Although Seth MacFarlane does not have an impeccable resume of work on outstanding television series, the success of Family Guy escalated him to 'genius' status. With that in mind, Family Guy's millions of fans had high hopes for his newest series, American Dad. After witnessing an exclusive copy of the 22 minute pilot, this reporter feels obligated to let the eager fans know they will be let down by the episode.
Several months ago, a six-minute montage of clips circulated around the Internet. It did not get overwhelmingly positive reviews, and sadly, featured almost all the comedic moments of the actual pilot. Although the full pilot possesses a few additional laughs, if you didn't fall out of your chair laughing upon seeing that montage, don't even bother watching American Dad after the Super Bowl. And, even if you did, you will still be disappointed with the final product.
The humor in Family Guy was multi-dimensional: the show made viewers laugh by combining biting wit and sarcasm with over-the-top, zany slapstick. Peter Griffin, the show's main character, could drive viewers to laughter with a racist comment just as quickly as he could by falling out of a chair. The final piece of the puzzle was the show's extensive use of cutaways and flashbacks, often cued by a "remember that time" type of line. Essentially, American Dad utilizes the same format (although the cutaways are much more infrequent), but the new series falls far, far short of one of the greatest animated television shows in history.
Part of the problem is the result of the writing team 'trying too hard' to make viewers laugh. This philosophy that the show won't succceed unless there's a joke every three seconds actually has a detrimental effect on the comedic aspect. The jokes play against each other and the direction removes any chance for laughter. If one read the script for the series, he would probably laugh-out-loud on several occasions. There are many good dryly sarcastic and satirical jokes. One gets proof of that in the opening montage, which features a newspaper headlined with, "TV critics broker mideast peace deal." That's definitely 'Family Guy' funny. Unfortunately, the writers didn't want to rely on such obviously funny material - they wanted slapstick joke after slapstick joke. This constant attempt to provide that perfect 'Peter Griffin moment' not only gets annoying after a while, and not only doesn't work (as most of the slapstick material is terrible), but dampens the effect of the wit. This 'must be funny' philosophy results in a show that's anything but funny. Don't let American Dad dupe you - if there's a funny quote, rest assured that there are going to be thirty more slapstick jokes to kill its impact. Rather than use slapstick to complement the subtle jokes, American Dad uses slapstick to overshadow the more effective humor.
Oh, and you don't need to take my word for it. In the first scene, Hayley cracks, "Do you think you'll hit puberty before you turn fourteen?" It wasn't hilarious, but it wasn't terrible. However, Steve replies, "Why, so you can have sex with me? You're sick!" It's completely random and makes absolutely no comedic sense. This is just one of many examples of useless jokes thrown in 'just to be funny.' Newsflash: ten funny jokes are better than 100 terrible ones. Never has a better example of quantity vs. quality been displayed.
One of the misconceptions with Family Guy was that the humor was 'random.' Although that is essentially true, as much of the humor came from absolutely obscure pop culture references that superficially had little to do with the issue at hand, it was a different type of 'random.' The cutaways and random jokes of Family Guy were humorous in and of themselves and were made relevant by nature of the situation or characters - they had some place in the story. By getting to know the characters and their role in the show, the seemingly 'random' jokes were anything but random. American Dad doesn't use references in the same way - it just features jokes placed in situations they don't belong, purely for cheap laughs. While there was a solid method to the Family Guy madness, American Dad is fueled purely by a desire to bombard the audience with jokes, few of which stick.
But, the poor focus on humor is not the only fallback of the series. The character development is absolutely atrocious. For a pilot presentation, there is no emphasis on making viewers WANT to see the future affairs of the characters. Aside from Stan, who plays a cross between Peter Griffin and Joe Swanson, and Steve, who plays the typical nerd, the other characters serve little comedic or storyline purpose. Roger, obviously meant to be the 'Brian' of American Dad, is downright annoying - both in terms of being devoid of any comical arsenal, and his annoying little 'occurence' every few hours. Klaus is also terribly annoying, although even worse than the character is the explanation given to explain why a goldfish can speak German. Hayley's liberalism should prove for some comedic clashes with conservative Stan in future episodes, but only a few attempts are made in the pilot. But, the biggest waste is the Smith family matriarch, Francine. She just brings nothing to the table. While she's essentially given the opportunity to serve as a second-coming of Lois Griffin, with a mixture of intelligence, naivete, and unintentional self-deprecation, nothing lands. Those who see the pilot will depise the character after a scene towards the end of the episode, where she gives an excrutiating speech over a megaphone. It starts off devoid of any comedy, yet the joke keeps coming.
And, that's the story of the show. The jokes that are good (such as a witty Muslim joke) are overshadowed by useless slapstick. But, when a joke fails to land, the writers show no interest in relenting and instead keep trying, with the hope that they can get at least one round of chuckles from the audience.
While bombarding viewers with poorly-conceived slapstick humor might work midway through the season, it doesn't work for a post-Superbowl pilot presentation. With so many viewers tuned in, FOX has a rare opportunity to actually build a huge audience for this series. Combined with Family Guy in May, the network would have the opportunity to run a successful Sunday night timeslot in the May sweeps period. This episode needs to be looked at as a crucial three-pointer in the last two seconds of a basketball game, not one with six minutes left. This is a hit-or-miss opportunity. And, American Dad's pilot presentation misses the boat.
The sad thing is that MacFarlane and company didn't neglect the show. They made every attempt to throw in as much humor as possible. That's the problem. Family Guy's humor was the result of its situation and characters. The humor was very relaxed - the jokes all worked because they fit naturally into the puzzle. Peter could make racist statements because he was ignorant, yet his ignorance also explains his silly 'toilet' humor. As far as American Dad is concerned, a situation is not established, the characters are not established. It is the job of the writers in a pilot to make it clear to the viewers why this is one of the funniest shows on television. American Dad is an example of a job poorly done.
END NOTES: Those who are not too familiar with Family Guy might appreciate the comedic format and over-the-top sense of humor. But, as was the case with this reporter, no Family Guy fan will be satisfied with the outcome of this show. Regardless of what FOX or anyone associated with the show wants to claim, the attempt is made to be a "new" Family Guy. The producers try too hard to achieve a blend of subtle and blatant humor, but instead of resulting in an ideal piece of comedy, the two flavors of humor counteract and result in a mildly funny, extremely disappointing series. It might be worth a look, but you probably won't be inspired to watch the show when it begins its episode order in May.
American Dad airs Sunday after a post-Super Bowl "The Simpsons."