Animation has blasted its way into the forefront of television with shows like Bob’s Burger’s, Robot Chicken, Home Movies, and South Park (to name a few in the last 5-10 years). A great way to erase the limits of storytelling; it costs less, the actors get to show up in pajamas, and if the show is a hit, you’ve got a marketing monster! I’ve chosen three of the four shows shown in the above picture to review. King of the Hill (far left) was cancelled after a fairly successful run. This leaves three mega-giants in their genre; (l-r) The Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad (all members of the Fox family, by the way).
The Simpsons began as filler for the skit show The Tracy Ulman Show in 1989. It gained overnight popularity and the show took off like a rocket. Simple and fat father, Homer Simpson. Smart and All-American mother, Marge. Skateboarding menace of a son, Bart. Artistic and academically excelling daughter, Lisa. And the eternal baby, Maggie. The Simpsons was just as much a family show as The Cosby show crossed with Roseanne at its start. Ripe with catchphrases ( Bart’s “Eat My Shorts” and “Don’t Have A Cow” and Homer’s “D’oh!” which has been inducted into Oxford English Dictionary), The Simpsons was a tv hit and a commercial gold mine. As the show went on, continuing to jump the shark time and time again as well as give poignant lessons and provide some of tv’s most classic moments (Like “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”), it finally began to lose its spark around season 18. What once threw audiences into humorous hysterics, was now worth a chuckle or two. What really stands to be impressive is the longevity of the show. The Simpsons is in it’s 26th season! Merchandise is still found on the shelves. For some of us, it is nostalgia. For others, it’s just a good way to waste 30 minutes. One thing that can’t be argued, The Simpsons is the grandfather of all animated series. With that in mind, this is also the most family-friendly offering. I can watch this with anyone of any age, without my dignity being questioned. It’s first big screen movie was a hit; creating Spider-pig alone was enough for me. Somebody get me a pig and dress it up already! The Simpsons is no doubt the inspiration for several other animated sitcoms…such as…
Seth McFarland’s Family Guy. This is a show about a simple, fat father (Peter), Smart and All-American mother (Louis), dumb son (Chris), battered daughter (Meg) and unstable eternal infant (Stewie). Now the fat guy/hot wife idea is not new. It’s like there is a cookie cutter being used in Hollywood as the base for sitcoms; like The King of Queens. The success of Family Guy (which premiered in 1999) sparked a war among viewers who felt McFarland was flat out stealing storylines from The Simpsons. I think that is safe to say. The real question is; was he doing it better? Well, it was hard to say in the beginning. The show was fresh and nodded at television and pop culture of every era. As most shows do, this began to jump the shark (a little earlier) and also suffered the “dumb down” disease that show many shows are struck with. Mama’s Family began as raw humor about a southern family, with smart and sassy characters that we all related to. By the end it was like Mama’s son and daughter in law had been given lobotomies. Family Guy began to reach for every joke, gag, and gimmick it could land on and often without relating to anything going on in the episode. It was sloppy and random humor that, individually, could be quite a gut-buster. However, as a coherent storyline, it was just cheap. There was also my personal issue of why the family was so cruel to daughter Meg, who they physically and mentally torture. What is the point? It’s not funny. It doesn’t provide any value socially. Although, I have to admit that the hurricane episode and the “Meg goes to prison” episodes are more satisfying knowing what she has gone through. Then, there is the confusing relationship of the alcoholic dog, Brian and the baby with the British accent, Stewie. Why can Brian hear the baby AND talk to the family, but the family can’t hear the baby talking? These are all things that have been fun to poke at for the creators, as well as audiences. One can’t deny the edginess, but is Family Guy playing to the lowest common denominator? Does it serve as a dumping ground for adhd-thinking? Is this the best McFarlane has to offer?
The latter question is answered by American Dad! Though it has only been around since 2005, this modern take on All In The Family has shown the beauty of combining the irrelevant with playing by the rules (in terms of storytelling). Stan Smith works for the CIA and lives with his pretty but dumb wife, his militant daughter, nerdy son, an often effeminate and bitchy Alien (cleverly given the voice of Paul Lynde), and a fish with the brain of a German man. What I find most interesting is that despite the outrageous characters (compared to Family Guy which only has a talking dog) the episodes tend to be more formulaic. There is usually a clear lesson being learned or resolution being sought, where Family Guy can go off on a tangent leaving you feeling like you’ve fallen down a colorful canyon after snorting a bunch of coke. Something about it may be fun, but there was no point and your brain isn’t any better for it. American Dad! is madness but with structure, which I find far more alluring. The episodes are insane, but guided. This show doesn’t have the experience of the other two, but it makes me want to root for it. It bridges juvenile humor with good writing. Creating Roger, the alien, and his need to have disguises in public (and to anchor his sanity) is comic gold; giving us characters like, my personal favorite, Jeannie Gold, wedding extraordinaire! Now, Fox has cancelled the show, but they also cancelled Family Guy a dozen times. Fox is not known for its wisdom or loyalty (it almost axed X-files after the first season). Fortunately, TBS had the wisdom to pick it up and order new episodes.
So, let’s tally this banana. The Simpsons cornered the market on (if not originated) the animated sitcom. It was relate-able and lucrative, though it seems to be dragging itself towards an ever-moving finish line. It gets points for being a pioneer and for stamina. It loses points for perhaps not retiring when it should have. Meanwhile, Family Guy is the show that has been repeatedly cancelled. It’s mean and frequently random only for the sake of being so. It has undeniable laughter though it comes at a sacrifice. Still funny but only when it isn’t being that mildly drunk friend who is trying to be “more fun” by acting even drunker. Finally, there is American Dad! It’s the show that isn’t as over-exposed as the other two have been. It keeps a freshness compared to new pair of underwear in a air-tight bag of sliced cucumbers in the freezer. It also has an almost limitless source of plot devices with space, government, and science being so prominent to the characters. Yet, it chooses to use those limits sparingly. I have to give this one to American Dad! Sure, it’s young and hasn’t had the time to make the mistakes the others have, but it is a cartoon carnivore keeping a cool composure while the others desperately beg for laughs. “Good morning, USA! I’ve got a feeling that it’s gonna be a wonderful day!”