There’s been a lot of anticipation for American Dad, the new animated series from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. In 1999, Family Guy earned a following large enough to make it one of television’s hottest properties but not large enough to sustain the ratings Fox wanted, resulting in its cancellation. However, the record-setting sales of the show’s DVD sets and its excellent ratings as part of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim lineup led Fox to return it to the network’s midseason Sunday night lineup. Since all that, everyone’s been wondering what else MacFarlane had up his sleeve. The answer, unfortunately, is not much.
Stan Smith (voiced by MacFarlane) is a true-blue American hero, a clean-cut, square-jawed, supremely earnest saluter of Old Glory. He’s also an important cog in the War on Terror, a decorated CIA operative responsible for keeping the U.S. safe and freedom on the march. On the home front, he’s somewhat less successful. His daughter Hayley (Seth’s daughter Rachael) is a crunchy granola community college lefty who looks for every opportunity to challenge Dad. He has trouble relating to his son Steve (Scott Grimes), a pasty pre-pubescent loser with a Shazam t-shirt and no luck with the ladies. And his wife Francine (Wendy Schaal) is mostly supportive, but lacks enthusiasm about brandishing her machetes when Stan suspects a late-night attack by Osama bin Laden (Stan screams, “If I die, you must protect the clan!”).
Rounding out the family are Klaus (Dee Bradley Baker), a talking goldfish with the mind of an East German alpine skier (the CIA switched his brain during the fictional 1986 Winter Olympics to ensure American victory) and the hots for Francine; and Roger (MacFarlane again), an alien that saved Stan’s life at Area 51 and whose necessary house arrest has acclimated him to Earth’s simpler pleasures, like cigarettes, daytime television, and Chocodiles.
If this sounds familiar, you’ve been watching your Family Guy DVDs. MacFarlane has recycled all of his previous show’s personalities, touching up each with a slight accent, a simple inversion, or a specific political agenda. Follow me here: Klaus is Stewie gone Oedipal, trying to elbow Stan out of the picture so he can nail Francine; Roger is Brian with a Paul Lynde accent; Steve, sadly, combines Meg and Chris into a frumpy oddball whom nobody really gets or likes; Francine plays the same ancillary role as Lois; and Stan is a jacked-up action junkie/goofball dad who can’t relate to his kids and screws up huge — a non-paralyzed, über-Republican mash-up of Peter and Quahog cop Joe Swanson right down to the oversized cleft chin). The only character without a clear Family Guy analog is Hayley, who is cooler, smarter, more politically aware, and more self-assured any of MacFarlane’s previous characters… which pretty much makes her an 18-year-old Lisa Simpson.
In an interview with TVShowsonDVD.com, MacFarlane acknowledges these similarities, calling American Dad “sort of a Family Guy meets All in the Family kind of show” (the All in the Family nod presumably comes in Stan’s conservative patriarchal attitudes, although he’s nowhere near as dynamic as Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker) and describing Klaus and Roger as “oddball characters in the vein of Brian and Stewie.” The major division in MacFarlane’s mind comes in the programs’ tones and subject matters. “Where Family Guy is a very pop culture-oriented show,” he says, “American Dad is going to be a bit more politically satirical, socially and culturally satirical.”
Unfortunately, when MacFarlane plumbs the depths of the U.S. political system for American Dad, all he manages are weak shots at conservative caricatures. Steve asks his parents to buy him a dog to improve his chances of scoring a date with head cheerleader Lisa Silver (voiced by Aerobic Striptease guru Carmen Electra); Stan returns with a decrepit 19-year-old hound because “this dog was alive for the Reagan Administration; it knows how things are supposed to be.” The dog (named Thor, which I must admit, I found pretty funny) doesn’t help Steve with the ladies, so Stan offers to help sabotage the student council elections and make Steve class president, saying, “I work for the CIA. Rigging elections is my bread and butter.” And when Steve tells his father that Francine had offered contradictory advice, Stan smiles and says, “Steve, I’m going to tell you something, and I know this from years of experience: women are never right.” These lines are good for a chuckle, but don’t match Family Guy‘s best moments, partly because they’re not as “universal” as that show’s offensives, and partly because MacFarlane never really rears back and lets it rip with this “political comedy.”
American Dad‘s most successful jokes come out of the Family Guy playbook in the form of that show’s famous non-sequiturs. The best of these comes in a phone conversation between President Bush and God: “Uh, hey, George, it’s God… Hey, listen, big favor: is there any way that you could, uh, from now on, sort of downplay our relationship a little more in your public addresses? I mean, to give you an example, like when you make comments like, ‘God wanted me to be President,’ you know, that would be an example of something to just kind of keep to yourself.” There are also a couple of fantastic throwaway lines, like when a high school student leaving the bathroom tells his friend, “Man, your stream is so powerful.” Whether you like bathroom humor or not, you can’t deny that MacFarlane’s great at it; unfortunately, in the pilot episode, he marginalizes it in deference to political comedy, and the drop-off in his show’s quality is severe.
In a recent interview with The Onion A.V. Club, MacFarlane discusses the specific problem he faces in President Bush’s second term: the ethical dilemma of an artist who wishes the election had gone the other way, but realizes that the outcome means he’s getting four more years of free material. “There are people on staff who have made that point, that the upside to a second Bush term is that it makes American Dad work better,” MacFarlane says. “[But] to me, the price is too high. I would gladly give up the comedy to have a President Kerry. But you work with what you have.” Viewed in that context, American Dad is MacFarlane’s personal protest, and for using whatever soapbox he has to speak his mind, he should be commended. I just wish he had done it with more unique characters, stronger story construction, and a better class of dialogue. But he didn’t, causing American Dad‘s post-Super Bowl debut to feel like a lame halftime show designed to keep us busy until the main event on 1 May. If he doesn’t come up with better material by then, America might respond to his series the way it does to most halftime shows: by turning it off.