rupert Murdoch's executives stacked the network's earthiest (and smartest) series -- The Tracey Ullman Show, Married with Children, In Living Color, It's Garry Shandling's Show, The Simpsons -- on Sundays.

The night has remained one of the foundations for the network's expansion. Arrested Development, the surprise Emmy winner for comedy series, and the relentlessly promoted My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss, aimed at beleaguered office workers everywhere, join established hits King of the Hill, The Simpsons, and Malcolm in the Middle on the Sunday lineup when the Fox season opens on November 7.

The network early on took advantage of the day's special vibe, setting a standard of outrageousness for HBO to live up to. The audience for Fox comedies skews young and male, the same audience that gorges itself on sports all afternoon. It didn't take long for this crowd to adopt Al Bundy (Ed O'Neill), the ex-high school jock trapped in a dead-end job, as a slacker icon and to make his trampy daughter, played by Christina Applegate, into the first Fox hottie. Raunchy humor has always been at the forefront of Sunday shows on Fox.

One of the famous high points of In Living Color was a "Men On Football" segment broadcast opposite Super Bowl XXVI in 1992. With Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier offering swishy commentary on the lusciousness of the players' butts ("He might have been a tight end once, he's a wide receiver now"), the deeply layered homoeroticism of football was mocked with a candor rarely seen before on television, and certainly never on the holiest day of the American sports calendar.

The Simpsons has from the beginning capitalized on its Sunday schedule. One of the only current sitcoms in which the main characters regularly go to church, it may also the only one to pit secular hedonism against evangelical Christianity. The twist to the political comedy about the blue-red division in American life, evidenced in Homer Simpson's never-ending battle with Ned Flanders, is that it's one-sided. Homer despises Ned while Ned views his neighbor with sunny equanimity, as another misguided soul in need of salvation. In Ned's mind there is no enmity, which only causes more eye-bulging rage in Homer. Liberal dogma claims it's the Bible-thumpers who are the maddened ignoramuses.

Bart Simpson looks forward to school about as much as his teenage viewers do, many of them watching The Simpsons while pretending to finish their homework for Monday. The show's affection for male rebelliousness -- a perennial theme in Fox comedies -- appeals to advertisers and sometimes crosses over to other Fox ventures. According to Preston Beckman, vice president for strategic programming at Fox, the network aired the show's 300th episode to coincide with last year's Daytona 500 because the audience members that tune into NASCAR's biggest race of the year are also huge fans of Homer and Bart.

Both Fox and HBO have filled a void left by the major networks. In the late '50s and early '60s Sunday was family night in front of the set. There was Disney's Wonderful World of Color and Lassie for kids, Bonanza and Jack Benny for adults. (The subversive wild card on the schedule was The Bullwinkle Show, a cartoon with grown-up jokes and a template for The Simpsons.) Sabbath television was epitomized by The Ed Sullivan Show, which ran for 23 years. The popularity of a variety show seems inexplicable now. But in homes with one television and no remote control, and with paltry choices elsewhere on the dial, family members were forced to tolerate each others' tastes for most of an hour in hopes of a three-minute payoff. (I remember the agony of sitting through a European trampoline act, roller skaters, and Alan King's jokes so I could hear one song by The Animals.)

Sundays in the '70s were often devoted to television that by the standards of the era was unconventional. Network executives woke up to the fact that the audience was fracturing along political and racial lines. M*A*S*H debuted on a Sunday in 1972, before eventually settling down on Monday night. CBS's All in the Family hit its creative peak from 1978-83 when it aired in the 8-8:30 p.m. slot, and The Jeffersons was a CBS Sunday night staple from 1979-84.

But by the mid-'80s, when Murdoch was hatching his plans for a fourth network, the big three had mostly given up programming dramatic and comedic series on Sundays, at least in primetime. Instead, they concentrated on the often more lucrative and less risky business of broadcasting what the trade refers to as "theatricals" -- movies of the week, series pilots, and specials of any kind. Theatricals require less commitment from a network and can offer quicker return. To reach the TV week's largest audience, producers for awards shows covet a Sunday night timeslot. The Academy Awards and the Grammy Awards, which are often the highest rated awards shows, are now staged on Sunday nights.

As an infant network, Fox could not compete in securing contracts for these events, and so decided to revive the unruly sitcom spirit of the '70s. "You go after the disaffected audience, the one that isn't being served," says Beckman. "In Fox's case that was male, younger, 12- to 24-[year-old], urban viewers."

The clout of Fox and HBO on Sunday night has some of the networks rethinking their strategy. They still create far more original dramatic programming than their upstart rivals -- 22 hours per week to Fox's 15 and HBO's 2 -- and ABC has enjoyed modest Sunday success since 2001 with Alias and The Practice, and now maybe Desperate Housewives, as has NBC with Law & Order: Criminal Intent. But executives are just as likely
to move high-rated Sunday night pilots to bolster other nights of the week. Twin Peaks might have been as ideal Black Sabbath fare for ABC as The X-Files was for Fox in the mid-'90s. But after Lynch's brilliant two-hour Sunday debut in 1990, it was dropped into the Thursday lineup, where after an acclaimed first season it quickly hemorrhaged viewers. Sunday night remains the place where promising series are given tryouts as pilots.

One thing hasn't changed about Sunday night. 60 Minutes is in its 36th season and owes more than a little of its longevity to its twilight timeslot. (For its first 7 years on CBS it ran on Tuesdays at 10-11 p.m. and regularly lost to ABC's Marcus Welby, M.D.) Bringing down the curtain on the weekend, 60 Minutes sets the table with crises for the week ahead. It now risks becoming the Dorian Gray of television, with its reporters aging as horribly as its viewers. (The average age of both is now 60-something.) But as the confessional where an ex-president went to unpack his sins before the nation and as a podium where some of Bush's toughest critics, from Paul O'Neill to Richard Clarke, were first widely seen and heard, 60 Minutes once again this year proved its importance to American political life. HBO and Fox can play havoc with television's moral compass because CBS's aging crew still manage to set the course for Sunday nights.

Richard B. Woodward is an arts editor in New York