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Animated TV in the 2000s: DVD Resurrection, Adult Swim, and the MacFarlane Empire

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Yesterday, we ran a piece on the history of animated TV comedy in the wake of The Simpsons, leaving off in 1999 with several new (and newish) shows finding success. The big networks spent most of the ’90s trying to replicate the popularity of The Simpsons, with ABC, CBS, and NBC’s attempts falling short and Fox finding hits at the end of the decade with a trio of new shows – King of the Hill, Futurama, and Family Guy. All of these shows echoed The Simpsons in some way. King of the Hill and Family Guy both centered on dysfunctional families, with Family Guy drawing criticism for using similar characters to the Simpson family while King of the Hill took a different path with a cast of characters that was way more removed from the title characters of Fox’s big animated hit.

While King of the Hill would have an impressive 13-season run on Fox, the network wound up canceling Family Guy and Futurama after their third seasons in 2002 and 2003, respectively, because the shows had each experienced a significant decline in ratings since their premieres. After the shows were canceled, something unprecedented happened. Releasing entire seasons of TV shows on DVD was still a new thing at the time, and both Family Guy and Futurama proved to be massively popular on home video – and drew way bigger audiences than they ever did on TV. Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s then-new late night offshoot for grown-ups, bought up rights to both series and saw them become the network’s biggest hits.

Fox elected to resurrect Family Guy in 2005, on the basis of the show’s newfound popularity on home video and cable. Futurama was similarly brought back for a series of direct-to-video movies in 2007 and Comedy Central ordering new seasons of the show in 2009. Both Fox and Comedy Central’s gambles in reviving these shows proved fruitful and no doubt inspired networks to make similar moves, like Netflix bringing Arrested Development back from the dead this spring or MTV’s short-lived 2011 revival of Beavis and Butt-head.

Family Guy 2.0 wasn’t the only Seth MacFarlane series the Fox network debuted in 2005, following Family Guy‘s popularity on DVD. The network bought another MacFarlane family sitcom, American Dad!, which earned a warmer reception from critics and comedy nerds than Family Guy. In 2009, Fox debuted the Family Guy spin-off The Cleveland Show, which proved less popular with fans and critics alike but made Seth MacFarlane the only TV creator with three comedies on the air at once. With Seth MacFarlane’s series taking up 3/5 of Fox’s Sunday night animation block real estate, the guy has become the biggest deal in animated sitcoms since The Simpsons debuted.

Cable really started to change in the 2000s in regard to animated shows (and non-animated ones too). South Park evolved from a crude shock value-heavy series into a home for cutting social satire on religion and politics. FX debuted one of the smartest, fastest series around with its animated spy show Archer. A new network of mostly-animated comedies, Adult Swim, began as a Cartoon Network program block in 2001 before officially becoming its own cable network in 2005 (still only airing on Cartoon Network from 9pm to 6am though).

Adult Swim began airing original shows like Cartoon Network’s Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Sealab 2021, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force alongside reruns of Family Guy and Futurama. The network also resurrected UPN’s Home Movies, from creator Loren Bouchard, airing it for three more seasons of new episodes. The network has continued to roll out a wide array of new shows over the past decade-and-change, including The Boondocks, Squidbillies, Tom Goes to the Mayor, and stop-motion series Robot Chicken. Adult Swim has also branched out into live-action series, beginning with Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! in 2007 and continuing the trend with Childrens Hospital, NTSF:SD:SUV, The Eric Andre Show, and more.

The 2000s have seen the other broadcast networks continue to falter in their attempts to create animated comedies. ABC tried an animated version of Kevin Smith’s Clerks and a new family comedy from Mike Judge, The Goode Family. NBC made a big push with the pricey DreamWorks computer-animated series Father of the Pride, religious group-offending God, the Devil and Bob, and David Spade’s semi-autobiographical cartoon Sammy. The WB debuted the comic strip-inspired Baby Blues and the Will Ferrell-voiced The Oblongs, while fellow non-defunct network UPN struck out with stop-motion Gary & Mike and computer animated Game Over. All of these shows lasted less than 13 episodes before being quickly canceled.

While The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and the Seth MacFarlane sitcoms continued to do well for Fox, the network also had its fair share of short-lived animated comedies, all three of them high-profile. Jonah Hill’s Allen Gregory – about a precocious genius child – didn’t take, along with Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz’s animated follow-up Sit Down, Shut Up –based on a live action Australian high school show – and a TV adaptation of Napoleon Dynamite.

Fox’s only animated non-MacFarlane hit in recent years has been Bob’s Burgers. Created by Home Movies‘ Loren Bouchard, Bob’s Burgers stars Jon Benjamin, who’s now voicing two of TV’s best animated comedies (the other one’s Archer). With The Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad several season deep into their runs and their ends (probably) closer than their beginnings, Bob’s Burgers looks to be the future of animated comedy at Fox (and on network TV). As far as the next few years go in animated sitcoms, you can look for Adult Swim to continue to grow and grow, Comedy Central to launch its new shows Gajillionaires and TripTank, and Fox to launch its new Adult Swim-esque Saturday night animated block, Animation Definition High-Def (or ADHD), this summer.

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