Seth MacFarlane, creator of “Family Guy” and “American Dad”, has an enviable dilemma on his hands. He’s currently the richest TV writer in Hollywood, and controls one hour of Fox’s primetime airwaves. But controlling both shows has overstretched his creativity, resulting in neither one reaching its full potential.
When “Family Guy” debuted, it was out and out hilarious. The random moments inter spliced into every episode were so laugh out loud funny that no one cared how much it stole from “The Simpsons”, or how unlikeable Peter Griffin was as a character. But as the show progressed over the next two seasons, there were improvements. Lois Griffin became a more interesting character, while the interplay between Brian and Stewie began to work on a variety of levels because a erudite talking dog and a sinister talking baby are largely a MacFarlane original creation.
But after Fox cut “Family Guy”, only to resuscitate it after soaring DVD sales, there seemed to be something missing from the earlier days. The random, inter spliced moments began to feel extraneous, and would often have little to no lead-in or relevance. This condition was eventually exposed by rival cartoon “South Park”, which managed to point to this fact with such witty satire that the random jokes no longer seemed funny at all. Now, whenever Peter begins a sentence with “If you think that’s bad, remember the time that I…”, this viewer can’t help but grind his teeth at whatever clip is slipped in for not much more than the purpose of filling up a 22-minute time commitment.
So after watching “South Park” completely undress “Family Guy”‘s writing staff in under 44 minutes, it became apparant that the “Family Guy” story structure willingly deviates from a linear plot in favor of occasionally stopping the episode to cut to parodies (and sometimes word-for-word reenactments) that often have no relevance and/or are entirely anachronistic to how old the characters could possibly be. It’s entirely possible that these random moments are viewed by many to be the high points of each episode. But it’s also entiely possible that focus groups have revealed that the average “Family Guy” viewer is either ADHD or high on Crystal-Meth.
When “Family Guy” returned to the airwaves, MacFarlane also brought “American Dad” with him. Set in fictional Langley Falls, VA, protagonist CIA operative Stan Smith is externally, the antithesis of Peter Griffin. He’s handsome, wealthy, and percived as intellegent. While Stan and Peter have basically the same IQ and though processes, Stan projects the persona of a confident, successful man living within a higher social class than what Peter will ever attain. Stan Smith’s CIA credentials and patriotic tendencies may have played a part into why Fox supported this show over other shows (see Futurama), but when he arrives home from work, he is met with a family that seems quite similar to Peter’s. Lois and Francine are practically long-lost sisters, Meg and Haylia each play the angst-ridden teenage daughter card, although “American Dad” hasn’t given up on Haylia’s character in the same way that “”Family Guy” did when they threw Meg under the bus.
Both shows also feature happy, oblivious sons who occasionally play a major role in the story, but otherwise defer to stronger characters, notably the non-humans of each show. Yes, technically Stewie Griffin is a human, but his sociopathic nature makes him more comfortable with Brian, a fellow outsider, simply because he’s a dog. MacFarlane tries to recreate the Stewie-Brian synergy with “American Dad” by introducing Roger, a talking alien, and Klaus, a talking fish who used to be an olympic skier. But because neither character is capable of being in public, the writers have to work hard to figure out acceptable ways of getting these characters into scenes set outside the house. This dilemma was solved for Roger by season two, by giving him an inexhaustable wardrobe of costumes, but Klaus still spends most of his time at home.
Where “American Dad” succeeds is in its committment to telling a story. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end, all of which have a semblance of connection, and never defer to flashbacks in order to emphasize a point. This method of storytelling is more suitable to Stan’s character, because he’s steadfast and in one memorable scene, explains to Roger that “I don’t learn lessons”. In a way, it’s far more honest, and gives the audience some respect for being willing to follow a story.
The ratings for “Family Guy” are noticeably higher than those for “American Dad”, but Fox positions “American Dad” before “The Simpsons”, instead of after. One of Fox’s TV scheduling flaws has been its unwillingness to stick to a decent show after “The Simpsons”. Every time a show performs well after “The Simpsons”, Fox switches the show to a different timeslot, assuming that it’s strong enough to make it on its own. That’s almost never the case (“The Simpsons” writers pointed this out in one episode), and yet Fox executives still wonder why their 8:30 time slot is so inconsistent.
An easiest way to glue viewers to Fox on Sunday night is to lead off with “The Simpsons”, because everything after that will seem good, even when it’s not. However, if Seth MacFarlane wants a show capable of carrying a night on its own, he needs to realize that his efforts to support two television shows are misguided. As it stands, “American Dad” has the better stories, while “Family Guy” has more slapstick laughs, albeit at the cost of every other element of the show. If he were to pick one of these two shows, and focus on applying plot and slapstick, he would have a product far more comparable in quality to “The Simpsons”. But because Fox certainly doesn’t care about show quality (see: any other show on Fox), and because Seth MacFarlane is getting two paychecks for working on two shows, it’s hard to see either of his creations recieving much critical success.