Animation for Adults has Become Staler than Week-old Bread

Bojack Horesman is Netflix’s attempt to break into the lucrative world of animation that caters to that holy grail known as the male, 18-35 demographic. The innovation of course, is that this is from Netflix, the pretender to the HBO crown of critically acclaimed programming. For all the success of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, Bojack fails to hit the same mark and provides the latest scrap of evidence that making animation for anyone older than 16 is a conundrum the continues to bedevil anyone willing to take a crack at it. Why is that the case though?

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Seth MacFarlane: Integrity Lost?

Seth MacFarlane is a talented chap. That is a fact that is very hard to deny. From his roots working on Cartoon Network shows to his meteoric rise to superstardom, he’s worked hard at what he’s done and he at least deserves credit for what he’s achieved thus far.

Having said that, a recent post over on ToonBarn espouses how he’s lost his integrity as of late by way of debasing the original nature of his shows and by making much more overt his political and philosophical leanings in his shows. While the nature of his leanings isn’t necessarily in question in the ToonBarn post, the fact that MacFarlane is doing it to existing, beloved shows is.

That’s a tough claim to make, especially in light of the fact that they are his shows and he is free to take them in any direction he wishes. However, it does speak volumes about how he is allowed to run his shows.

Two examples can be used as a comparison. The first is The Simpsons and the second is Ren & Stimpy.

Looking at the first, it is tough to argue that Matt Groening has lost his integrity when it comes to the Simpsons. After all, he is still the nerdy underground comic artist he was then, the only difference is that he also created and is still involved with, two hit TV shows. All the same, it is impossible to win the argument that says the Simpsons as it currently stands is the same as it was in the mid-90s. Can Groening be blamed for this? Hardly, he was only a small piece in the larger puzzle that is the Simpsons organization.

How about Ren & Stimpy creator John K.? He stuck to his artistic guns and was eventually fired by Nickelodeon because of it. His integrity wasn’t in question then; a position that hasn’t changed since.

So where does that leave MacFarlane? He is undoubtedly the same person now as he was when Family Guy was first broadcast so it’s hard to say whether that is the case. His shows are all the same basic structure (family-based with two characters who shouldn’t talk but do anyway) and have stayed surprisingly close to their original premise compared to other hit shows.

Nope, MacFarlane as a person still has his integrity intact. What’s changed is the network he deals with, FOX.

Although it was well established when Family Guy was conceived, the FOX network was still only about 10 years old at the time and still a relative upstart compared to the same network of today. The spirit of underdog was still prevalent when Family Guy and cousin Futurama were ordered but the business conservationism that defined the other three networks was slowly creeping in, thus even though the shows were new and edgy, they didn’t really push that many boundaries.

Fast forward to today, and Family Guy has gone through a re-incarnation after fans rightfully demanded that it be brought back. The difference this time is that it’s now been on the air for over 10 years, a time frame that puts it in very rarefied company indeed, and will need to be replaced someday soon.

The only problem is that networks hate having to replace moneymaking shows because it means rolling the dice and potentially losing a lot of dough. Cue the cheaper solution of letting shows run as necessary but by giving the creators significant leeway to experiment. Thus we have Family Guy descend to a lower levels of audience intelligence in the never-ending pursuit of eyeballs.

FOX could step in at any time and stop the rot, but they haven’t, and it is on this fact that they are the ones who can be said to have lost their integrity. MacFarlane was always going to make the show that he saw fit and how Family Guy has progressed is simply evidence of that. In stark contrast, Nickelodeon saw falling standards and they did not hesitate to act. As a result both John K. and the show suffered in the short term but have ultimately gained in the long term as the high standards have stood the test of time

Why FOX Can’t Seem To Get Animation Right Again

FOX is well known for being the only consistent purveyor of animation on broadcast TV. Ever since 1989 when The Simpsons burst onto our screens, the network has been the only maintream network where animation has found success. The others do not lack for want of trying however, they’ve just never been able to crack the nut in the same way that FOX has.

It’s also well known that FOX has had problems over the years moving outside it’s traditional animation strongholds. Besides the Simpsons, the network has had only two other bona fide animated hits in King of the Hill and Family Guy. There were other shows, better shows, but none managed to last more than a few seasons (we’ll get to the McFarlane spin-offs in a minute).

Naturally, FOX hasn’t been resting on its laurels but has been actively searching for potential replacements for its incumbent shows. Its success in that regard has been lackluster to say the least. Family Guy is the only show to have come close to toppling the Simpson’s strangelhold on the network, and even then it was canned before it was brought back to life after a year and half.

Since then it has become a massive success, which has lead to the two spin-off shows in American Dad and The Cleveland Show. However, all three shows and the Simpsons are essentially the same formula in that they revolve around a family. Now that’s not to say its a bad thing, but it does tend to limit your audience if you do that. Besides, the McFarlane children exist only because of Seth’s midas touch and his accute wisdom to stay within his safety zone; unlike Matt Groening, who went beyond with Futurama and got burned because of it.

Secondly, FOX is broadcasting shows whose formulae are well out of date. The Simpsons is 20+ years old, Family Guy is almost a teenager. Yes, the shows have kept ‘up-to-date” but they are still rooted in those eras. Things just aren’t the same as they were back in the day. Styles and tastes have moved on. Admittedly FOX has attempted to catch up but its efforts with Futurama and Sit Down, Shut Up were pathetic to say the least.

Lastly, we need to ask ourselves if big-budget scripted animated shows of the caliber of the Simpsons and Family Guy are even worth creating any more? The historical context is that broadcast networks drew a much larger audience than cable. But everyone and their wife knows that broadcast ratings for even the highest shows are perilously close to those of cable. The fractitous nature of the viewing audience has resulted in a proliferation of networks that cater to more nuanced tastes. Thankfully some of those tastes have included animation.

So the question is not really why can’t FOX get another animated hit so much as should it even bother trying?

My position is that it should not, at least not on the scale that it currently produces. If animated shows are to survive in “broadcast” TV they need to be leaner and smarter and sadly FOX is searching for neither.

The Declining Quality of Animation on FOX

It was akin to a religion for me, and the only night of the week when I would absolutely have to watch “my shows”, yet recently, I have begun to skip Sunday nights altogether. Yes, FOX still has a full schedule of animated shows that is completely unrivalled by other networks, save for perhaps [Adult Swim].

What happened? Where has the love gone? Well, I’m not entirely sure. Let’s start at 8 o’clock and go from there.

The Simpsons. What can I say that hasn’t already been said ever since Principal Skinner was outed by Martin Sheen as an impostor. The quality of the show has clearly fallen since the heady days of the 90s and some people have been actively campaigning for the show’s cancellation in recent times (shoutout to the Dead Homers Society).

While it is clear that the show will be around for a wee while yet, it is unclear just how much farther it can fall. For example, last Sunday night’s episode was about a beached whale and not much else. If it wasn’t for the combination of a thunderstorm and some ice-cream, I may well have nodded off.

The Simpsons continues to hobble along being a mere ghost of it’s former self. Even the shows that supposedly outdid it are themselves falling into laziness (see below). The future beyond The Simpsons does not seem particularly bright as they are such a hard act to follow, here’s hoping FOX makes a decent choice.

Moving on to 8:30, we now have the Cleveland Show. For the previous decade, we were treated to a mild-mannered Texan and is cronies. Looking back, I should have been more appreciative of Mike Judge’s unique brand of humour. In between the launch of The Cleveland Show, were were treated to the severely underrated Sit Down, Shut Up. I’ve made my thoughts known before, but suffice to say, I believe SDSU was sorely needed in a full-time slot. Sadly, FOX didn’t agree.

The Cleveland Show as we all know is a spin-off from Family Guy, which pretty much says it all. Even though the humour is not near as pointed as it’s parent, it is still recognizable for the crass jokes and wacky neighbours. As a show it is funny enough, but the show that follows does not do it any favours.

Family Guy is the comeback king (well, almost, Futurama has to be the comeback king, seeing as it was even deader that Family Guy when it was resurrected a few years ago) and since its return has proven to be a strong ratings success. OK, sure the jokes have gotten even more borderline and the plots have evolved to the point where the characters have practically no, um, character.

When viewed immediately after Cleveland, the similarities are too easy to miss. Both shows together end up leaving me feeling like I wasted half an hour in there somewhere, even though I didn’t.

The best show doesn’t begin until 9:30. Even then, it falls far short of the Simpsons in their prime but that didn’t stop me praising the show a while back. I still stand by that post. Why? Well compared with Family Guy and The Cleveland Show, American Dad! is breath of fresh air. OK, the first season was pretty lame with its overbearing political slant, but since then the show has matured enough to the point that it’s half decent.

For me though, it’s on a bit late, the curse of having to get up at 6 every morning in order to hit the gym before work. This late timeslot also seems to render it the forgotten child in the promos during the earlier shows. In the grand scheme of things, it continues to survive, which I am grateful for.

Having said all the above, I do appreciate that FOX continues to have faith in animation and does continue to look for new shows with the aim of replacing ones as they inevitably peter out. It’s just that right now, the evening is filled with shows that are so desperately boring overall, that I would much rather watch any one of Hayao Miyazaki’s films for the 20th time.

FOX needs to realize that staying in a comfort zone for too long isn’t healthy. I understand that they can’t add more hours to the day, but with the overall shift to on-demand viewing, they could easily vary the schedule from week to week without any severe damage. I have hope for the future, but right now, I’m just one fan who would rather watch something else on a Sunday night.