20 September 2005

Animated Fox Television Shows

I'm twenty-five years old, and I grew up with The Simpsons. Other than Saturday morning cartoons and the like, one of the first shows I can actually remember watching was that classic Fox show with Bart, Lisa, Homer, and the rest. And while there are very few shows that I currently will actively try to watch, The Simpsons maintains its interest for me, for nostalgia value as much as anything.

I say this because I just watched the tape I made of the first two episodes of the newest season, and I think it's clear that the show is, if not quite as good as when it was at its peak, perfectly good entertainment, funny, intelligent, and with sharp satire, and is fucking loads better than that steaming pile of cow manure called Family Guy.

Here'sa review I wrote about five years ago of Family Guy. And here's a review I wrote of The Simpsons a few weeks later. Re-reading the two of them now, I still agree with much of what I said back then, so I'll leave it to the reader to poke through those reviews to check out my overall feelings, but allow me to continue on for a bit.

Humor is very often about context. Great comedians know how to build jokes on a suspension of disbelief, and how to use the audience's expectations in their favor to create unexpected and hilarious moments. Family Guy is popular because it is beloved by fans who adore the wackiness and the outrageousness of the show's many pop-culture references and sexual humor, but the very thing that they love about it, its randomness, is exactly what causes it to fall flat in the long-term -- it lacks any sense of structure or context into which its humor can be placed. The Simpsons, at its best, is highly-polished social, political, and pop-culture satire with a wildly strange fictional universe at its center. Family Guy at its best is, well, a gag reel that feels highly derivative of the other show.

The common retort here is that, of course, modern-day Simpsons isn't nearly as good as the previous seasons, and that the present-day episodes of Family Guy are at least equal to those of . Now, I admit that there is an element of truth to this -- many of the current adventures of Homer and the gang are, well, tired and recycled from previous episodes. And some of them, the season premiere being a prominent example, are simply not very good to begin with. But even episodes like that one have their moments, and both of the episodes from the current season have been infused with some new energy that strikes me as being a positive sign for good-quality comedy. Hopefully the writers will get the kinks worked out and the show can spend its final years being the brilliant critical powerhouse it once was.

I titled this post "Animated Fox Television Shows", and yet so far I've only discussed the creations of Seth McFarlane and Matt Groening. There's another juggernaut in the room that quite possibly has the kind of quality that exceeds even that of The Simpsons, at least on the average of any given episode, and that's Mike Judge's King of the Hill. Now entering its tenth and final season, this show, episode for episode, has been some of the finest television of its kind -- it succeeds not by aping the grandaddy, but by mining the small moments between people for their absurdities and their humor. Nowhere in King of the Hill do you find endless pop-culture parodies -- the shooting style of the show owes far more to live-action TV than to any animated series, and the humor comes from character, not from overblown absurdity. Hank Hill and his family and friends are characters that actually reward deeper thought, and are, in some bizarre sense, believable as human beings at every moment.

My sister's child will almost certainly have his own interests and will watch whatever children watch. But my guess is that he, and his children after him, will gain far more enjoyment from watching King of the Hill and the first seasons of The Simpsons than anything Seth McFarlane will every produce. Family Guy exists for the moment -- the other two shows are for posterity.

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