So It’s Come To This

The Simpsons is out of ideas and has been for years. Family Guy is pointlessly cruel. American Dad is derivative. Is this where the state of animation is these days?

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.

11 comments:

  1. Yay! I'm so glad you mentioned Robot Chicken. I think it is both fabulously funny and at times totally incomprehensible.

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  2. I'm still a fan of "Family Guy" though I will admit that it has been going downhill for a while now. Recently, my only other cartoon attention grabber has been Sponge Bob. Yes, that little water sponge is darn funny. At least I think so.

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  3. What a great post! Since I've been sick I've gotten caught up on my animated series(somewhat at least!). I love Robot Chicken. I haven't seen too many of the new Simpsons, but what I saw I didn't love. I've been bored with South Park for a while, I was really into it, even a year or two back and then, I don't know, I didn't find it all that funny anymore(God I'm getting older). I did get the 8th season of the Simpsons on DVD, ahhh, it brings back such great memories.

    Oh Marina, totally agree with you on Sponge Bob. I LOVE that show!

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  4. I never was a fan of Family Guy or American Dad, although I loved The Simpsons once. I think it has been going downhill for literally years. I still love Sponge Bob. As to more recent cartoons, there are two on Adult Swim that I like. The Venture Brothers is a great parody of the whole Johnny Quest genre. And I love Metalocalypse. It is about a death metal band called Deathklok whose sheer stupidity and unbelievable popularity (no death metal band is that popular) gets them into no end of trouble. It hits all the cliches pretty well. Of course, I think it is funnier if one is a metal fan.

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  5. I forgot my favorite one of all, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends!!!

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  6. I didn't include Sponge Bob as I didn't consider it an "adult" cartoon, but I am a fan and know that it is filled with references that go far above kids heads.

    I'm remain a fan of The Simpsons and (less so) Family Guy as I find they are still better than most sitcoms. I should have included King of the Hill in my list, a long-lived 'toon that is often overlooked.

    I've only seen Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends once Venture Brothers once but I shall give them and Metalocalypse a look when I see them.

    The 'toon I have almost unatainable expectations for is the return of Futurama, slated for 2008. I still love the show and watch the reruns even though I own all the seasons. It looks like the entire cast and most of the writing and producing staff is returning, so I hope they catch lightning in a bottle twice.

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  7. Yes, I forgot about King of the Hill. I think it could be one of the most underrated shows on TV. And it has never really gone downhill (no pun intended) since its debut. I'm also looking forward to the return of Futurama. I've missed it since they stopped making new episodes.

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  8. King of the Hill is the most like a traditional sitcom out of all the current animated fare, and I think that is why it is often overlooked in these kind of discussions.

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  9. Great post, Jeremy. It's nice to know there are other 'adults' out there who still appreciate the comedic potential of TV animation. And we've got similar tastes as well ;)

    Foster's Home is also great - there's a lot for mature viewers to appreciate. It's surprisingly clever.

    And although generally not comedic, Samurai Jack and other series from Genndy Tartakovsky and co. are utterly superb and arty. If only Episodes I-III were like Star Wars: Clone Wars. Brilliant!

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  10. Looking back, I realize how remiss I was in not including King of the Hill, as just five months ago I called it "the forgotten stepchild of prime time animation." (http://culturepopped.blogspot.com/2006/05/boy-howdy-king-of-hill-review.html)

    As MC says, it is far more a sitcom than the others, but it still manages to do more than a sitcom could, due to the openess of animation. Endless supporting characters, open-ended sites, etc. If it weren't for The Simpsons, it would be the longest running animated show on TV.

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  11. Hi and thanks for the opportunity to post on your nice blog.

    I just developed a website dedicated to cartoons and different cartoon heroes. It’s still young, but growing at a fast pace ;)

    So far I have covered these cartoon series briefly, but I am planning to add more details on characters and individual episodes.

    Baby Looney Tunes
    Batman animated series
    Cow and Chicken
    Dexter's Laboratory
    Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends
    Johnny Bravo
    Justice League
    Samurai Jack
    Yu-Gi-Oh GX

    Hope you like my site and I’d be interested in exchanging ideas or content with similar websites or blogs.

    Best regards,

    Michael

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