The Age of MacFarlane

After 10 years and seven seasons, Family Guy has produced a full-fledged spin-off. (Note: Although American Dad apparently exists in the same universe as Family Guy, it’s not really a spin-off.) The Cleveland Show premiered on Sunday night, launching the supporting character from Quahog into the starring role of his own series. I know Cleveland has his fans, but I think it’s fair to say that news of this show elicited mostly the same response: “Cleveland? Really?” Having watched the pilot, I fear my response remains the same. Granted, it was only the first episode, and if anyone knows his pop culture history, it’s Seth MacFarlane. And make no mistake, pop culture history is at stake here.

MacFarlane’s genius is mining decades of pop culture minutia to parody and exploit in his shows. That’s why I sense that The Cleveland Show is less about a character who warranted his own show and more about the opportunity to spoof the spin-off craze of the late 70s and early 80s. It may be hard for kids today to believe, what with all the CSIs and Law & Orders reproducing themselves at an alarming rate, but there was a time when spin-offs were culturally very exciting. I adored a spin-off when I was a kid, and quality mattered not. For every Jeffersons and Maude, there was a Joanie Loves Chachi and The Ropers. Frankly, the bad ones were often better than their origins, simply for camp value alone. (I’m looking at you, Dynasty II: The Colbys.)

What was lacking from The Cleveland Show premiere was exactly that sense of campy desperation. In fact, it was a pretty earnest presentation that felt more like a continuation of Family Guy and less like the contrived self-aware parody I was hoping for. So, is it fair for me to give a lackluster review to a show based on its failings to live up to the show I had in my mind that may never have entered the mind of its creators? It’s my blog, so yes. Yes, it is. I will give The Cleveland Show another viewing or two, to see if it’s able to create its own identity and leave the well-worn conceits of Family Guy behind. Until then, I will watch “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase” again for what I really had in mind.

And speaking of The Simpsons, they began their 20th season on the air Sunday night, anchoring a whole evening of MacFarlane animated shows. And maybe it’s because it’s so clearly outnumbered by the outrageous creations of MacFarlane, or that it no longer has King of the Hill as a buffer between it and the rest, but for the first time in memory, The Simpsons felt woefully out of date. They exist in their own world and sensibility, of course. And a mediocre Simpsons episode is still better than most anything else on television. Still, when MacFarlane’s characters are singing songs about AIDS and making jokes about Walt Disney’s antisemitism, Homer’s fat jokes feel somehow quaint, a holdover from another era. I still love my Simpsons, though, and Sunday’s season premiere had lots of great comic book references to identify and discuss. But we’re living in the age of MacFarlane now, for better or worse, and I doubt it will be long before his 90-minute block Manifest Destinies its way into a 2-hour block. At its best, MacFarlane’s humor is sharp and ruthless, slicing and dicing society’s hypocrisy; at its worst, it’s a tiresome and childish round of scatological boorishness. It’s a testament to how good the good stuff is, that I’m willing to sit through the bad. That might come to an end with The Cleveland Show. Then again, I watched every single episode of Flo, so what do I know?

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