It is difficult to imagine the television landscape as it existed on December 17, 1989, the night The Simpsons debuted. The era of The Big Three networks was still in full swing, with the upstart Fox considered by most to be a hopeless venture. But there was some original programming on Fox, and back in those basic cable days, there was an audience looking for any alternative to the bland choices being offered by the networks.
The vast majority of the Thursday night TV audience were tuning into NBC though. The Cosby Show led the way, followed by the spin-off A Different World, then Cheers, Night Court, and LA Law. It was against this powerhouse block of programming that Fox decided to make its stand.
The debut episode of The Simpsons went head to head at 8:00 pm against Cosby. It was about as gutsy a move as was possible at the time, and generated tons of press. One of the biggest problems the upstart Fox had back then was coverage. In 1989 there were still a great many markets that did not have a Fox channel.
Obviously, this had a huge impact on the overall ratings. I have heard that The Simpsons’ debut beat Cosby in a number of key cities. In any event, what is now the longest running prime time series in television history was on its way.
With the advent of the full-season DVD box-set, fans have been able to argue the merits of various years, ad infinitum. I am partial to the first decade of the series, probably because it was so ground-breaking at the time.
Having said that though, there is some great stuff on the Complete Twentieth Season DVD set. The season opener, “Sex, Pies, And Idiot Scrapes” is hilarious. Through a typically random series of events, Homer decides to become a bounty hunter, and brings in Ned Flanders as his partner. The episode features a classic Simpson’s homage to the original 1960s Batman series fight scenes, among other great moments.