Mature Animated Shows, and their Necessary Refusal

This is the first non-sports article in the new era of sneakygood blogging. In case you missed it, I explained the changes in this article, here.


If you aren’t aware of it, the best animated television these days is aimed at adults. Despite plenty of duds, the excellence in animation today comes from shows like The Simpsons. What sets these shows apart, and makes them better than any number of live-action series, is the clever, humorous writing. The most successful ones take it a step further and add in layers of dramatic elements. In almost all of them, this gets to the level of social satire, which is really the driving force in some of them, particularly South Park.

However, some of them go beyond parodies, pop culture, and satire and reach interesting levels of storytelling that focus on the individual characters and their struggles both internally and with the other people in their lives. This works in three general levels:

  1. The Simpsons has put a great deal of focus in recent years on Homer’s relationship with his family. Many episodes end with a genuinely heart-touching moment or lesson as Homer makes right with his wife Marge or with his children after what was probably a frenetic 20 minutes of goofiness. This layer makes the show’s entertainment go beyond its humor and satire. However, these lessons in morality and examinations of human relationships rarely go further than the immediate family of the Simpsons (occasionally it does, but not often).
  2. Family Guy (we’ve started watching this on Netflix. I think we’re nearing the end of the second season. So I don’t have a full knowledge of the show’s progression, but from what I know it stays pretty consistent). This show throws in a whole new wave of thematic elements: Peter’s friendship with his talking dog Brian, Brian’s close relationship with Peter’s wife Lois, the teenage issues facing Chris and Meg, and the struggles of Stewie, whose toddler troubles are caricatured in grand designs of evil. Similar to The Simpsons, many episodes end with Peter making amends for how he messed up. But when an episode parodies Midnight Run by having Brian pick up Stewie from the airport and go on an adventure that takes Brian to his birthplace to find closure with his deceased mother, we’ve entered new territory.
  3. Archer goes even further into developing complex characters with intriguing relationships. Many of the characters are alcoholics, most of them have had sex with each other, some of them are in love, a mother and son have this strange and love/hate relationship, one character is gay, another recently became a cocaine addict, and so on and so forth. Oh, and they’re all part of a spy agency that in the most recent season got shut down by the FBI and now they’ve turned into a drug cartel. Yeah, the mature themes are there.

What these shows do, or rather do not do, can be frustrating: they don’t take these interesting elements of character and plot and explore them fully in order to give us satisfying answers. When they might delve into deep psychological territories, they revert back to parodies and satire.

This especially applies with shows at the second and third level. Family Guy has the makings of a solid drama: an idiotic yet ultimately kind-hearted goofball takes in a sophisticated yet lonely stranger and the two become best friends. However, a relationship grows between the goodly, unappreciated wife, who gives everything to her kids and husband, and the new member of the family. But Family Guy doesn’t do that. They bring up these themes, and lay the groundwork for further exploration, but keep the same formula that guarantees further entertainment and TV Ratings. Proof: fans freaked out when Brian died in the most recent season, but he came back to life just two episodes later via time machine work by Stewie. The show has done enough to make viewers genuinely care about the characters, but can’t do anything to really affect the current state.

Archer might be different. It has, through five seasons, continued to develop its characters as they go through perilous missions and do their best to not kill each other. Yet, the show had never really let itself fully play out. It continuously presents new themes, developments, and questions, but doesn’t ever give the resolution that would be there in a serious drama. It makes sense, really, as the show has always been about being ridiculous in extremely serious situations. But then, why do so much to develop the characters?

Sterling Archer, the main character, has had a lot of writing work put into him. He had a steamy relationship with one of his fellow agents, Lana, who he now has a contentious relationship with full of sexual tension. Their affection for each other, despite their denials, is obviously there. Lana is now pregnant, supposedly from a sperm bank. Sterling works for his mother, a domineering, husband-less alcoholic. They hate each other. And they love each other, almost to the levels of an Oedipus complex. Archer had a child with a call-girl and also had cancer. And he’s possibly the best secret agent in the world. Sounds like a first-rate protagonist. Yet the show doesn’t work like that, and in addition to all these complex things, Archer is also a parody of James Bond in his excesses of alcohol and sex and spends most of his time making jokes. He’s selfish and immature. Although he almost always succeeds in his mission, he usually does so only after messing things up big time.

The ironic circumstance may be that, for a show like Archer to work, the serious themes have to be there but they can never really go too far. A drama with comedic elements bears a far heavier burden than a comedy with an actual story arc and interesting characters. I think I still watch Archer primarily for the characters. But, that being said, if it wasn’t funny I’d stop watching too.

Animated shows intended for adults are a major facet of modern television, and this problem of developed yet unfinished thematic elements is, in my opinion, highly compelling.


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