Regular airtime: Sundays, 9:30pm ET (Fox)
Cast: Rachel MacFarlane, Seth MacFarlane, Wendy Schall, Dee Bradley Baker, Scott Grimes
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Four minutes into “Blind Ambition,” the third episode of this season’s Family Guy, Peter (Seth MacFarlane) is suddenly tackled off the screen by a giant chicken. What follows is a cartoon action sequence to end all cartoon action sequences: vehicles explode and limbs flail as Peter and the chicken beat each other senseless. It culminates in a hysterical send-up of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and, with a last, frightened “BUCK-KAW!”, the chicken is chopped to bits by an airplane propeller.
Family Guy is renowned for inserting such random-seeming interludes (including bits on Indiana Jones, the Rice Krispie mascots, and Big Bird), establishing a take-no-prisoners edge that cuts through any semblance of political correctness. This combination of self-reference, childhood nostalgia, and low humor gained Family Guy a cult following amongst college students when it debuted, but the mainstream press and audience were not as receptive. Fox eventually placed Family Guy in a timeslot against Survivor, Friends, and WWF Smackdown, leading to the show’s cancellation in 2002. Internet and college communities, however, kept it alive, and after DVD sales of the first three seasons passed two million, Fox revived the show last month.
The first two episodes of the new season featured more raunch than reliable satire, mostly to the show’s detriment. Although Family Guy has used scatological and sexual humor in the past, the new gags feel forced, as if offensiveness qualifies as a joke in itself. The show is also picking easier targets this time around. The episode “North by North Quahog” took weary aim at Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ, and the decision to go to war in Iraq. All are standard fodder for late night comedians, and Family Guy found little new to say.
Both of these changes mark a blatant appeal to a wider audience, whereas obscure gags used to make Family Guy something of an inside joke for fans. The third episode rebounded somewhat, focused on Quahog citizens—perverted Quagmire (Seth MacFarlane) and sluggish Cleveland (Mike Henry)—and other characters for humor. And so, after a rough start, the fourth season now appears to be back on track.
Similar problems plague American Dad. Also created by MacFarlane, it was originally slated to be Family Guy‘s replacement. Since the first series’ resurrection, however, MacFarlane reportedly refocused his energies on it, leaving American Dad to associates. An early pilot, airing after this year’s Super Bowl, proved disappointing; critics termed the characters imitations of Family Guy regulars, which they were, and MacFarlane’s Generation X-geared wit was nowhere to be seen.
MacFarlane calls American Dad “a cross between Family Guy and All in the Family.” This may be what he was aiming for, but American Dad is not interested in dealing with topical specifics or Archie-Bunkerish self-doubt. Worse, the timetable for studio animation is slow, which means that American Dad‘s political jokes are dated as soon as they’re written (unlike, say, the humor of late night talk shows or the current pace-setter, The Daily Show). The duo of Stan (MacFarlane), a rightwing CIA agent, and Haley (Rachel MacFarlane), his leftwing daughter, is stereotyped (as the dependent in the household, she mostly reacts to Stan). Although this makes her a parody of “childish,” liberal reactionaries, it’s also an uninformed simplification of American politics. Over four episodes, including the pilot, Haley and Stan remain stuck in place, embodying liberal impracticality and conservative pigheadedness.
Other principal characters aren’t so politically slanted; instead, they’re irritating distractions from whatever social message the show might be conveying. Most notably inconsequential is Klaus (Dee Bradley Baker), a fish implanted with the brain of a German man, who lusts after Francine (Wendy Schall), Stan’s wife. His one-track mind, combined with the difficulty of getting around (he’s a fish, after all), renders him one-note, and he brings nothing to the table other than snarky one-liners. His oddities make him immediately comparable to Family Guy‘s Stewie, but Stewie’s plotting to take over the world affords him better plotlines than shouting sexual innuendos at an owner’s wife. Unless Klaus finds a way to breathe without water, it’s unlikely he’ll achieve Stewie’s human-form flexibility.
The pacing of American Dad is just as wooden as its characters. Family Guy typically offers generous stretches of witty dialogue, punctuated by action scenes. American Dad, on the other hand, has already established hyperdrive as its rhythmic baseline. Stan’s CIA buddies are the ultimate deus ex machina, swooping in with helicopters and guns to fix a plot problem whenever the show’s writers get lazy. In “Francine’s Flashback,” Stan goes on an extended car chase to kill an adorable squirrel, hoping that the carnage will jog Francine’s lost memories. As Bruckheimer-like chaos sequences are the characters’ daily experience, this potentially surreal storyline almost seems mundane.
Family Guy, despite some initial missteps at the beginning of its new season, shows signs of regaining its admirable mix of niche nostalgia and hysterical characterizations. American Dad, setting itself as politically oriented from the start, doesn’t make smart use of the family structure. And besides, borrowing this structure from Family Guy only makes the original look less original.