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'Family Guy': MacFarlane's universes

September 28, 2009 |  7:45 am

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Seth MacFarlane continues his slow expansion over the Sunday night schedule on Fox. It’s like a well-played game of Risk. First he solidified his hold on the 9 p.m. slot with “Family Guy,” which is like, say, taking over all of Asia. Sure there’s been some ups and downs, getting canceled or losing Ural, but once you have it secure, you’re getting those seven extra pieces per turn. Then you can’t help but branch out.

Four seasons ago, MacFarlane captured the 9:30 p.m. slot, or Europe, with “American Dad!” (Did you know there was an exclamation point in the title? No? Me either).

Then Sunday night as the 2009-10 season kicked off, MacFarlane seized the 8:30 continent with “The Cleveland Show.” All that’s left is the good old 8 p.m. “The Simpsons,” which sits there like Australia, but like any experienced Risk player will tell you from his parents’ basement, you can never overtake Australia. It’s there for good.

The night of premieres started off with the first episode of “The Cleveland Show.” Word got out last year that the Griffin family’s deli-owning neighbor from across the street was going to get his own show. Cleveland himself even mentioned it to Quagmire while they were chained up in the basement during an episode last fall. Tonight was the night when Cleveland finally made his move. After losing his house to his ex-wife and having Peter crash into his bathroom for the final time, Cleveland decides to pack up all his belongings and his formerly thin, hyperactive/now overweight, soft-spoken son to follow his dream of being a baseball scout in California.

If you’ve heard anything about the show or watched the opening title sequence, you know Cleveland’s life doesn’t quite pan out that way. Instead, he ends up in his fictional hometown of Stoolbend, Va., married to his high school sweetheart and combining families into their own “Brady Bunch,” though without the gay architect father and sexual relationship between mother and oldest son, as Cleveland points out.

“The Cleveland Show” is the first true spinoff of “Family Guy.” The creators have dropped hints that “American Dad!” and “Family Guy” exist in the same universe, but crossovers have been limited to the hypothetical scenario played out in the “Stewie Kills Lois” episode. “The Cleveland Show” stays pretty close to “Family Guy” sensibilities. They have a couple cut-away jokes, the foursome of neighbors hanging out and drinking, and the child that’s far advanced for his age. It feels much more like an extension of MacFarlane’s original show. I’m sure it’ll find its own voice soon enough, but for now, the “Family Guy”-and-a-half vibe it has works just fine.

“Family Guy” starts its eighth season off with an animator’s dream. Or nightmare, depending on how you look at it. Stewie and Brian have a “Sliders”-like device to slip between parallel universes, and they’re soon off on another road trip episode. They bounce through worlds styled like the “Flintstones,” Disney films and Washington Post cartoons, and even stop in for a “Robot Chicken” ribbing, though the one crossover I would have loved to see would have been with “Fringe.” That Fox show is dealing with multiple universes as well this season. It would have been funny to see Stewie and Brian run into Agent Olivia Dunham between realities.

Finally, “American Dad!” did a wonderful job of re-creating guys re-creating wars. I don’t know what I liked more, the constant references to Vietnam War movies, complete with “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival and “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane, or the details of reenactments, like the ceiling fan on the golf cart helicopter and the guy yelling from off-screen that “pine cones are grenades.” My favorite moment had to be Buckle writhing in pain while Steve walked away spouting voice-over. Every time he kept twitching in the background, I laughed.

Most obscure reference: In the Washington Post cartoon universe, Stewie spots an overweight cat with dollar signs for eyes and a hat that says "social security" pouring a bucket that says “alternative minimum tax” over a sad Statue of Liberty holding a democracy umbrella. I have no idea what that means, which seems to be pretty spot on.

Most possibly offensive joke of the night: Mayor McCheese getting assassinated instead of JKF in one of the “Family Guy” multiverses. Not so much the bullets ripping through his sesame seed bun head as for Jackie O climbing up on the trunk to chow down on his delicious remains. Even Brian throws out that it might have been in bad taste, but Stewie writes it off because he’s only a cheeseburger. It still takes the award for the evening.

Through lines: “The Cleveland Show” and “American Dad!” seemed to share a moment of avian appreciation when characters in both shows stopped their vehicles to let ducks cross. Though the bird love when only so far, seeing as Maxine did prepare ortolan, a truly sadistic recipe that involves poking out the bird’s eyes and drowning it in brandy, then eating its bones, beak and all with a napkin over your head -- forever reminding us that no matter how crazy/out there something these writers come up with, they’ll never top some of the crazy/out there things that already exist in the world.

-- Andrew Hanson

Photo credit: Fox Television

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