Lesser Obsessions: The Best Hour of Television Ever

The underappreciated giants of recent animation.

My gut feeling is that TV isn’t really worth watching. I’m not a TV-hating hippie or anything like that — it just seems like a big waste if you stop to think it over. I get about 70 channels’ worth of TV, so that’s 1,680 hours’ worth of entertainment ready and waiting for me whenever I feel up to it. Nevertheless, my TV pretty much stays off.

I think it’s because my viewing habits has evolved into some weird post-entertainment phase. If Nielsen ever dropped one of those boxes off at my apartment, their statistical analysis would surely prove me to be a lunatic. I like watching stuff that, on its surface, doesn’t make sense. I am enthralled by Univision when it isn’t showing telenovelas (which I think look like regular soap operas, just with a different set of clichés). I skim over the education channel in hopes of catching my high school English teacher drilling vocabulary on the SAT prep show. I love it when NASA shows footage of Earth as viewed from orbit: No commentary, no music, nothing but home sweet home in outer space.

Most of the time, I watch all this random stuff at equally random points in my life: over dinner on a Friday, feeling bored one Tuesday night. But there’s an hour of television that has my ass consistently plunking itself down on the couch every weeknight. 11:00 pm, Cartoon Network. “Futurama,” “Family Guy.” It’s part of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim — which, in short, is animated stuff aimed at teenage anime freaks or grownups with a love of the absurd. Guess which category I belong to?

Let me tell you exactly what I love about these TV shows.



Futurama

General premise: Slow-witted pizza delivery guy accidentally gets cryogenically frozen, then revived in the year 3001. Joins scrappy intergalactic delivery company consisting of mad scientist, robot, one-eyed woman, lobsteroid, and Rastafarian accountant. Wacky hijinks ensue.

History: “Futurama” was pretty heavily hyped at its outset. It was the brainchild of Matt Groening … you know, the guy who did “The Simpsons.” This, I think, is a large part of why “Futurama” is such a great show. Imagine you’ve been working on a highly popular series of any kind — comic books, TV shows, books, whatever. Sure, the people love it and you like creating it, but there inevitably will be some things you wish you could’ve changed about the initial premise. But you have to live with it. Bart Simpson can never grow up, after all.

“Futurama” was a triumphant cry of freedom from all that. Groening had learned an incredible amount of stuff from working on “The Simpsons”. Now they had the chance to go back and do it all right, right from the start.

I remember the initial buzz on this show was strong. (Remember when everyone watched Fox on Sunday nights?) The show’s concept was more offbeat than “The Simpsons”, but the sense of humor was still intact. But then disaster struck. For whatever reason, Fox decided to move the show so that it would be preempted constantly by football and baseball games, which basically amounted to months-long stretches of preemption. My theory is that someone over at Fox had a grudge against Matt Groening. I don’t have any evidence or anything, but it seems kind of implausible that a show as consistently strong as “Futurama” would be jettisoned. All sense of continuity was lost, nobody was ever sure when the show was on, and it basically sank out of sight.

Virtues: It’s a grown-up version of “The Simpsons.” As in first-couple-years Simpsons, back when Bart prank called Moe’s and Homer actually cared about being a good father. “Futurama” is a little more adult in the sense that there are jokes about suicide booths and unfortunate one-night stands. It’s not crass the way “Family Guy” is — it just admits the presence of kind of messed-up stuff into its world.

It also takes a much more adult view of emotional problems. There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to badly-written emotional conflict on TV: the 22-minute school of thought, and the 44-minute school of thought. In the 22-minute version, characters only bring up regrets, personality flaws, and other psychological mish-mash when these issues can be directly tackled in the course of one episode, and at least mostly resolved by the end of same. See “Full House,” “The Simpsons” (seriously!), and that one episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where Picard and Crusher get psychically linked and find out they want to do each other (yes, it is an hour-long series, but it follows the 22-minute model).

The other model hands out personal problems, one a time, to its characters. They struggle with them for usually a couple months, resolve them in some fashion, and then, after a brief respite, the character gets handed a new one. Once in a while, past problems resurface, but they are eventually dealt with in, again, a few months’ worth of episodes. See “Party of Five,” “Dawson’s Creek,” and “Beverly Hills 90210.”

Frankly, both of these things piss me off. Drama is supposed to train us to handle our own problems, right? You watch Oedipus and learn to make sure every hot chick you consider talking to is not, in fact, your mother. You see a performance of Fences and learn about the difficult way marriages often go.

TV shows don’t tell you anything at all about real life. Maybe that’s their appeal. But it feels dehumanizing to me to show people who face problems whose scope are limited. I worry about all the ways my life could go wrong; all the ways my car could break; all the ways the world itself could go wrong.

My point is not that “Futurama” is a deep, emotionally involving series. But there are moments in it that have real pathos invested them, that manage to convey the idea of a larger dimension never really shown. Somehow I like that more than following the four-month-long exploits of imaginary people.

Priceless moments:

  • Professor Farnsworth bellowing, “Great zombie Jesus!”
  • Hermes: “Is there no meat this man can’t jerk?”
  • Bender: “Fine! You don’t want Bender around anymore. I’ll just go build my own lunar lander, but with blackjack and hookers! In fact, forget the lander … and the blackjack.”


Family Guy

General premise: Slow-witted father undergoes the trials of tribulations of trying to raise an average American family while being a complete jackass. Contents of family: patient, beautiful wife; intelligent teenage daughter obsessed with popularity; teenage son who has the mind of a 4-year-old; toddler armed with the vocabulary of Oscar Wilde and the ambitions of several Bond villains combined; and Brian, the family dog who’s the most well-read of the bunch of them.

History: “Family Guy” had the same problems at Fox that “Futurama” did — just for much different reasons. Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the show (who also voices Peter, Stewie, and Brian), has a sense of humor that just doesn’t go well with the desire to get advertisers attached to TV shows that please nearly everyone and don’t, for instance, inspire letter-writing campaigns and boycotts. Topics touched on by “Family Guy” include the social politics of blowjobs, the annexation of Poland by Nazi Germany, and Osama bin Laden.

Fortunately, Macfarlane’s sense of humor is also finely honed. The weird thing is that when I watched the show when it was being broadcast by Fox, I can remember being vaguely offended by a few of the jokes. Not enough to actively hate the show, but it did kind of leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. The second time through, I find myself laughing a lot more. Maybe it’s because I’ve heard worse and more offensive things in the meantime. Or maybe it’s because I’ve graduated from college and have learned to take things a lot less seriously.

The German sausage vendor taking over the Polish sausage vendor’s table at the fair still isn’t funny, though.

Anyway, because MacFarlane refused to tone it down (much to his credit), “Family Guy” went AWOL on Fox. A slew of episodes would be aired, then a long period of absence would ensue. Rumor would have it that the show would be cancelled, and then it would mysteriously return. In short, it seemed like Fox had no idea what to do with the show. Eventually, they made up their minds: After three seasons, the show was cancelled.

Virtues: Sheer unrelenting absurdity. The best parts of “Family Guy” are the 5-to-15-second-long flashbacks that pepper each episode. Brian, the dog, recalls his time with Andy Warhol: Cut to trippy movie shoot with Brian dressed to the nines in Warhol chic. In another episode: Peter, the father, is sentenced to jail time. Lois, his wife, says, “Oh no!” Meg, his daughter, says, “Oh no!” Chris, his son, says, “Oh no!”

The Kool-Aid Man bursts through the courtroom wall and screams, “OH YEAH!”

It’s a simple concept, but a ground-breaking one. It’s sort of like getting inside the head of someone who’s spaced out in the middle of a meeting, thinking to himself, “Wow, it would be kind of cool if a dinosaur just broke through the window and ate everyone on the opposite side of the table from me,” and then spent the next couple minutes daydreaming what would happen after that. (Not that I would know anything about spacing out in a meeting or anything.)

Very few shows have the courage to go on tangents like that, to wander where the writers want to wander to. Most of the time, they’re too busy following the 22-minute formula or the 44-minute one — in other words, they’re too busy trying to make a good show that they never can make a great one.

Priceless moments:

  • Peter, refusing a coupon from a man dressed like a chicken, recalls the time he had the most stereotypical climax-of-an-action-movie fight with a real, live giant chicken who had the gall to hand him a coupon that had expired.
  • Quagmire, to a group of women in a lesbian bar: “Hey, any of you ladies been penetrated?”
  • Cleveland, Peter’s neighbor: “Oh, Quagmire, you are what the Spanish call ‘El Terrible.’”
Article © 2003 by Chris Klimas