Having just eye-rolled over the popularity of Family Guy, I decided it is right and proper to acknowledge that last night The Simpsons surpassed Gunsmoke as TV Land’s longest-running series. (At least in terms of seasons; Simpsons just began season 21, thus besting Gunsmoke‘s 20, but it bears noting that in Gunsmoke‘s day, a season could last 40 episodes, compared to the 20 to 22 or so episodes in a typical Simpsons season today.)
I’ll admit I don’t find the show as relevant these days, but how could it be? It’s strength was in the beginning when it was forging whole new ways to do television comedy, animated or otherwise. Man, do you remember season 3? The one with “Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk” (Germans buying the power plant), “Stark Raving Dad” (Homer’s institutionalization for wearing a pink shirt), or one of my all-time favorites, “Marge Versus the Monorail” (the origin of the wacky sing-alongs that Family Guy loves to wring so desperately). This was all eye-opening stuff, with a speed and a sharpness to the wisecracks that audiences had never seen.
If you can, rewatch the season 3 episode “Lisa’s Pony,” which is both riotously funny and genuinely tender. It’s about Homer wanting to give Lisa the one present she’s ever wanted, and what lengths he’ll go through to be the good dad. It’s easy to knock the character of Homer as a big oaf, but in the early days especially, the Simpsons writers knew how to make fun of stupidity while still creating characters worth caring about. Homer wasn’t always a doofus, Bart wasn’t always a brat.
Contrast that to today’s fuzzy carbon copy, Family Guy. Will this show ever be as long-running and endearing? Wait — maybe I don’t want an answer to that. I think many of today’s 12- to 24-year-old demographic are finding the same memorable TV moments with FG that I had 15 years ago when Bart prank-called Australia, and had to go Down Under to face the consequences. (Oh, man, season 6’s “Bart vs. Australia” still makes me snort with glee.)
Can I tell these poor, deluded kids that they should hold out for better? Or should I just accept that Family Guy is this generation’s pied piper, luring scatology-loving audiences to lower and lower expectations for their laugh thresholds?
I can’t resist noting what critics have been saying about the new Family Guy spin-off, The Cleveland Show. As I understand it Cleveland was supposed to be a little more family-themed and heartfelt comedy (a la Simpsons) than its predecessor’s crude output. But the LA Times wrote that it’s “neither sweet nor particularly funny, neither a family comedy nor a true satire,” while the Dallas Morning News posited “there’s no easy way to describe The Cleveland Show. Oh wait, yes there is: It’s not very funny.”
Perhaps most pointed of all is this Newark Ledger Star article, which manages to provide the most deft analysis of Family Guy to date. It captures my attitude perfectly — that when FG is clever, it’s clever, but when it’s bad, it’s unwatchable — and ace the perfect description of creator Seth McFarlane’s modus operandi: “the anything-for-a-laugh approach.”
If McFarlane weren’t worth hundreds of millions of dollars, I’d call it a waste of talent. I guess I just have to settle for a waste of time.