It’s not that bad, but cartoons have certainly seen better days. The Simpsons has begun its 18th season, which means the show has been on air for the entire life of anyone in high school. With that kind of longevity, the quality was bound to decline, especially as at its height it was the best comedy on TV. I now view each new season like Saturday Night Live - it will always be on and some years will be better than others. It’s still better than most shows on TV, but it suffers when compared to its prime (Seasons 4-6). The Simpsons is my first animated love, but even a true believer like myself recognizes that it hasn’t been on the cutting edge for years.
Family Guy once was that edge. When it debuted in 1999 it was genuinely shocking, breaking taboos and pissing off many people. It was off the air in two seasons, a victim of poor ratings. I was a huge fan and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing in primetime and thought it was a travesty when Fox pulled it (as they do with most innovative shows). With constant reruns on Teletoon and the Cartoon Network and massive DVD sales, Family Guy got a reprieve. The first few episodes had the old flare, but something has changed. Now it’s just as likely to be cruel than funny. They continue to draw out scenes, repeating phrases and motions over and over and over again. It’s not funny. I get it, but it’s not funny.
As for American Dad, the less said the better. It is clearly a redo of Family Guy that Seth MacFarlane created when Family Guy was pulled off the air. It has grown more into its own lately, but the comedy bits are few and far between. I like Roger the alien though. I don’t see it breaking any longevity records.
So what’s working? South Park is going strong, still managing to generate headlines after 10 seasons. Last year they managed to infuriate Tom Cruise, Scientology and Muslims. They are equal opportunity offenders and still surprisingly sharp, if occasionally a little heavy-handed with the moralizing. I never thought Trey Parker and Matt Stone would be around for so long – and neither did they – but I’m glad they are.
This decade has produced some new and innovative shows that while they will never make a major network, are the cleverest work I’ve seen in years. Aqua Teen Hunger Force is a surreal show about a life-size Happy Meal – Master Shake, Frylock and Meatwad. They don’t really do much except hang out in their house and bicker while annoying their neighbour Carl. I think it is hilarious, but that may say more about me than the show.
Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law is, like the Aqua Teens, a creation of Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network in the U.S. Harvey is a former superhero who had a show in the ‘60s and now acts as a criminal defence lawyer for a roster of Hanna-Barbera characters. Shaggy gets busted for drugs; The Jetsons sue the people of Earth for screwing up the planet; Grape Ape is charged with steroid use. It’s a show that you need to have spent your youth on a couch on Saturday mornings to appreciate fully. Luckily, I am well prepared.
In the same vein as Harvey Birdman but more a friend of those with ADD is Robot Chicken. Creator Seth Green and pals make minutes-long pop culture vignettes using stop animated action figures. Each episode is only 10 minutes or so long, but they pack a lot into each show. Jesus is The Bride in Kill Bunny; Emperor Palpatine gets a collect call from Darth Vader (see below); The Superfriends are the new Real Life cast; Santa is murdered in Christmas Town. This has only begun airing in Canada and I’ve only caught a few episodes, but I’m hooked. It’s like all the non-sequitur moments of Family Guy without the loosely written plot to slow it down. It’s great stuff and I encourage any pop culture fan to check it out.