Now, this isn't going to shock any of you, but sometimes, the Fox animated shows like to take on fairly easy targets and act as if attacking those targets merely in and of itself is an act of incredible, incredible humor and fortitude. Granted, sometimes this prompts big laughs: Tonight's Simpsons featured a Dick Cheney who was essentially the same Dick Cheney from every Dick Cheney joke told in the last decade, but the joke was still hilarious because everyone involved really committed to the bit. But most of the time, it just results in viewers saying, "That's the best you've got?!" Tonight, The Simpsons tackled a rich old man who's evil and has no friends, The Cleveland Show tackled obesity, Family Guy tackled self-help books, and American Dad tackled crummy sitcoms. Did any one of these shows offer up an original satirical point of view? No! But that's often not what we turn to these shows for. What we turn to these shows for is sometimes just to see characters we've enjoyed before doing stupid shit together. And on that score, at least a few of the shows succeeded. Let's take a look at the series one by one, OK?
The Simpsons: Those posts I linked to last week about how stiff The Simpsons' animation is now may have ruined me on the show for all time. The local syndication package has cycled back around to the show's fourth and fifth seasons (for me, the series' highpoint), and it's just amazing how much more expressive the characters are. There's a depressing uniformity to the show, especially since the switchover to HD, and that makes it hard to wring laughs out of, say, Mr. Burns flopping about like a dying fish. It just looks like the animators turned the Mr. Burns model over on its side and then made it dance around all crazy-like. And, really, that's much of the problem with tonight's episode: For yet another episode where Mr. Burns realizes how old and lonely he is, it didn't really come up with any good Mr. Burns gags. Ol' Monty has but six weeks to live, but when he tries to commit suicide, he crash-lands in the woods, where Bart finds him and discovers he's a happy-go-lucky amnesiac now. Anyway, after some E.T.-inspired gags, it's discovered Bart has Burns, and the whole town gets to use the addled Burns as its own personal manservant, until Lisa inadvertently unlocks the old Burns and he realizes that rage and bile are what's keeping him alive. I generally liked the first act of this, with the very funny bit where the networks conspire to create a housecat flu panic and the gags about waiting in line for the vaccine, but the rest of the episode very slowly deflated. There are good bits throughout, but too much of it felt like that shot of the helicopters dropping the dome over Springfield from the Simpsons Movie: recycled. Grade: C+
The Cleveland Show: As always with The Cleveland Show, there are some funny jokes around the edges, but neither of the stories makes any damn sense and there aren't enough good lines to save the show. This season, The Cleveland Show is stuck in the unholy netherworld of Seth MacFarlane shows: It doesn't have the strong characters and good story development of American Dad to fall back on, but it doesn't have the good gag writing of Family Guy to go for broke with. Particularly in a year where Family Guy is having a bit of a resurgence, it's that much more disappointing to watch this show sort of flail as it tries to make anything land. Cleveland, Jr., and Kendra decide they have fat pride, but when their poorly defined ballot measure fails, they decide to move to Wisconsin (land of irresponsible eating, apparently). Meanwhile, Rallo nearly drowns after falling in the pool, and he owes Cleveland after Cleveland saves him … except Cleveland was supposed to make sure the kid DIDN'T fall in the pool, and when Rallo learns this fact, he turns it back on Cleveland. Anyway, I liked some of this. The cut-away gag about E.T. phoning a grown-up Elliott wasn't bad, and the long, "This Is Why You're Fat" tribute of the Wisconsin section had its moments (particularly the butter drink thing), but nothing else was funny or moving enough to get me involved. And then it brings up a title card asking Americans to stop being fat (probably ironically, but who the hell knows). I realize there are Cleveland Show fans out there, but it doesn't seem like the show has diehards who would weep for it if it were canceled, like all three of the other shows do. It just seems like something to leave on between Simpsons and Family Guy, and that laziness of scheduling is drifting into the show itself. That this show isn't moving to make room for Bob's Burgers and American Dad is grows ever-more infuriating. Grade: C-
Family Guy: Outside of the last five minutes, this was a pretty aces Family Guy episode. It had just about everything you'd ask for from the show: a story that was just present enough to keep the jokes coming, featuring the show's two best characters (seriously, did Chris, Meg, or Lois even DO anything?); lots of gags at the expense of Brian's ego; and a satirical target that's not exactly fresh but at least leaves the show room to maneuver. Brian's failed writing career has always been one of the show's best running storylines, and tonight, he writes a self-help manual in just three hours, one that becomes a runaway bestseller, causing him to start to buy into his own bullshit and be cruel to publicist Stewie. There are solid jokes aplenty (like the REALLY subtle joke about what kind of candy Brian wanted in his dressing room), and the story more or less makes enough sense to stop you from thinking too hard. Then, however, Brian goes on Real Time With Bill Maher, and the episode falls flat. All of the Real Time panelists are clearly a bit uncomfortable with playing to the cartoon dog and reading actual lines, the studio audience is weirdly obtrusive, and while I get that MacFarlane and Maher are buddies, making Maher the conscience of the episode kinda comes out of nowhere. It eats up three or four minutes of screentime, and then the climax is rushed. Still, everything up until that point was funny, so only minor points off for a bafflingly poor sequence. (Though, that said, I did like Maher pounding on the desk with a newspaper to get Brian to go outside.) Grade: B
American Dad: This was one of my favorite American Dads in a long time. It's hard to write good stand-up that's supposed to be funny, and for a while, I thought this would be a fatal flaw of the episode, but, no, we're supposed to think Francine's stand-up is pretty bad. That's why Roger's able to so easily sell her to Hollywood (and, indeed, why he likes her so much). The bits where Francine stars in her own sitcom walk the fine line between "so bad it's funny" and "so bad it's bad," particularly once Stan shows up and starts shooting the place up, and the scenes where Francine remembers everything Stan had had her repress in her therapy sessions (including that she once had another daughter named Bailey!) were very funny. The episode also covers a surprising amount of ground for the show, its timespan taking up something like two and a half years. Sure, Stan falling apart without Francine is something this show (and every show like it) has done before, but the conclusion, where the two agree to talk about things, was genuinely sweet. (Also, bonus points for the neighbors telling Francine that she and Stan have the argument about her dad every year at his birthday and Francine not being able to remember it because she'd repressed it. Some subtle storytelling there.) Also, any time Klaus gets a storyline, it can be painful, but I very much enjoyed his marriage to the multi-colored fish Steve won, particularly his horror when she began eating their children. A very, very solid episode with a lot of laughs. Grade: A-
- "Fox News: Not Racist, but Number One With Racists."
- "I thought he was an old clump of rags!"
- "I'll have 37 snifters of your influenza syrup. One for me, one for Smithers, and the rest for my hounds."
- "I want to die quietly, on my own terms, crushing as many of those baby sea turtles as I possibly can."
- "Wait for Oatmeal!"
- "Why not buy another of me?"
- "He likes to stack men naked. I guess that's a start."
- "This town can't teach its kids or collect its garbage, but we lead the nation in pointless revenge."
- "Us and even the smartest of the Polish."
- "If you die, I am never getting laid again!"
- "Our ballot measure guarantees equality for all obsese heterosexuals!"
- "I was seein' which guys I had and which guys I need!"
- "Writing's the only thing that's giving your alcoholism any credibility."
- "I said no grey M & M's. These are all grey."
- "Oh, and here's your heartworm pill wrapped in bologna."
- "It's not really for them. It's for, like, if you want a car."
- "I don't trust it. I don't wanna turn my back on it."
- "I've come to accept I have the body of a post-menopausal senior woman."
- "I get it. I get it. I'll go get ready for sex."
- "Sorry about that. I made the confetti out of cut-up tuna can lids."
- "You have talent herpes. I have regular herpes. Thank you, Mindy Cohn."
- "So sorry, Francine. The dishes are in the sink."
- "I can tell you this. I need some money for more coke."