In the spirit of full disclosure, I must preface this project by acknowledging my biases when it comes to the four shows in FOX's Sunday night lineup. While I'll do my damndest to give The Simpsons, King Of The Hill, Family Guy, and American Dad a fair shake every week, I must admit that I hold the former two in much higher esteem than the latter. This doesn't mean I'm not familiar with Family Guy and American Dad–indeed, as they have both had much shorter runs than the other two, their episode histories are probably fresher in my mind. However, while I have been a near-obsessive fan of The Simpsons for roughly two-thirds of my lifetime and I consider King Of The Hill to be one of the most reliably funny, underrated shows on TV, my relationship with the MacFarlaneaverse is a little more guarded. Sure, I'll laugh at Family Guy and American Dad, but I don't always feel good about myself afterwards.
(Please note, this doesn't mean I don't enjoy all four of these shows, nor does it mean I plan on approaching these two hours with any sort of elitism, 'cause c'mon, they're cartoons. I tell you this only in the spirit of transparency.)
So on to the premieres. American Dad gets a pass this time, as it will not return until next week.
The Simpsons was especially flashy this week, which isn't surprising; with the movie and its mountains of hype, The Simpsons never really went away this summer, so I imagine it would be hard to engineer a suitable small-screen return. The writers really dug deep into their bag of tricks though, didn't they? Two celebrity cameos, a destination subplot, an original(ish) song, an Itchy And Scratchy cartoon, and a cheeky one-off reworking of the opening. Some of it worked; but unfortunately, as is all too common with The Simpsons these days, more of it didn't.
One of the main problems with The Simpsons over the past 7 or 8 seasons–are we really approaching the point where the show has been not-as-good longer than it was really-super-good?–has been its tendency to cram way too much into an episode. This episode almost felt like three mini-eps (trip to Chicago; Homer's life coach; Homer's fake job) rather than a fully fleshed-out story, even with the umbrella of the private plane holding it together. Still, I would've gladly sacrificed Lionel Richie for some more Chicago time.
About that Richie cameo; ugh. Simpsons guest appearances can be great (Michael Jackson, Kelsey Grammer) and they can be really half-assed (pretty much every sports figure who has ever appeared on the show). This episode had one of each type. What distinguishes Stephen Colbert as Colby Krauss from Richie's walk-on is that Colbert was actually a part of the story, not just a throwaway pop-culture reference (lord knows there will be plenty of those in the coming hour). In fact, I think most of the best Simpsons guest appearances have been by celebrities not playing themselves. (Though admittedly, Colby was heavily influenced by Colbert's shtick. It worked though.) At any rate, "Hey You, Beer Me" will definitely not make its way onto my list of favorite Simpsons musical moments. (Come to think of it, what was the last great Simpsons musical moment?)
Those of you who were around for The A.V. Club's "Simpsons Week" prior to the movie's release have probably had more than your share of "the show has lost its edge/the show is getting good again/the show has always been and will always be great," and I have little desire to re-enter that black hole of a debate on this blog (though that certainly doesn't mean you all can't.) So I'll just say that, while this premiere certainly wasn't as head-scratching as some recent seasons' ("Bonfire Of The Manatees," anyone?), it didn't exactly whisk me back to the show's so-called glory days. Then again, after nearly two decades, that would be a pretty silly thing to hope for anyway.
Moving on. It's about damn time King Of The Hill gets its shot at the post-Simpsons sweet spot. (Seriously, War At Home? For two seasons?) Granted, it has a pretty healthy life in syndication, but KOTH has always been the bastard child of FOX's Sunday nights. Which is a shame, because as this episode shows, it's never been better.
Only in the King Of The Hill universe could going to a college football game be an event worthy of a season premiere (no plane crashes; no dancing storm troopers), but it was pretty jarring to see Hank and company outside of the alley. The minutia of suburban life has provided many seasons' worth of material for the show, but KOTH does just as well on a slightly larger scale, as this episode shows. But I'll be happy to return to Arlen in the coming weeks–while the episode had some great Hank-and-the-guys moments, it suffered somewhat from a lack of Peggy. (Yes, she can be ridiculous, but man, she has some great lines: "Thank God it's covered in warning labels, because this antifreeze looks delicious.")
I'm sure I'll beat this particular horse bloody over the coming months, but I maintain that what distinguishes KOTH from most prime-time cartoons is the character development. It would be cheesy to say that the show has the most three-dimensional two-dimensional characters on television, and I'm not above being cheesy, so there you go. But that extra depth really is important in an episode like this, where Hank acts so extremely out-of-character. You know when Hank is awkwardly buying scalped football tickets, impersonating a football hero, and crawling on the floor pretending to be a longhorn, it's a big freakin' deal. It's a recurring theme in the show that the one thing that can make Hank break out of his contented little box is his desire to protect his friends and family–sure, in this case, "protect" means getting Bobby to like football, but in Texas, I suppose that is a pretty important defense to have. Hank's behavior wouldn't have nearly the same impact if he weren't so deeply and resolutely stoic over the past 11 seasons.
King Of The Hill's down-to-earthiness is especially amplified by its new timeslot between the increasingly absurd Simpsons and the hyper-mega-super-absurd Family Guy. About that: Now I know I just said I wouldn't be an elitist when it came to these shows, but come on, a Star Wars parody? As it is, Family Guy devotes approximately 12 percent of its energy to something resembling a plot; with this episode, all the writers had to do was sprinkle on some extra nostalgia and disparate references. (I'm not saying that's necessarily an easy thing to do, but as it is kinda Family Guy's MO, you'd think they'd put a little extra effort in.)
I see the logic. Few things lend themselves more readily to pop-culture riffing than Star Wars, and I imagine there's quite a bit of crossover between the fan bases of the two. And Family Guy has always been more of a joke delivery device than any sort of narrative. And okay, it's an "event" episode. But everything seemed pretty, well, obvious. Stewie is Darth Vader, of course. C3PO-Quagmire boinks a dot-matrix printer, ho hum. Have I just grown immune to the show's sense of humor, or did it all seem pretty old hat? And really, doesn't Star Wars provide enough fodder on its own without clumsily inserted Dirty Dancing segments? What did work were the jokes that poked fun at Star Wars' silliness ("Hold your fire? What are we, paying by the laser now?"), but there was far too much lazy jokemongering in between. Once the novelty wore off–and novelty doesn't count for much on a show like Family Guy–it was really just more of the same.
The Simpsons–"He Loves To Fly And He D'ohs": C
King Of The Hill–"Suite Smell Of Excess": B+
Family Guy–"Blue Harvest": C
--Good to see Spiderpig again, however briefly. Now may he be retired and never spoken of again.
--Did The Simpsons go easy on the Second City because Colbert and Dan Castellaneta are alums? Seriously, it's improv comedy, they could have been waaaaay harsher.
--I like that even when Bobby is enjoying football, he's doing so from a luxury box with a giant soda in hand. It makes his admittedly unprovoked, unexplained change of heart when it comes to sports seem a little more plausible.
--I know the running joke is that Meg is the black sheep of the Family Guy clan; but doesn't it seem a little extreme at times? I don't mean the offensive comments the family makes about her, but rather how she is almost always a complete afterthought. I mean, technically, shouldn't she have been Leia if Chris was Luke?