To say that Seth MacFarlane is a polarizing figure in animation is an understatement.
Fans of Seth’s material tends to spread far into the mainstream, appealing to those that would otherwise not be interested in cartoons. MacFarlane’s detractors often view his works with extreme derision, to the point of wanting his head on a pike. A main complaint brought up by said detractors is that all three of his shows are the same thing, with slightly different wrappers; Family Guy being the Classic flavor, with American Dad and the Cleveland Show filling the role of Diet Coke and Coke Zero, two other spinoff products designed for different purposes but intended to look and taste exactly like the original. And at first glance, that observation would be correct: all three series involve dysfunctional families
drawn in the same simplistic line-art style with the same character archetypes appearing in each. All three shows have their little quirks and oddities, and their similarities tend to either complement the show or exposes its flaws.
The progenitor, Family Guy, needs no introduction.
Seth MacFarlane had the biggest impact on the creation of this show, and public opinion on it seems to mirror public opinion on Seth himself: incredibly mixed with no middle ground. Ironically, for all the complaints of Family Guy being “mainstream frat-boy humor”, the show itself hasn’t really changed what made the show a cult hit in 1999, more as it has taken those properties and exaggerated them to an extreme level. An apt description of Family Guy is the Simpsons written for the Robot Chicken crowd; a bizarre, vulgar, rapid-fire program that resembles a sketch comedy more than a family sitcom. That understanding of the show as a vehicle for laughs can either make or break a person’s perception of the show. A lot of the criticism I see about the show is that the Griffins are callous, horrible people who treat each other like dirt, and that there are almost no likable characters. This would be an incredibly valid point for a show like the Simpsons, which is rooted in more traditional sitcom humor that focuses on the family as characters.
The Griffins, however, are not intended to be characters to relate or even sympathize with (aside from the occasional sentimental moment like the excellent episode “Brian and Stewie”, and even those moments are usually between specific characters and not the family as a whole). In Family Guy, everything is focused on the gag and how to reach it. Most of the time, any story progression in the episode is get the characters into a new situation to give the bare-bones semblance of a plot and a chance to make more specific gags based on that new situation. Sometimes the show will eschew the set-up entirely with its signature cutaway gags, simply using a short “Remember the time I…” line to segue into an unrelated joke. There are a few jokes that don’t include any set-up whatsoever and are simply tangentially related to the scenes around it. Family Guy is certainly guilty of South Park‘s accusation of “rubber ball writing”; jokes that seem to be more inspired by random ideas picked from a hat than any actual relationship to the main story. The result is a hit-and-miss collection of jokes being fired every second, in comparison to South Park‘s opposite philosophy of craft two or three relevant, thought-out jokes and filling episodes with dozens of permutations based on that joke.
Seth’s second show (and Family Guy’s intended successor before the show became un-canceled), the woefully underrated yet bogglingly persistent American Dad is proof that you can juggle bizarre non-sequiturs and cohesive plotting at the same time. The Smiths of American Dad are a bit odd in that while the show focuses more on traditional (or at least coherent) sitcom plots than the sketch-comedy format of Family Guy, the characters are even less likable than the Griffins (especially breakout character Roger, who actually has a medical condition preventing him from being nice), yet the show doesn’t suffer for it because all the Smiths are equally horrible to each other, to the point where a lot of the humor stems from each family member’s vices playing off of each other and watching unsuspecting onlookers getting caught up in the mess. Most of the other good chunk of humor comes from the show’s just plain weird writing. If Family Guy evokes Robot Chicken, then American Dad is the broadcast equivalent of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. While Family Guy is chock full of odd and bizarre jokes, most of them are just throwaway gags that have no real “canon” relationship to the show’s general mythos or main plot. In American Dad, the madness is the plot, resulting in unorthodox storytelling techniques, plot twists from out of left field, and generally baffling sequences that result in a double pile-up of absurdity not just because of the event themselves but also because unlike Family Guy, where anything can be waved out of the picture at a whim, this show challenges the viewer by forcing them to accept everything in the show as “canon”, no matter how out of place from the benign sitcom premise.
The third and most recent show, the Cleveland Show, unfortunately tries to have things both ways and falls flat on its face, achieving neither a cast of characters worth caring about nor a mile-a-minute factory of gags. The Cleveland Show is exactly what the title would suggest; a show about Cleveland Brown from Family Guy and not much else. Unfortunately for series co-creator and Cleveland voice actor Mike Henry, there wasn’t much to Cleveland when isolated from the atmosphere and environment of Family Guy, so the spinoff show had to be set in a Southern-fried clone of Quahog, Stoolbend, Virginia. The consistent need to leech off of Family Guy‘s success is so painfully apparent in the show. The mothership series seems to be mentioned every other episode, and the signature cutaways are used way more than they should have been, too. Even the characters seem like Family Guy clones; just like the Griffins, the Browns have a talking baby with attitude, a shallow teenage daughter, a reasonable yet flirtatious wife, and a fat, socially awkward son (who was one of the only characters not created for the show, and coincidentally one of the only characters with a really fleshed-out character). Even the drinking buddies and local bar seem to be lifted from Rhode Island. And while trying to recapture the style of Family Guy, the show attempts to channel American Dad by trying to make the audience care about the characters as people over long stretches of actual plot. The problem is that the characters of Family Guy are incompatible under those conditions, because they are not meant to be viewed in such a light for that long of a time. In fact, the Cleveland Show is in a worse position, because while Peter Griffin may be a horrible person, he at least doesn’t know better and isn’t portrayed to be someone to root for. Cleveland was given Peter’s callousness towards others but also made fully aware of his decisions, making him along with the wholesale copy-and-paste job from Family Guy a big reason why the Cleveland Show feels very insincere and uncomfortable to watch.
A heartwarming cross-section of middle America Seth’s shows are not, and it’s better if it’s kept that way. For the most part, FOX’s Sunday night lineup has never been about the family sitcom more as it has been about how the family sitcom can be subverted and mutated in various ways, with hilarious end results.