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Animation Domination

Szymon Ryzner and Analise Lipari | Monday, September 29, 2008

The Simpsons

Television’s longest-running animated series is at it again, and for the twentieth time. Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie and the rest of the Springfield crew have entered our TV screens once more, with no sign of quitting while they’re ahead.

The show’s lifespan is an impressive one, given the brief shelf lives of most series on any of the major networks, let alone those on Fox. It’s a testament to the ability of “The Simpsons” to continually stay relevant, not to mention funny, through two decades of programming. Even a jump to the silver screen in the series’ full-length film last year didn’t put a stop to the residents of Springfield. If anything, the film, which grossed over $500 million at the box office, strengthened the power of the show. The best of Fox’s “Animation Domination” Sunday night lineup, “The Simpsons” can’t be missed.

The season premiere of “The Simpsons” spins a Homeric yarn much like those of the nineteen seasons before it. Marge and Homer both embark on “business ventures,” with Homer joining forces with an unexpected ally, Ned “Diddly-o” Flanders, in a lucrative bounty-hunting scheme. “Good Neighbors Bounty Hunters,” indeed. Marge finds herself working for an Irishman, baking in a certain type of bakery for a particular clientele. Matt Groening and his creative crew refrain from showing most of the baked goods, leaving the viewers’ imaginations to picture the pastries on their own.

The episode also opens with an unexpected holiday celebration, a booze-free Saint Patrick’s Day parade and festival. With both Northern and Southern Irishmen in attendance, only Lisa’s peacekeeping abilities can stay the fighting for more than five minutes. The leprechaun battle is particularly funny.

If the premiere suffers from anything, it might be a lack of invention. The episode doesn’t feel like a huge departure from the preceding season; if anything, it fits so well into the grain of the show that viewers would need to be told it was a season premiere. This is a small criticism, however, of a show that’s been as consistently witty and creative as “The Simpsons.”

Much has been made of a debate between “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons,” and often the teasing and interplay are explicitly done on both shows. When it comes to a discussion of superiority, however, “The Simpsons” will likely be remembered as the better of the two. If the premiere is any indication, it’s virtually impossible that this season will be its last.

King of the Hill

“Slow and steady” might be the best way to describe Fox’s “King of the Hill.” The show has been part of the network’s animated lineup since 1997, yet has a lower profile image than “The Simpsons” and less obvious humor than “Family Guy.” A creation of Mike Judge, the brainchild behind MTV’s “Beavis and Butthead,” “King of the Hill” tells the story of Texan Hank Hill (Mike Judge), his wife Peggy (Kathy Najimy), their son Bobby (Pamela Adlon) and their older niece Luanne Platter (Brittany Murphy). Hank’s drinking buddies also make regular appearances on “King of the Hill,” as do Bobby’s school friends.

“King of the Hill” returns to the Animation Domination lineup with “Dia-BILL-ic Shock,” its premiere episode for the show’s eleventh season. Airing just after “The Simpsons” is a prime time slot, and “King of the Hill” undoubtedly benefits from the residual audience. In the premiere, Hank’s friend Bill, a snacker with a passion for sweets, collapses at the local carnival after showing Bobby and Hank how to ask for a lollipop wrapped in cotton candy.

His cantankerous doctor tells him that he is showing signs of adult onset diabetes, prompting Bill to start using a wheelchair. Funnily enough, the chair introduces him to a paraplegic rugby player named Thunder, who shows Bill the bright side – or, perhaps, the crazier side – of life on two wheels. In one memorable scene, Bill and Thunder visit a local bar and spy several good-looking women on the dance floor. Thunder, all bravado and self-confidence, tells Bill that, “…women find men in chairs non-threatening…. Suckers!”

The show’s funniest subplot involves Peg taking a similar health-conscious approach to life that Bill is forced to take by doctor’s orders. Bobby’s snacks go from candy bars to seaweed bars, and the fallout is pretty funny. At one point, Bobby’s friend Junior gives his friend a chocolate bar out of concern. Bobby, however, finds that his taste buds have been altered by the onslaught of health food, and can’t bring himself to eat unhealthy snacks anymore. “It’s too sweet!” he says after a bite of chocolate. “It’s making my teeth itch!”

The episode is as low-key as its protagonist, Hank Hill. Hank, unlike his neighbor in Springfield, is, surprisingly enough, not an idiot sitcom dad. He cares about his friends and family, even if that caring is stilted and humorous more often than not. When Bill thinks he’ll be in a wheelchair for life, Hank and his friends remodel Bill’s house, lowering all of the countertops by two feet and painting a handicap symbol on the driveway. Plus, the Texas drawl is hard to resist.

Family Guy

The seventh season of “Family Guy” looks like the six before it. With consistent spontaneity and enough pop culture references to stump Ken Jennings, fans can expect to get much more of the same.

The first episode of the season didn’t start on a particularly strong note; in fact, it focused on the family’s dog Brian, and his search for a love life. Though the narrative was straightforward and mostly uninteresting, references to older episodes are readily available.

The show feels tired after its six-year run, its gags looking for more absurd and more difficult-to-catch references while the remaining characters are trapped rehashing old jokes. Quagmire is still a womanizer, Stewie is still evil and dependent on Brian, and the rest of the characters are shoved aside for this particularly uninteresting story.

Cleveland Brown, one of Peter Griffin’s friends, has even managed to get a spin-off show of his own. “The Cleveland Show,” as it will be called, will start airing in 2009 and will undoubtedly have the same charm as other MacFarlane shows. 

In fact, Cleveland will have a daughter and two sons, one of which appears to be a toddler, not to forget the potential antics of his neighbors, the anthropomorphic bears and a family of rednecks.

Hilarity will undoubtedly ensue in this completely original and unique spin-off.

“The Simpsons” has managed to stay relatively fresh with its material, tackling almost every topic under the sun. Perhaps this is because they do not have a single joke premise that is reused endlessly like the “Family Guy” writers do. Perhaps it’s a lack of creativity or effort, but “Family Guy” seems like a one trick pony.

How does a cartoon stay on the air for 20 years?

Maybe humor, gags and allusions are part of it, but sincerity and sentimentality provide the viewer with a stronger bond to these animated characters. 

It may be too late for the “Family Guy” cast to create some chemistry, but there will no doubt be some hilarious quips. Despite a weak season premiere, the fact remains that if there’s one show that can be so absurd it will make you laugh out loud, then “Family Guy” is still that show.

American Dad

To many, “American Dad” has become “that show that airs after ‘Family Guy.'” The story of C.I.A. agent Stan Smith and his family is very reminiscent of Peter Griffin and his, though the humor of “American Dad” seems to play on taboos and a complete disregard for political correctness.

The shock value of “American Dad” seems to be the only goal of its jokes, and the characters are set up for it perfectly. The nerdy son, Steve, is experiencing puberty, an awkward time for most; the daughter of the conservative Stan, Hayley, is an extreme liberal; the family is also blessed with the presence of an extremely flamboyant alien named Roger and a German goldfish named Klaus. Exploiting all of these stereotypical characters is at the heart of “American Dad,” as is satirizing politics and the media.

The season premiere deals with Roger and his upcoming 1,600th birthday, a very important day in the life of his particular alien species, and the start of Steve’s puberty, a phase that the Smiths would rather avoid entirely. These two premises comprise the entirety of the storyline, with Roger being constantly ignored due to Steve’s puberty and the forced changes his parents induce to avoid the raging hormones and oily skin.

Though ripe for a parody of MTV’s “My Super Sweet Sixteen,” and various famous teen high school films, it only really achieves minimal allusion by ending with a “Sixteen Candles” reference. Ultimately, it feels like the writers missed more opportunities for wittiness than they achieved, and thus showed why the show is second to “Family Guy” and more of a place to display their second rate jokes.

This second show from Seth MacFarlane has never really achieved strong footing with viewers. Though it follows the ever-popular “Family Guy” and possesses a similar humor, almost half the viewers choose to change the channel when it comes on. Its ratings, though, have been stable, and it does about as well as the much longer running “King of the Hill,” a popular show among critics.

As it appears to be with “Family Guy,” “American Dad” simply needs to achieve a strong connection with it’s fans, the family itself needs more character and unity, and the premises and jokes need to be thought out and properly placed.

A show that is ripe for dishing out satire and “un-pc” jabs should do a better job of establishing this identity and sticking to it. The show will undoubtedly have many humorous episodes with strong wit, but overall this season premiere was underwhelming.