‘Rick and Morty’, ‘Bob’s Burgers’, and ‘American Dad!’: Three Cartoons at Three Stages of Life
Due to the nature of animation, cartoons can last a lot longer than live action shows. Characters don’t age, so the 4th grade can be played out dozens of times in a row without the threat of puberty ever setting in. But as the 25th season of The Simpsons reminds us each week, that doesn’t necessarily mean they should last forever. The writing gets stale, storylines get re-used, and as Lisa Simpson reminded us was when The Simpsons was still in its prime, the characters can’t have the same impact they once had. With that mind, let’s take a look at three animated comedies at different stages in their runs, and what might happen to each one going forward.
Adult Swim’s Rick & Morty just finished a phenomenal first season, where it immediately became one of the funniest shows on television and quickly found a large audience. One of the best things about watching this show is that glorious feeling of having no idea what might happen next. As we saw with Rick’s remote that gives us TV channels from other universes, or the amazingness that is Mr. Meseeks, the show’s universe allows for endless possibilities. It was hilarious and ambitious from the start, but it wasn’t until late in the season that we saw the show go for emotionally heavy material, and thoroughly succeed. When Summer wonders whether or not her parents would be better off had she never existed, and when Morty wonders if he’s nothing more than Rick’s accessory, it was hard not get a little choked up. So far, this show has succeeded at just about everything it’s tried.
But what really made the first season of Rick & Morty so great is that…well, it was the first season. It still has a ton of potential to get even better than it is now. There are countless other ideas and concepts for this show to explore, and judging by the how creative the first season was, there probably isn’t any area this show won’t go. Watching the first season of Rick & Morty was like watching Mike Trout’s rookie season two years ago. It’s already amazing, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t get even better.
That’s the beauty of a cartoon just beginning its life — we’re free to speculate about how much better it can get, even when it’s really good already. After a few seasons, we more or less figure out what a show is, and live with it. That’s where we are with the Fox cartoon Bob’s Burgers, which is in its fourth — and probably best — season. When Bob’s Burgers premiered in 2011, it was pretty funny from the start, but most of the excitement centered around its potential. It was decent enough, but we knew it could get a lot better. And it did. As time went on, we saw the writers have a better understanding of who each character was, and they became fleshed out more and more, to the point where pretty much any of them can carry an episode now. At first, Linda was more or less just Bob’s wife who happened to have a funny accent. Now, she has a real personality, as we’ve learned about her excessive love of chanting, as well her strong desire to bond with Louise, who often doesn’t relate to her. We’re familiar with the personalities of each member of the Belcher family, and the show has figured out how to put them into funny scenarios each week. At this point, it’s hard for the show to really surprise us with how good it is, but it doesn’t need to now. It’s in its prime, and it’s hysterically funny week in and week out.
Bob’s Burgers should be able to operate at its current level for several more years before it starts to grow tiresome. It has a cast of consistently funny characters who we can also relate to emotionally. Unfortunately, as we’ve learned from the last 15 years of The Simpsons, even the most well put together shows can grow tiresome after a while. That’s the problem American Dad! has been dealing with now that it’s been on the air for nine years. Before Burgers showed up, AD was unquestionably the funniest show on Fox’s Animation Domination lineup, and once King Of The Hill went off the air, it was probably the only show worth watching for reasons other than obsessive completism. But now, after churning out over 150 episodes — most of them being pretty damn funny — the show is finally showing some signs of wear and tear.
Don’t get me wrong, there have still been some really great American Dad! episodes in the past few years. Last year’s “Blood Crieth Unto Heaven” — an entire episode presented as a stage play — was one of the best shows they’ve ever done. And this year’s “Minstrel Krampus” episode might have been their best Christmas show, and that’s really saying something. American Dad’s problem right now is that the conventional episodes are starting to get boring. Episodes about Steve not being able to talk to girls, or Stan and Hayley arguing about politics are hard to enjoy because the show has explored these topics dozens of time already. Of course, it’s nowhere near as bad as slogging through the latest Simpsons episode where Homer & Marge’s marriage is in crisis, or Bart gets trouble at school for a prank, but it’s getting there. And that’s going to be a problem for the show going forward.
So we have three excellent cartoons in three eras of their existence. Rick & Morty is the newcomer capable of blowing our minds each week, Bob’s Burgers is the well-established great show just entering its prime, and American Dad! is the stalwart trying to fight off the signs of aging. It’ll be interesting to see where these shows go from here. Does Rick & Morty somehow find a way to improve on its brilliant first season? Will Bob’s Burgers keep operating at such a high level? Will American Dad! fight off the signs of rust, or will it devolve into what Family Guy and The Simpsons are today? At any rate, I’ll certainly be watching.