Here is a link to a very good outline for the debate I feel we’ve all had at one time or another at some party or late night reverie where our DVD library has stared us in the face and asked, “So, which one of us are you going to choose?” In this corner, the faltering grandaddy of animation that had, in its wonderful youth, a prime to be envied by all future generations, The Simpsons. And in this corner, the younger laugh jukebox famous for its pop-culture cheap shots, Family Guy. And in this… third… hastily created corner… South Park, the cable middle-child with the rebellious streak.
This debate may seem archaic considering how old these three series are right now. Between them, they have been on the air for 46 season. 46! That is an absurdly long-time, and in television, which, unless you are a crime procedural, likes to skip right along to the next thing, that is a cultural death-sentence. Yet these shows still matter, still speak to people, and still spark impassioned debate. Just the other night, the topic came up during a drinking game where you pit two subjects against one another. You drink if you are in the minority or if the winner is unanimous (example question: “Scarlett Johansen or Natalie Portman?” Surprisingly, at least to me, Portman won). Which of these behemoths got left behind when the debate could only be reduced to two contenders?
“South Park or Family Guy?” the moderator posed. When he asked for hands for Family Guy, not a one went up. This is in a group of fifteen college age kids who I know for a fact have been regularly watching and quoting Peter Griffin since they were in their mid-teens. Between them, they likely owned twenty box set seasons with Lois and Meg and Brian and Stewie plastered on the outside. Every hand shot up at the suggestion of South Park. Cartman was the unanimous winner.
I was perplexed, yes, but, but I didn’t attribute the groupthink unanimity to the inebriated states of the participants (for the record, very inebriated). Instead I think it is a telling reflection of where the shows are right now, though not a reflection of what I think their eventual legacies will, or should, be.
The Simpsons wasn’t included, and it didn’t even cross my mind that it should have been. As posed in those five words, “South Park or Family Guy?” this wasn’t a debate about which show did the most for prime-time animation or television satire or adult comedy. It was a question of which show participants enjoyed watching more. That was the unstated context of the debate, which is very different from the context of Entertainment Weekly’s query. The Simpsons hasn’t been hip or desirable for years, at least since I was in middle school with a slight spike around the release of the movie. It has grown tame and weary in its old age, like a 14-year old German shepherd with bad eyesight that lies on the carpet waiting for people to come love it rather than greeting them at the door as it had once done in its youth. Seriously when was the last time you heard someone talk about Matt Groening or his show? Why would they unless they were looking backwards?
Family Guy isn’t being ignored though. Quite the contrary, it has been overexposed to the point where even a group of the show’s fans will not stand behind it in a debate because its tropes (overuse of cutaway gags, unfunny spinoffs) have become passe and show the signs of betraying the essentially small-scale nature of the little show that got cancelled but still could. It is an essential part of this debate, but only because every debate needs a bad guy. Family Guy is like the bad guy wrestler at a match, the one whose there to be booed at, make the match interesting. The show is percieved as a sell-out, an enemy to the art of prime-time parody, though I don’t believe the show itself has actually sold-out. All the same, everyone knows it has now entered rarefied air by being so popular and influential for so long, and so it must be in this debate, but it seems that everyone, even people who like the concept of the show, resent it for having been around long enough to become a part of this discussion, rather than remaining this really funny thing that was on for two years that only a few lucky people really got into. Seth MacFarlane has gone from hero to buffoon. His show is still pushing boundaries and innovating (and is still funny in its middle age, like a rambling uncle with good stories to tell) but it is doing so for an audience that has grown to resent it for reasons they can’t really explain. Really, they’re resenting it for, well, staying around long enough to be resented.
South Park, on the other hand, is hip and trendy right now. Everything about this show just sings with relevance right now, which is why it shocked me that Entertainment Weekly initially left it out of its debate (though, as someone with a very compartmentalized mind, I think it has something to do with a difference in setting — the first two are stupid-dad, domestic sitcoms while the later is much broader then that) considering so many of peers had only days before unanimously crowned king of the animation mountain. I doubt that my friends realized this (actually, I am positive they did not realize this), but Parker and Stone’s dabbling in Broadway has had an immediate effect on their legacy. Something about the critical lauds for The Book of Mormon as the smartest satire Broadway has seen for years has actively altered the way their television creation can be viewed. On a larger stage, Parker and Stone have been legitimized as not just thought-provoking but also, well, very thoughtful, and I think this has a big effect on the way Cartman is eventually going to be viewed in the long run. It also does not hurt that, of these three, South Park is the best right now. While the other two shows dabble with celebrity voices and unneeded spin-off tie-ins, South Park has its filthy finger on the pulse of American satire in a way it may not have about six or seven years ago when the show tried to transition from construction paper cultdom to mainstream, computer graphic conversation piece. This is a show that’s figured itself out for the moment and its fun watching it pull things together and give us the Human CentiPad and the reason for the anger behind the Tea Party movement.
For my money, South Park is the best show to watch right now, though Family Guy has been my personal favorite and though, ultimately, The Simpsons ends up being the greatest of these series. In the long run, Groening had a stretch of relevance in the mid-1990s that cannot be beaten by MacFarlane’s crude but simple charm or Stone and Parker’s ever-relevent button-pushing. This is the tough thing about “greatest of” lists, though. They require an objectivity that, at our simplest and most unrefined (when we are chatting with our friends, drinking with our buds, laughing at the television on a Sunday night) we just don’t have, let alone want. For my money, Lost is my greatest show of all time because of what it meant to me, but it is not the greatest show of all time (well… okay, another time….). It is a show of my moment and of my being, while the shows that finish on top of it in the history books are just empty records of someone else’s value system. Of course South Park is not just a show of the moment, a flash in the pan like Heroes, but also a long-lasting success story and frequently a work of comedic genius. That is where South Park is right now for many, many people. Does that ultimately matter more than the objectivity of The Simpsons overriding greatness and importance?