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British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
Here’s the thing about “Family Guy” and “Dads” creator Seth MacFarlane — his toxic sense of humor pays.
His “Family Guy,” a Fox animated series that would make Homer Simpson blush, has such a strong following that it was resurrected after having been canceled — and it’s now entering its 12th season. He’s had two other animated shows, “American Dad” and “The Cleveland Show,” on the network. At the end of the television series now commencing, MacFarlane’s animated shows will have run for an aggregate 26 seasons. “Ted,” the film about a foulmouthed toy bear that MacFarlane wrote and directed, has generated around $550 million in global box office receipts, a forthcoming sequel and uncountable parody Twitter accounts.
And MacFarlane’s getting a chance to diversify his portfolio with a live-action series. His “Dads,” which premiered last night, was roundly condemned by television critics before it aired, a fact that Fox attempted to capitalize on in advertisements juxtaposing terms of condemnation like “offensive,” “reprehensible” and “morally wrong” against everyday folks praising the show. “This is Fox, baby!” exclaimed one happy viewer.
Well… sort of. As BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur points out, Fox, for its first 15 years or so known across-the-board for scandalous and raunchier-than-usual programming like “Melrose Place,” “When Animals Attack!” and “Married … With Children,” has “strayed.” It has, now, perhaps the most schizophrenic brand identity going into the new fall season — it’s the network where one finds singing-competition shows like the sagging “American Idol” and the in-crisis “X Factor,” sturdy procedural dramas like “Bones,” and fun, female-oriented comedies like “The Mindy Project” and “New Girl,” which share an entirely heterogeneous two-hour comedy block with “Dads.”
The only consistent thread running through Fox’s schedule is the influence of MacFarlane, who will have three shows on the air this season (“The Cleveland Show” having been canceled), much as the nearly-as-crass but far less forward-facing Chuck Lorre defines CBS’s comedy offerings. Strikingly enough, before this episode began, a similarly retrograde episode of Lorre’s “Big Bang Theory” aired, during which “Arrested Development” star Jessica Walter played a horny older woman desperate for sex. But since Lorre creates real characters amid the miasma — and seems content merely to create TV shows, not be an all-media superstar, he’s rightly exempt from much of the criticism MacFarlane gets.
“Dads” is the high-decadent expression of a noxious artist encouraged to continue plumbing worse and worse depths. As has been widely written about, the show contains particularly nasty stereotypes about Asians, with an Asian female employee of the protagonists being forced to dress as an anime character to appeal to randy Asian investors; she later blackmails the investors with a photo of what’s depicted as a predictably tiny Asian male member. One protagonist’s wife is treated as a maid, while an actual maid of apparent Latina descent speaks in a purposefully incomprehensible accent. The titular dads use actual ethnic slurs — the sons with whom they live are little better, exhibiting attitudes towards anyone who’s not a white man that feel sadly familiar but like little else on TV.
But, while this is galling, why should this come as a surprise? Critics who may no longer be attentively watching the creatively long-in-the-tooth “Family Guy” may not have at top of mind that show’s many, many insults directed at ugly-duckling daughter Meg. Here’s a sampling:
This entirely leaves aside the fact that one of the most popular “Family Guy” recurring characters, Quagmire, is a walking rape joke, dispensing roofies to Meg and, bizarrely, forcing himself upon Marge Simpson. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asks her after she attempts to fight him off. He then kills her and the rest of her family. Funny stuff!
Fox refused to air that gag, but it lives on in rebroadcasts elsewhere; it was one of the few times, it seems, that MacFarlane’s been told no. After his Oscars opening number celebrated rape scenes on film, from “Boys Don’t Cry” to “Lawless,” film eminences including Jane Fonda made their displeasure known, but the academy celebrated a slight uptick in ratings (which may have had as much to do with the broadly populist best picture slate). MacFarlane declared not hosting the Oscars again was his own choice, taking a swipe at “traumatized critics” in the process; hosting the Oscars, which alienated a group of people Fox isn’t trying to reach anyway, may have been the best move MacFarlane could have made. He went from picking fights with “The Simpsons” to the self-styled bad-boy of Hollywood.
This is what his public wants of MacFarlane; the gentler “The Winner” (not as dreadful as “Dads,” though still not as innocuous as “The Waltons”) was canceled after three episodes in 2007. Other, less MacFarlane-y projects have alternately been slow in coming, like “Cosmos” (announced years ago and said to be set for this coming spring); generously forgotten, like his niche-y jazz record “Music Is Better Than Words”; or scrapped entirely, like his reboot of “The Flintstones.”
And in an era of increased fragmentation — when Fox shows like “New Girl” and “The Mindy Project” all do fine, but are not hits — MacFarlane’s devoted fan base is something Fox is willing to stake its reputation on. They’re not, and were never, raunchy because of philosophical desire to push envelopes: As witnessed by Fox’s willingness to push the family-friendly “American Idol” to the brink of over-exertion, they’ll go with whatever works, and actively trolling audience expectations is a good way to appeal to teenage and 20-something boys, if entirely alienating everyone else.
MacFarlane has shown he has interests other than being a lame provocateur: “Ted,” as mindlessly denigrating to women as it was, had the shape of a romantic comedy, a genre more or less left for dead; his much-maligned Oscar hosting gig featured more and more competent song-and-dance than Billy Crystal usually brings to the job. But that’s not what pays the bills. MacFarlane and his co-writers aren’t posting mean jokes, unedited, to their Twitter feeds — an entire network, seeking the favor of young people in a remarkably difficult climate for broadcast shows, has provided him outlet after outlet. Whether or not “Dads” is a success, MacFarlane isn’t making it because he’s single-mindedly interested in sharing a noxious worldview. That worldview is simply the aspect of his humor that’s most saleable.
Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_ More Daniel D'Addario.
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