Last night was quite a night for new Fox cartoons–we got a new Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad. I remarked to DG that I’m beginning to come around to liking Simpsons a bit more than Family Guy again, if only because Seth MacFarlane &. Co. have become a bit too dependent on cutaways and pop culture references.
I never quite understood the difference that loading up a show with pop culture references made until recently, when I was reading about Spongebob Squarepants and how that show’s appeal to both children and adults lies in its simple (if bizarre) storylines that rely on situation, story, and character for laughs, rather than obvious satire or references to William Shatner singing “Rocket Man.” A show like Fairly Odd Parents, on the other hand, relies heavily on pop culture jokes.
And that’s largely the difference between The Simpsons and Family Guy, though The Simpsons has certainly spread its share of pop culture references over the years. However, even after more than ten years of syndication, The Simpsons isn’t at all dated, whereas the clock is already ticking on the first season or two of Family Guy. Fifty years from now, scholars will be examining The Simpsons to find out about the beliefs and values of 1990s and early twenty-first century America, while Family Guy will probably be fairly oblique to all but the most specialized academics.
That said, the most memorable bit I saw last night was during Family Guy, when Herbert—the elderly pedophile who’s always after Chris—challenges a haunted tree (long story) and battles it in Lord of the Rings-fashion. The best moment is when Herbert is falling down the chasm and grabs his walker in mid-air, just like Gandalf plucking his sword during the beginning of The Two Towers. That’s the sort of thing that keeps me watching the show. And as DG pointed out, the Family Guy skit that got me to laugh the hardest wasn’t a pop culture reference (the “barf-o-rama” in the episode “8 Simple Rules for Buying My Teenage Daughter”). In terms of getting me to laugh out loud, Family Guy is definitely the winner.
One thing that’s surprised me is how American Dad has improved from its first season. Initially I didn’t find it funny at all. In the first few episodes, it was clearly an outlet for MacFarlane’s rage against both the political and cultural conservatism of the country, and that sort of satire just wasn’t working. That’s been toned down in recent episodes and the writers have been letting the characters grow a bit, even throwing in a few good gags here and there. It’s not nearly as reliant upon pop cultural references as Family Guy (perhaps a conscious decision on the producers’ part), which I think helps distinguish it from that show. Oddly, American Dad is more of a show about family function and dysfunction than Family Guy.
Of course, I have to wonder how long Fox will allow three cartoon shows to dominate its Sunday night programming block. All I do know is that DG and I always find something else to do from 8:30-9. Maybe they should bring back Futurama…
Speaking of American Dad and Family Guy, this is pretty fun.