Television & Radio | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Resurrecting dead shows: At this rate, who needs ratings?

'Family Guy' rises from the grave. Meanwhile, despite praise from its network, 'Arrested Development' is pulled.

April 29, 2005|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

The whole dream of watching television, it seems to me, is that you don't have to do anything but sit there to receive it. So I'm having trouble adapting to this trend of watching TV on DVD, which feels too close to buying a cabinet at IKEA and knowing that some kind of assembly will be required.

Watching TV is supposed to promote a certain robust laziness. I can only imagine how the producers of Fox's "Arrested Development" must feel: Their show, despite the fact that it has been readily available on broadcast television, has been taken off the air and placed in limbo, while "Family Guy," the animated series Fox canceled three years ago, goes back on the schedule this month, apparently because its post-cancellation DVD sales have been so brisk.

Time was, shows like these two died with dignity (or not), but in any case they died. As with any death, you could move on, eventually. But both "Family Guy," the formerly dead show, and "Arrested Development," the low-rated show Fox loves so much they're keeping it from view, are having more convoluted journeys through what was, once upon a time, a relatively cut-and-dried process.

First, "Family Guy." Fox executives told The Times last week that the show's ratings won't matter this time around, because, upon dying, the series became a marvel of ancillary profits from off-network license fees for cable (it aired on Cartoon Network), DVDs and the sale of objets d' "Family Guy" -- a book, cellphone ring tones and games.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 30, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
"Arrested Development" -- The headline for an article in Friday's Calendar section about the TV series "Arrested Development" said the show had been "pulled," possibly creating the impression that Fox had canceled the show. As the article said, the series had been placed on hiatus.

So now they'll make more shows, although under this scenario I can't even be certain that the actual shows have to be watched. Still, in his triumphant return to network television, "Family Guy's" wunderkind creator, Seth MacFarlane, can't resist gloating.

"Everybody, I got bad news. We've been canceled," cartoon patriarch Peter Griffin tells his family in the show's cold open. Peter then ticks off all the "terrific shows" Fox has tried in recent years, a list that begins with "Dark Angel" and ends 28 show titles later at "Greg the Bunny."

MacFarlane himself voices Peter, and you can detect some of that comedy-writer anger in this very funny but also self-congratulatory scene, the young Turk who knows to his core that TV executives exist to prove that he is always right and they are always wrong. The Griffins of "Family Guy" -- there's his wife, Lois; their two kids; a sophisticate dog; and their demonic baby, Stewie, who speaks in the voice of a proper Englishman -- exist in fictional middle-class Quahog, R.I., and in tonight's episode Peter and Lois go on a second honeymoon to Cape Cod, only to end up in Mel Gibson's New York City hotel suite, where they steal a copy of "Passion of the Christ 2" and end up enacting a parody of "North by Northwest."

This might be why "Family Guy" became popular among college kids; it flatters their emerging pop culture reference capabilities. And if "Passion of the Christ" jokes are old now, they're at least a break from the gags about gay people and bowel movements that seem to tickle MacFarlane to no end. Die-hard fans of "Family Guy" will hail its return; the rest of us will find it amusing, even if it's not to the show's benefit that its re-emergence coincides with the 350th episode of "The Simpsons," the gold standard for prime-time animated comedy.

Where even in its cruder moments "Family Guy" has some of "The Simpsons'" cuddliness, MacFarlane's new (and I mean new) prime-time cartoon "American Dad!" is harsher and, at least once in Sunday night's episode, way out of bounds. Here, the dad is Stan Smith (again voiced by MacFarlane, who is rather prolific this way), a weapons expert at a CIA headquarters in Langley Falls, Va. His brood includes a space alien who sounds a bit like Paul Lynde, a wife, two teenage kids and a German fish named Klaus.

As with Peter Griffin, Stan Smith is drawn with a very large head, although it's blocky where Peter's is round; anyway, I take both heads to signify that MacFarlane is drawing through some issue with male authority figures. "American Dad!," which originally debuted after the Super Bowl, is a national security themed comedy. Sunday's episode has jokes about terror threat alerts and a completely tasteless bit involving a Realtor banished to Guantanamo Bay, where she finds herself seated across a cafeteria table from two imprisoned Arabs.

"The infidel has stolen my napkin," one says.

"Tonight we will cut off her lovely hands," the other responds.

Next on Al Jazeera: the image of Arabs on American TV. And yet, what am I thinking: As a network, Fox has long been an island of bad taste, though to its credit, bolder than its competitors. And then the occasional show classes things up. "Arrested Development" is supposed to be one of these gems, or at least that's what we've been lectured about since the series debuted two seasons ago and turned on the critics.

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