Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Simpsons Never, Family Guy Forever

Ten years long, ten years strong(with some years missing.)

I grew up on cartoons. Voltron, M.A.S.K., Darkwing Duck, Muppet Babies, and so on. Those were great cartoons for kids, but I soon began to out grow them. That's where The Simpsons came in. It was a funnier show and so smart. I know an insane amount of trivia from the first ten years of the show. After the tenth season, I graduated high school and stopped watching. Not only because I was out of the house, getting into trouble, but because Family Guy was on the air. Remember the first time you really rode a bike, with no training wheels and you were flying down the street, wondering why man would ever walk again after being given the gift of the wheel? That's what is was like comparing the two cartoons. I loved The Simpsons and I did for a long time. Somewhere along the line, they lost their way. I know that nothing great can last forever and The Simpsons is a perfect example. Without ever really jumping the shark, the show nowadays is a skeleton of it's former self, full of celebrity voices and irrelevant story lines that fail to captivate the way they used to. But, let me say two things before I move on. Family Guy would not exist without The Simpsons and there is NO denying the pure genius of the monorail episode.

Conan O'Brien wrote this episode.

Family Guy had a wackier tone from the start and was meant to shock and be irreverent to the comfortable tone that The Simpsons had fond on television. I'm young enough to remember the outcry from parent groups over the negative influence that Bart Simpson would have on the youth of America. But, the outrage that right wing pundits have taken against Family Guy has been far more severe and vicious in attacking not only the show's morals and values, but it's creators and their own political agendas. (Of course, the fact that both of these programs are owned by FOX, which has never shied away from shameless exploitation, should not be ignored.) But, after being so famously canceled and resurrected, not once, but twice, the show found the freedom to push not only the limits of society and television but the limits of their own talent as well. Can anyone honestly argue that, with the Blue Harvest episode, they had, by only their fifth season, made an hour of television that was vastly more entertaining that the culmination of twenty years of effort that was the awful Simpsons Movie?

Where the hell is the Empire episode already?

Purists of the show have decried it's return, claiming that only the first two seasons are of any worth and that the show is barely recognizable now. I call those people pretentious pricks who look down their noses only because their head is up their own ass. Seth MacFarlane is the first to admit that everything on the show has improved since those years. The animation, writing and the voice acting has gotten immeasurably since the early years. They have been able to bring in much more considerable talent on a regular basis, like Drew Barrymore, Carrie Fisher and James Woods, the casts of shows like How I Met Your Mother or The Hills and a really cool bit with Jay Leno, Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Fallon all taped off of their own sets. Furthermore, the show has been able to tackle topics on the social landscape from the Iraq war, gay rights, legalizing pot and over saturation of the media, while still being able to riff off of everything from Stripes, Singing in the Rain, Office Space, West Side Story and of course, Back to the Future and Star Wars.

Saving Private Brian.

What I have grown to love most about the show is that in the great tradition of canceled FOX shows, a la Arrested Development, they are not above poking fun at themselves. Whether they break the fourth wall to discuss Stewie's inability to communicate outside the main cast, acknowledging a perceived over dependence on flashbacks and cutaways or simply winking at the fact that everything on the show is fiction and will start fresh again in the next episode, Family Guy doesn't take itself too seriously and neither should anyone else watching it. Just enjoy.

Because suicide is painless.


Andrea said...

Ah, what a great post. When I see the old episodes, I realize how far Stewie's character has come - from the angry, menacing "kill Lois" plots to constant references to his early stages of homosexuality and all around humor (the music video was the best), I love where the show is going...

"I loved the Money Pit. That is my response."

Big Mike Mendez said...

And how about the dynamic between him and Brian? They could build the entire show around that.

"I feel right, Brian. I feel right."

schaggydog said...

Great Post. In the early years the Simpsons was a really funny show but I agree it lost it's way and frankly became a paradoy of itself. It all started when Conan left the writing staff. I can't really watch it anymore. Family Guy is still hillarious and going strong. But when you talk about shows attacking topics about the social landscape, nothing beats South Park. I think they are for more funny and relevant and intelligent than Family Guy. Just look at the two part episode where they try to get Family Guy canceled. That's some funny stuff. But it's ok to like both and I watch both regularly. And another show I've gotten into lately that owes it's success to Family Guy is Robot Chicken. It's kind of hit and miss at times, but when it's on it's pretty damn funny.

Big Mike Mendez said...

See, I think South Park is like the Law & Order of cartoons, just ripping the headlines for stories. Whatever was in the news last week will be on next week's episode. They can attack Family Guy all they want, but Family Guy can throw it right back. And hit harder.

"The boys at South Park are absolutely correct. Those cutaways and flashbacks have nothing to do with the story. They're just there to be funny. That is a shallow indulgence that South Park is quite above. And for that, I salute them." - Seth MacFarlane



Fletch said...

I like to think of FG as a nice blend of South Park and The Simpsons sensibilities.

The early episodes are almost, but not quite, as bad as the first couple seasons of The Simpsons. Different voices (even when done by the same actor), worse animation, fewer pop culture references - yes, it practically is a different show now, but I think it's vastly improved.

Big Mike Mendez said...

All three series clearly improved their quality over the first few years, but Family Guy has hit a stride that, for me, the other two have never hit. While being funny and scathing, it also balances a little bit of heart with the humor, making you care about their characters.

Rupert Alistair said...

Family Guy is the bomb and I agree with the above comment. Stewie and Brian SHOULD have there own show. It would have a built in audience and a huge hit.


Kevin J. Olson said...

Hmmm...I have to vehemently disagree here. It's not just that Family Guy does everything The Simpson's have already done (which you point out) it's that it's doing it 10 years after the fact and calling it fresh. When Al Jean and Mike Reiss show ran the first few seasons of The Simpson's they tried hard to balance the family dynamic with their own irreverent humor. However, what happened was they wanted to get crazier and crazier, and people tend to forget that what they did in their final season running the show (season 4), and what they subsequently did the next few years with the uber irreverent The Critic, is actually wackier and more cartoony than anything Mike Scully did during his run -- a run that most fans think killed the show off, but in reality is an era of The Simpson's that almost mirrors the reasons you praise Family Guy for: family centric plots that make you care, but maintain their cartoony, slapstick stylings. Really, the show only stated getting stale once Al Jean came back to be the show runner, but even then they have produced some beautiful looking animation and funny episodes.

I think what it boils down to is that The Family Guy's style has always been more conducive to the horribly crippling time slot Fox offers its shows during their Animation Domination evening. Think about it: The Simpson's can't really do B stories anymore, forcing them to amp up the show and make things happen plot wise at a faster clip. This isn't what made the show great, what made the show great was that they were able to develop their character, to flesh them out and discover what makes other characters in the town tick. All of this was done during the so-called "down" years (really the best seasons were those that David Mirkin ran) despite being handicapped by the eroding time slot.

I've never been a fan of Family Guy humor, it's just never clicked with me in the same way the early episodes of The Simpson's feel stale now. Everything evolves, and a lot of the times when you have a show with as passionate of fans as The Simpson's nothing is ever going to be good enough. The Simpson's Movie was a perfect example of how given the amount of time to develop story, these guys are still hilarious comedy writers...and they're still doing things that Seth McFarlene and co. could only dream of.

There's a myth out there that's been perpetuated for too long that The Simpson's dipped in quality during the 10th and 11th seasons. It was still producing great episodes on a weekly basis...and when you listen to the commentaries on those DVD sets, it sounds like the writers and exec-producers are actually having fun talking about and watching the episodes...unlike The Weinstein/Oakley era where every commentary was about how smart they were and what a great job they did with the show.

Sure the show has declined in quality...but sprinkled throughout the so-so seasons you get some hilariously memorable episodes (Bart and Home going Cathloc, Homer opening a daycare, The 90's episode).

Family Guy may be great, but I've never been a fan of that style of humor. I've seen the first two seasons (a roommate of mine loved it) and didn't see what was so special about the show. I thought Stewie was one of the most annoying characters on television. It seemed as amateurish and sophomoric as Ren and Stimpy.

Pat said...

Great post here.

I've always liked "The Simpsons," but these days, if I watch any animated show, it's going to be "Family Guy." It's the only show on TV these days that regularly makes me laugh out loud, and pushes the boundaries of taste further than any other show I can think of. I still have never seen the "Star Wars" episode, though my brother assures me I will find it hyesterical in spite of the fact that I don't much like "Star Wars" itself.

Big Mike Mendez said...

No accounting for taste, I suppose. All I can say is that the first two years of Family Guy were written by a staff that never fully returned when the show got back a few years later, as they were working on other projects. It is still nominated for Emmys, won a few and keeps the ratings high on four(!) different networks while The Simpsons continues to dip. You cannot argue the facts that is it more popular than the Simpsons, even if its not attuned to your particular sensibility.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

I have to agree with Kevin J here (where's Dorothy Porker, btw, who I know is a fellow Simps and Critic fanatic?). I enjoy both Family Guy and the Simpsons, but the former can't truly hold a candle to the level of sophisticated humor the latter churned out in its heyday. I also find the myth that the Simpsons "jumped the shark" after Conan O'Brien departed as a writer rather odd, since he wrote for only half of season 4 and, despite knocking off some brilliant stuff, had little to do with the development of the program's timbre as a whole (the credit for that belongs to comic genius George Meyer). I find that personally the David Mirkin season tickles me most mercilessly, but there were plenty of high watermarks throughout the Oakley/Weinstein years (which contributed some of the most bizarre riffs on "family comedy" I've ever seen) as well as the Scully seasons.

That having been said, Family Guy was -- in its pre-hiatus years -- one hell of a show, and while the scripts were nowhere near as narratively clean as other sitcoms, they were easily thrice as funny. Unfortunately, returning to Fox with ubiquitous applause after such a long pause bloated the writer's egos, and the show feels to me now more a series of fan-pandering scenarios than anything else (though I thought the 2-part "Stewie Kills Louis" episode was excellent). The problem isn't the left-fieldian jokes so much as the increasing apathy towards structuring plots that don't seem entirely perfunctory.

In the first episode of season 4, for example, Louis and Peter go on vacation, and without any warning the third act throws in a storyline about Brian and Stewie chaperoning a school dance that is not referenced at all in the previous scenes (the B-plot is, furthermore, introduced in the most blatantly ham-handed way makes want to reach for the red pen). I usually only ask that comedy make me laugh and nothing more, but when poor scripting begins to distract me from the jokes, there's a problem. And the fact that there was a time when this was not the case re: Family Guy is rather depressing (cf "To Love and Die in Dixie").

Big Mike Mendez said...

I do not contend that they ever did jump the shark, but I suppose there are only so many stories you could tell. I just found it out when an entire episode would revolve around someone else in the town and the Simpsons would be like guest stars on their own show.

Odd you should called the writer's egos bloated since only a few from the first two seasons made the transition to the remaining years of Family Guy, though since they moved on as producers, it could be justified. But they have said that being canceled twice freed them to do the stories they always wanted to without being afraid of the repercussions. As far as not keeping the narrative structure of the other sitcoms, the Simpsons pioneered the Monty Python-esque technique of throwing of the first third of the story away to set up something completely different. Like starting an episode at a soccer game in order to do a story about gun ownership. Maybe I'm letting myself to close to it, but by time I saw that awful Departed ep of the Simpsons, I had n problem walking away from it completely.

Family Guy has a political agenda, of course and they have never tried to hide it. I applaud them for making an intelligent show instead of just some stupid fart jokes and Peter getting into trouble at work every week. For sure he would not have lasted at a nuclear power plant for twenty years.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I guess that's just the fundamental difference between Simpson's fans and Family Guy fans...I personaly don't see a problem with liking both, but one of the reasons why I never like Family Guy, or say a show like South Park, is because of the boring and all-too-easy political jokes they use.

I've never liked humor that's "like shooting fish in a barrel" (same with music, it seems EVERY musician with a whiny voice and guitar had something to say about how awful Bush was too easy and just came across as lazy writing) and appreciate that The Simpson's focus their attention on other icons in the media (they rarely took shots at Bush during his presidency, only loosely alluding to him and never calling him by name...unlike what they did with Clinton) like Oprah (I personally love the Opal parodies) and Scorsese's hugely overrated movies The Departed (I actually The Debarted episode pointed out just how awful the ending of that movie really was). The Simpson's have a formula, there's no doubt about that, and they usually phone it in now, but I'm always interested in an episode written by Matt Selman (the 90's episode, the freaking Alan Moore episode! Come on, those were great!) and they still produce at least a handful of funny shows every year -- which isn't bad for a show that's been on 20 years.

I do agree with Jon about the influence George Myer had on the show...he's a man that doesn't get enough credit, and for as obviously great as Conan is (although Homer goes to college is a tad higher on my list than the Monorail episode), Meyer is the real genius behind that show, and it was Season 5 - 12 that were the best years for the show.

Man...I'm coming off as very opinionated here...I apologize if the tone is a bit brusque. This has been a good thread, I've enjoyed the discussion.

Big Mike Mendez said...

I don't think that political jokes are easy, but I do think that the social commentary and SATIRE that FG reaches for is not only brilliant, but to be applauded. By shying away from issues that really matter and dinging such easy targets as Oprah (does she really feel the sting from a cartoon?), I feel the show is talking down to me in a way, that they never used to in those arrogant "Harvard" days. The Simpsons turned into the farce that it used to make fun of. Family Guy hasn't reached that point yet, probably because MacFarlane maintains such rigid control over his programs rather than turning them over to others, Groening style. Which will make the Cleveland Show all that more interesting to watch, but I think, maintains a singular vision that was compromised in later years of the Simpsons.

I gotta be honest. When I first wrote this, I figured nobody would really read it and those that would might just agree but I'm grateful for more readers and don't mind taking the heat on this.

Volume Seven of Family Guy is on sale now!!!!

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