The Death Of The Simpsons’ Family: What Seth MacFarlane Can Learn From ‘Bob’s Burgers’, Everyone
Seth MacFarlane's new show 'Bordertown' < literally anything else.
It’s been 27 years since Fox premiered its flagship animated sitcom The Simpsons, and it feels like it. At its premiere in 1989, George Bush Snr had just been elected president, the Gulf War hadn’t even begun and Paula Abdul was topping the charts. If you don’t know who Paula Abdul is, you are correct.
While unarguably being a comedic trailblazer for its time and contributing in a big way to most of our upbringings, the show’s ratings have waned over the years and fans today regularly bemoan later seasons. Now this white, working class, middle-American family, with its hapless patriarch and suburban clichés drawn from earlier sitcoms, remains on air, despite being created at a time when The Cosby Show was just hitting its stride. Its influence, both good and bad, is still being felt; the latter of which is perhaps most forcefully adopted by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. Divisive as his most famous show might be, his latest animated exploit truly demonstrates that ‘Spider-Pig’, for him, was the absolute height of comedy.
Bordertown: Seth MacFarlane’s Missed Shot To Change His Ways
The brand new Fox animation Bordertown is the latest in a series of attempts on my life by Seth MacFarlane. While Ted 2 was a close call, this unwanted expansion of the phrase “it’s political correctness gone mad!” into an entire TV show, rife with overblown caricatures of Donald Trump’s America, is clearly an incisive, well-crafted exercise in making me feel like life is no longer worth living.
Set in fictional Mexifornia, a town that sits on the border of Mexico and the United States, the show centres on two neighbouring male protagonists. One: a Mexican-American immigrant called Ernesto Gonzalez, who has lived in the US for over 20 years. The other: a border patrol officer named Bud Buckwald, voiced by famed Simpsons actor Hank Azaria. Conflict stems from their contradictory social and political perspectives as Ernesto is pro-immigration, and has made a success of himself by becoming a small business owner in landscaping. Bud remains firmly parochial, existing in the lower echelons of the working class.
Like Family Guy and American Dad before it, it relies heavily on Simpsons-like sitcom tropes. There’s the working father, the lamenting stay-at-home mother, the studious yet socially-defunct daughter, the idiot son, and the superfluous baby. But in Bordertown there are two of these families, set apart by cultural backgrounds, foisted together by proximity.
At first, this seems like a good set-up for a politically incisive satire. The show, in fact, clearly attempts to lampoon the outrageous xenophobia perpetuated by the network it is broadcast on. Like The Simpsons before it, it plays with Murdoch politics, working to subvert intrinsic conservative ideologies. However, it only becomes a Romeo and Juliet for a new America, if you think ‘new America’ is a Stephen Sondheim musical set in 1950s New York. The two families might look and speak in a different manner, but at their bones they are the same re-iteration of crass, overdrawn, working class tropes sitting side by side in a perpetual state of mutual contempt.
Ernesto and Bud are framed as ‘heads’ of these offensively patriarchal family networks, and are pitted against one another for increasingly prosaic reasons; their conflict over spicy food is particularly insulting. This lack of sophistication is punctuated by characters whose only function is to serve as a punchline in and of themselves: the ugly sex-crazed daughter, the beauty-pageant toddler, the liberally-educated nephew who says he cannot get married until they rename his country ‘The United States of Indigenous Rape’.
It’s observational comedy at its most laborious. Airline food punchlines on repeat. Young white women hate gluten. Old Mexican men love belt buckles. White Americans are shallow, fat illiterates and Mexican-Americans are superstitious, industrious and love their spicy food. Now laugh, damn you. Laugh!
Bordertown has a cold heart and retains the cowardice of a bully who points and laughs at someone else’s failings with a refusal to grasp their own. It’s the sensibility we’ve come to expect from a man who sung a song about boobs at the Oscars — but on crack, sweating it out at a rate of four shitty, bordering on racist gags per minute.
Cracking The Old Bones Of The Cartoon Sitcom
This, however, isn’t the sensibility we’ve come to expect from the American animated sitcom as a whole, which might explain why Bordertown‘s ratings are so satisfyingly low. In fact, we’ve lately been spoiled with a surge of more compelling, nuanced animated series such as BoJack Horseman and F is for Family — both of which subvert expectations by leaning into a Simpsons tradition and then immediately undermining it.
In F is for Family (which premiered on Netflix last month) comedian Bill Burr presents to us a relic of 1970s America — a working class white suburban family with a stay-at-home mother, a father in a dead-end job and three good-fer-nuttin’ kids. We are voyeurs, watching this family unit wriggle grotesquely out of their slimy mould and birth into identities that fall outside the tropes they’ve been smothered in for so long. We watch the daughter make mischief, the son study, the mother get a job, and again and again, we watch the father fail.
In BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg pulls his patriarch out of a meta-sitcom — an ’80s family favourite called ‘Horsing Around’ — and frames him in a modern context, where his self-involved boorishness incapacitates his ability to function as a useful member of society. In this world there is no maternal stabiliser, there are no troublesome kids to tame — he is totally without dignity or purpose.
Similarly, Bob’s Burgers also applies these old tropes, but utilises them to make statements about family structures. It maintains, as The Daily Fandom points out, one of the most consistently feminist through lines in the history of television.
The bones of all these shows are still the same, but they are being constantly cracked — by Burr, by BoJack, by Bob’s Burgers. Yet MacFarlane and his team, who’ve been with him since Family Guy began in 1999 — a show which, much like The Simpsons, continues to air in spite of its falling ratings — have chosen to set aside the complexities of subversion and rely instead on overwrought stereotyping and crass fart jokes.
Set at a time when xenophobia is hitting fever pitch, and real-life politicians are suggesting Game Of Thrones style walls be built to keep the ‘others’ out, Bordertown could have been a piercing satire on a population crazed by nationalism. Instead its comedy and its message are both tired, and the world it was made for no longer exists, if it ever did.
Kara Eva Schlegl is a freelance writer with too much spare time and not enough episodes of Buffy to tide her over. She runs diversity driven Sydney comedy room Wolf Comedy and tweets from @kara_nation.