Animated antics pass their peak

Last updated 13:01 11/10/2012
STANDING ITS GROUND: Futurama is least popular of the foursome, but also the freshest.

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REVIEW: The Simpsons, Family Guy, Futurama, South Park. Four. Sundays from 7.30pm.

Typical. You wait ages for some new animated comedy then four come along at once. To celebrate the start of the 24th season of The Simpsons, Four has turned Sunday nights into cartoon comedy central, with our favourite four-fingered family followed by new episodes of Family Guy, Futurama and South Park.

Despite topping the ratings in their 90s heyday, the prevailing opinion is that all have gone downhill in recent years. While there's probably an element of rose-tinted specs about that assumption, a two-hour marathon of animated antics was enough to confirm that at least some of the spark has gone from the shows that were once a byword for subversive satire.

The problem with programmes that have been running for decades is that when new ideas inevitably dry up, things either get repetitive or ridiculous. The phrase "jumped the shark" (referring to something that has passed its peak) refers to a late episode of Happy Days where Fonzie flew over a shark tank on water-skis, symbolising the writers' desperation for a new or interesting storyline.

Many Simpsons fans insist the show jumped the shark some time in the early 2000s, but while there have been glimpses of brilliance since then, plots have been repeatedly recycled and the season 24 debut treads familiar ground as the family find an excuse to visit New York (again). Predictably, this is played for laughs in true self-deprecating Simpsons style and there are plenty of nods to the classic 1997 Homer vs the Big Apple episode along the way.

This time round, the reason for the trip is for Bart to reconcile with one of his many long-lost loves. This trip through Bart's romantic history allows for a huge cast of guest stars including Zooey Deschanel, Natalie Portman, Anne Hathaway and Sarah Silverman - all of whom sound so vocally similar it's impossible to tell them apart. There are a few decent one-liners, and some amusing cameos from Springfield favourites like Cletus and Sideshow Bob, but very few laugh-out-loud moments and none of the sharp, incisive writing we've come to expect from Homer and co.

Next up is Family Guy; a ruder, cruder, toon that relies heavily on cutaway gags and quickfire nonsequitors as the basis of most of its humour. Though occasionally hilarious, it has always seemed a little too eager to offend and has none of The Simpsons' charm or subtlety. Sunday's episode was another that seemed to be desperately seeking originality, with the opening act serving as a tenuous excuse for the Griffins to climb Mt Everest.

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Before the first commercial break, the topic of paedophilia is trotted out, swiftly followed by gags about cannibalism, racism and frozen vomit that prompt smirks, eye rolls and, admittedly, the odd chuckle. It's clear that writer/creator Seth MacFarlane isn't afraid to tackle any taboo - a trait that should serve him well in his upcoming gig as Oscars host.

Futurama is the least commercially successful addition to the lineup, but also the one that feels freshest, possibly as a result of a four-year hiatus from 2003-2007. Its futuristic setting also gives writers more leeway, so it's easier to get ridiculous rather than repetitive and when the show's robotic star, Bender, fathers a son after impregnating a vending machine, it's clear that gritty realism is off the menu.

Ironically, this is the most coherent plot of the evening, with a clearly defined story arc and characters serving a purpose rather than simply reciting gags. Bender gets all the best lines as usual, and it would have been nice to see more of Zoidberg, but you get the impression that Futurama has more of a future than any of the other shows on offer.

Rounding off the evening with an essential post-watershed slot is South Park. Derided by many as puerile toilet humour, below the surface lies a deceptively clever show that has raised the bar for satirical television over the past decade with a dark, surreal approach that highlights the ridiculous side of serious issues.

Sunday night's episode followed a familiar formula, with the debate over immunisation causing autism lampooned.

Cartman mishears Asperger's as "ass-burgers" and opens a fast food stand with a novel way of flavouring food and Stan's diagnosis leads to a Matrix spoof that pokes fun at everything from alcoholics to Adam Sandler.

It's not a classic episode, but there's enough here to suggest South Park remains relevant, and more importantly, funny after 13 years of poo jokes.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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