All four of Fox’s animated sitcoms have ended their 2007-8 seasons, and once again, surprisingly, American Dad was the best of the four. I did not like it when it started, and even now it’s hardly on a level with the best episodes of The Simpsons or King of the Hill or even cult flops like The Critic. But it actually has a certain amount of storytelling integrity, which is to say that no matter how ridiculous the stories are, they are structured in a logical and satisfying way, a lot of the humour comes from the characters (especially the nerdy son, Steve) and if the story is built around a political/social issue it will actually address that issue and make it part of the story’s resolution. Simple stuff, but not often found on the other three, longer-running shows. The voice cast has come together very well, too. I suspect that some of the improvement in American Dad is attributable to the addition, a couple of years ago, of showrunner Rich Appel, one of the best showrunners King of the Hill ever had; the fact that Appel will be co-creating the Family Guy spinoff, Cleveland, makes me feel almost optimistic for that show, except that:
Family Guy is still as it has been ever since it came back: one Manatee Gag after another. It’s never going to get better or worse, because it doesn’t have characters or plots or any of the other things that a show loses when it declines. It’s just a bunch of over-extended jokes; if you like the jokes, you like the show. It’s still not my kind of show, but there’s no telling how long it can last, because as long as it can make the audience laugh — and it does, obviously — it can succeed. Whereas The Simpsons, resilient as it is, has clearly been in decline ever since it lost its grasp of story and character, Family Guy is almost decline-proof; it can’t Jump the Shark.
King of the Hill I talked about earlier this season. I still like the show, very much respect the people who make it, and it is still a high-quality product; unlike The Simpsons, there’s not a sense that the writers are cutting corners on the scripts by putting in bad jokes or old jokes. But the resonance that KotH had in its first seven or eight seasons is not really there; if you look at what Greg Daniels and Paul Lieberstein and other former KotH people are bringing to The Office, that’s what KotH used to have and what it doesn’t have any longer. Part of the problem is that Fox has essentially banned any of its animated shows from having continuing storylines of any kind: every episode has to be completely self-contained because Fox wants to be able to stockpile episodes to show at any time, in any order. That hurts KotH because for its first five or six years or so, it did have some continuing story threads and develop the characters in ways that didn’t stop when the episode ended. But even evaluated as self-contained shows, the season finale with Luanne’s father did not compare — either emotionally or humourously — with the second season (very similar) episode about her mother.
And The Simpsons? This one can be quick, because it’s the same thing every year. They’ve already done everything that can be done with the characters, so each episode is really just kind of a nostalgic visit with people we used to know and love. It’s never going to get back to where it was in its first eight seasons, but I don’t think that would be possible. However, I can’t help thinking that if Al Jean were to turn over showrunning duties to someone else, it might at least produce something new (not necessarily better, just different). For the first eight years there was a general idea that no one could or should run The Simpsons for more than two years; since Jean returned, he’s been the showrunner for seven straight seasons and going into an eighth. Under those circumstances, of course the episodes seem pretty much the same every year.