|Monday, May 5, 2003
14:26 - I'm obviously missing something
A few weeks ago, Cartoon Network changed its weeknight/Sunday Adult Swim lineup. They swapped out the limited-animation short-production Home Movies for a show that I'd only seen glimpses of, in passing, several years ago when it was on first-run: Family Guy.
Back then, when I saw it through the windows of the Ricketts House lounge (the only on-campus house with a TV), I was sure I was missing something crucial. Judging from the animation and the art style, which was all I could see of the show (no sound penetrated those 1930s-construction adobe walls), it was a Simpsons knockoff. But also, judging by the crowd of Scurves sprawled out over all the chairs and sofas and cushions in the lounge, gazing raptly at the projection TV and heaving with silent laughter, it was evidently pretty funny. Original, even, one might almost say.
But lacking a TV of my own, as the vast majority of students did (and presumably still do, at Caltech), I didn't have the means by which to conduct any further observations or formulate an objective opinion of the show. I had to content myself with that 50MB QuickTime movie I'd just downloaded on what was marked "Download soxmas.mov Day" on the house's social calendar. Wow, what a great one-off. Imagine if they'd ever made that into a series!
...Ahem; anyway. So Family Guy faded into the background of my consciousness, and I thought no more about it until just a few weeks ago, when Cartoon Network started running it. And now I've seen a few episodes, while at the same time hearing from various sources that it's a stupefyingly funny show-- witty, original, addictive.
Well, unfortunately, after seeing some six episodes by now, I'm prepared to make the reluctant-- but firm-- statement that I think this show bites ass.
That's right; I've given it every chance in the world; I even wanted to enjoy it. Hey, who doesn't want another fun and subversive animated prime-time comedy? But my best efforts have failed, and it's now time to call a turd by its rightful name.
There doesn't seem to be any attempt made to conceal that the show is a Simpsons knockoff; it's of the "second generation" of such shows, following the litany of much more obvious me-too-ism that avalanched after the initial success of second-season Bart-Mania ("Family Dog", "Capitol Critters", "Fish Police", "Dinosaurs"). This second generation had a bit more time to plan their prime-time animated shows that stared beseechingly into the camera and pleaded shamelessly and earnestly for syndication. One might expect them to be palpably more carefully thought-out, more long-lasting. One might expect them to have their own unique edginess and their own irresistible memes which would grant the shows the immortality that their forerunners failed to deliver.
But I'm afraid that Family Guy fails just as badly, even for such a self-aware, fourth-wall-busting entry starting from such a plateau of studied advantage. Seth McFarlane might have a brilliant brother, but his ability to parlay his own meager voice-acting talents into an engaging series has thus far struck me as... well, inadequate.
I guess the fairest way to describe the show is that yes, it's a Simpsons knockoff-- but it's a Simpsons knockoff with more edge! Yeah! Extreeeeme! Peter is dumber, more morbidly obese, and more offensive than Homer even in the latter's "jerkass" episodes; Lois is homelier and yet more hidden-tiger-in-bed than Marge, and the kids-- well the less said about the kids, the better. They couldn't have less to do with Bart and Lisa, thanks be unto whatever gods rule the airwaves; apparently the writers, in their infinite wisdom, though it would be better still to cast the kids as viciousy stupid, pudgy, oblivious, instantly irritating ciphers whose role toward any plot point consists of whining like fire engine sirens spooling up. In fact, I don't know what flash of brilliance it was that led McFarlane to voice the entire family with nasal, high-pitched, wanna-be-uptown-New-Yorker-but-stuck-in-Rhode-Island-with-this-dumbass-family voices, complete with piercing warbling zitty-sci-fi-fan laughter, but it doesn't work, for God's sake. Jeez! I can't stand listening to more than one sentence of Lois' hyper-Fran-Drescher sneering nose-holding drone that sounds like it's being transmitted over heavily deteriorated phone lines from the offices of some long-lost 1960s Bell System central-office operator. Peetah! I am ve'ruy supraaahyzed at you! Now deposit ten ceynts for the next five minutes, plee-ase! Ugh. I find myself wishing I was back in the Ricketts breezeway peering through a window, watching the characters gesticulating in blessed pantomime.
But then, of course, there are the two remaining characters, the ones that are supposed to be the big "hooks" that endear the show to legions of adoring fans: the baby, Stewie, and the dog, Brian. Now: let me state for the record that I despise talking-baby shows. Ever since Dinosaurs, that prototypical talking-baby Simpsons knockoff in which the precocious "baby" character was the one positioned for placement on lunchboxes and t-shirts, and made into squeeze toys that yelp "Notdamomma!" and "I'mdababy!" and "Gottaloveme!" when the dog chomps on them at the bottom of the stairwell, the whole genre has been-- perhaps unfairly-- poisoned for me. I don't know if the Family Guy writers thought that if Maggie was cast at the far end of the spectrum of taste and believability, with a pacifier as her only means of communication, but with depth of character nonetheless, then the obvious alternative to avoid critics crowing Simpsons did it! Simpsons did it! should be to create a baby who's an ambulatory, conniving, evil little sarcastic bastard with a Noel Coward/Tim Curry/Dr. Smith voice espousing endless cynical bitterness and loathing for all humanity, but-- and maybe it's just the gypsum and fiberglass talking here, but-- I don't personally find that appealing. And Brian, who's apparently voiced by McFarlane (for once, a listenable character), but who sounds more like an uninteresting version of Patrick Warburton, is a drunk. That's right, the dog is a drunken pervert who's constantly in therapy, giving an oh-so-edgy-cool narrative angle to the show: relate it all in flashbacks told to a psychiatrist by the dog! Oh, be still my beating pancreas. There's supposed to be this outsiders'-cameraderie interplay between Stewie and Brian, two characters who aren't supposed to be able to talk and connive, but who do anyway, for reasons that don't seem to be clear; however, the pervasive bile spewing from Stewie and the disinterested tragic honesty coming from Brian don't exactly work together with innovative chemistry, and the premise of these two walking/talking misfits is so distracting that I can't enjoy even a moderately cleverly-written boxcar showtune that they sing during their odyssey back home. I just keep thinking, "Okay, heh, that was funny-- but wait a second. That baby just hotwired a car! Jesus Christ!"
The writing, in fact, is one of the most confusing things about the show. There are some clever gags, yes, and some genuinely funny plot points. But all too frequently, the writers exhibit such ineptness with timing and such a bull-headed lack of understanding of how long a joke can last before it stops being funny that I have to wonder just where these writers came from before getting this gig. The Y2K/Apocalypse episode, which is by far the worst example of such clumsiness that I've seen so far in the series, starts out with a literally five-minute long flashback sequence in which Peter fights with a man-sized chicken through the city streets. No reason; no point that affects the subsequent plot. Just a five-minute flashback fight scene that was apparently thrown in there to flesh out a script that wasn't long enough. (The whole fight scene probably took up less than a third of a page of script.) Ditto for the point later in that episode when the family encounters Randy Newman at a piano. Newman extemporaneously bangs out a song in which he narrates Lois's facial expressions as she stares at him. And this goes on for like a minute and a half! Ninety seconds of tedious, less-funny-every-moment variations on the same lame joke; finally, Peter whisks her hurriedly away, but where the hell was he forty-five seconds ago? Did the writers get lost on the way back from the break room? Or did they run out of monkey chow to hurl into the room with the million typewriters?
The texture of the show is extremely uneven. Again, there are moments of brilliance; some of the sight gags are unbeatable, and there are times when the comic timing is ingenious. But last night I sat through an entire half-hour episode and didn't even giggle once; whereas the Aqua Teen Hunger Force that followed it-- starring Danzig, a swimming pool full of elf blood, a doomsaying robot, and a dung-throwing hominid Santa Claus-- had me howling. That's a pretty sad state of affairs, if you think about it.
Finally, if I may toss one last petty jab into the cauldron of vitriol that I've been stirring: Why it that every single male character in the show has a scrotum for a chin?!
There's still apparently a large fan following for Family Guy; it gets good professional reviews, and there are fan sites all over the net. It's because of this that I assumed there would be something to be found in the show which would justify the favorable attitude everybody seems to have toward it. But at least in the episodes I've seen thus far, it's successfully eluded my grasp.