John Teti here, subbing for Todd tonight on the Fox animation block. This was an odd experience—I can’t remember the last time I watched these shows all in one night. They’re typically Hulu fare for me, or impulse iTunes purchases to get through a long plane ride. Seeing them all at once in a two-hour marathon made me realize that America must really, really love Seth MacFarlane for this Sunday night lineup to be a success. Because that was a pretty goddamn exhausting Sunday night of television. I’m not saying that the actual shows were all bad; they weren’t. It’s simply a whole lot of MacFarlane. I should have paced myself—watched some Archer reruns to break up the evening or something. I didn’t know. I just didn’t know.
In three of the shows tonight, you could pretty much tell how the episode was going to play out in the first five minutes (a fact that The Cleveland Show stated outright), so it all came down to how they executed their off-the-shelf plotlines: Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons, gambling addiction on Cleveland, and jilted family member on American Dad. The only show with any sense of mystery was Family Guy, which dropped the ball—not by ignoring the plot like the show typically does, but by constructing an unusually serviceable yet boring plot.
The Simpsons: I’m one of those elitist assholes who likes to close his eyes real hard and pretend that The Simpsons took a bow after its ninth season and rode triumphantly off into the TV sunset. So why don’t I just shut my hatin’ mouth right now, because this was a fine half-hour of entertainment. And given that it was yet another Sideshow Bob episode, the degree of comedy difficulty for the writers was pretty high. “The Bob Next Door” didn’t get off to a very good start, firing off a string of mortgage-crisis jokes made inevitably stale by the show’s long-lead production schedule. (Boy, they sure nailed that Icelandic banking system. Remember when that was a thing?)
The episode didn’t linger on economy gags for long, though, and once Bob/“Walt” made his appearance, the rest of the show moved at a brisk pace. That’s a refreshing departure from the bloated, self-satisfied norm of the modern-day Simpsons. Sure, the Face/Off business was the latest in a string of cartoony justifications to spring Bob from the hoosegow, but the logic of it was well-constructed. There were a couple of red herrings—I’ll admit I was thrown off the scent when Marge and Bart visited “Bob” in prison—and the writers even tied the scheme back to the economic crisis, which had seemed like the typical throwaway premise. The showdown at Five Corners played out just like “Cape Feare,” complete with rake gag, which is not a bad thing. If The Simpsons intends to self-plagiarize (and it obviously does), that’s a good episode to copy. Grade: B+
The Cleveland Show: The Cleveland Show is like 30 Rock and South Park in that it often recycles sitcom chestnuts but never deigns to play them straight. Instead, the writers must first signal the chestnut they’re dredging up and then signal their ironic detachment from said chestnut, so creators and audience alike can go to sleep knowing they’ve done their part to advance the artistic standards of the medium. Meanwhile, the irony is pretty much irrelevant, as the only thing that really matters is how well the show actually executes (and innovates on) whatever archetype it has assumed that week. And The Cleveland Show did not bring a whole lot to the table. After declaring by way of two Delaware University fratboys that everyone knows what’s going to happen—Cleveland will gamble away his kid’s college fund—that’s exactly what the show did. Which I guess is doubly ironic? But still pretty blah. The sequence where Cleveland took on odd jobs didn’t go anywhere, and the third-act Charlie’s Angels takeoff was a limp, confusing mess. I did enjoy the flashbacks to Kendra Krinklesac’s earlier life, so while it was funny when Cleveland cut her off, I would have actually liked to hear more. A spinoff-spinoff, perhaps? (Please no.) Grade: C+
Family Guy: Who actually sits down and writes all of the world’s dirty jokes? That’s a pretty good question (although the answer is surely something banal—I figure hacky stand-up comics are responsible for the bulk of them) and a fantastic premise for a Peter Griffin adventure. As Peter et al. started tracking down the origin of the “P.S. Your vagina’s in the sink” joke, the episode felt like it would take on the breezy, hijinks-y energy of the Brian & Stewie “On The Road” episodes, which are among the series’ best. But then the chase got bogged down in Cleveland Show crossover territory for a while. And when the great dirty-joke oracle was revealed, all the steam went out of this thing. Turns out the origin of dirty jokes is a big island where smart guys think of dirty jokes. Yup, and they distribute them out to the citizens of Earth as needed, from a high-tech dirty-joke command center. In other words, exactly where you would expect a lazy episode of Family Guy to go. I give the episode points for a clever premise and a strong first half, but I wish that the writers had pushed themselves a little harder to make this one go the distance. I can only hope that they were concentrating all their creative resources on next week’s Empire Strikes Back episode. Grade: B-
American Dad: As soon as Roger said the word “roast,” the arc of this episode was clear, but unlike the assiduously ironic Cleveland Show, American Dad owned its clichéd-ness and pursued the oversensitive-family-member plotline with gusto. I liked that Roger’s overreaction was so quiet—that he worked on “getting his life together” while secretly planning to murder the family. It would have been easier to send Roger straight into conniption fits, but his carefully restrained rage, in the context of this typically id-driven character, made him seem angrier than any temper tantrum would have. Plus, it was fun to see Banker Roger and Running Laps At The Track Roger. The denouement in space threatened to send things off the rails, but unlike its counterparts in the MacFarlane empire, American Dad knows how to rein things back in, and the ending managed a core of sweetness amid the butthole-eating-scorpion laughs. Grade: B+
-- I was watching some Season 5 episodes of The Simpsons this weekend. It’s striking how much Principal Skinner’s voice has changed, for the worse. It has lost all of the deep timbre that it had for the show’s first decade or so, and Harry Shearer plays it completely nasal now.
-- The first three shows of the night had jokes that centered on grapes. I guess they’re in the zeitgeist.
-- The Simpsons may recycle a lot of material, but I’m betting this was the show’s first Down Periscope reference.
-- “By Clancy, Age 43”
-- “Aw, nothing is ever boobs or ice cream.”
-- “Ooh! That book I ordered is going to be delayed!”
-- “Are you here to teach me or to kill me?”
-- “I’m gonna go see if their sports book has bum fights! Our country doesn’t take care of its veterans.”
-- “Sittin’ next to an Asian guy, havin’ a free drink, I could get used to this!”
-- “You’re a little thin to be from Corpus Christi.”
-- “I don’t know how much rice is, but you know what I’m saying.”
-- Nice of Family Guy to include a Futurama shout-out.
-- “Take me back to Virginia, so I can put some Bacitracin on this and pork my wife.”
-- “Just know this: I never don’t want to have Kindergarten Cop.”
-- I’m writing “For drugs yo” in the memo of my next rent check.
-- “And by the way, Merlin had a producer credit on the second season. He could have done something.”
-- “This is the first piece of paper I haven’t sexually assaulted in years.”