You think FUTURAMA's has it bad relegated to the death time slot of 7:00 pm on Sunday nights. To the contrary in the annals of animation history, it doesn't get harder than for Fox's FAMILY GUY. The Seth McFarlane created series premiered three years ago in the highly-desirable Sunday 8:30 p.m. time slot, right behind THE SIMPSONS. It was later paired on Tuesday evenings with THE PJ'S, where both shows received some rather rough treatment.
Not only were the two fledgling animated shows placed up against the then-WB flagship hit series BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, but UPN also began scheduling its own animated shows, DILBERT and HOME MOVIES, against the Fox series'. When the dust cleared, only BUFFY survived the time slot THE PJ'S had jumped to The WB, HOME MOVIES moved to Cartoon Network and DILBERT became a casualty of the ratings war.
As for FAMILY GUY, McFarlane has his own take on the what happened.
"It's a very strange time," says the producer/director of the series. "Just when you think the people want more animation, something goes wrong. It's very tough to gauge. There have been a lot of animated shows created for television over the last five years. Only a small few have survived. More have not survived. It's a weird time. I can't really make more sense of it than you can. It's been a very rocky ride for me, obviously."
Odd, then, that starting tonight at 9:30 p.m. (EST), FAMILY GUY will make its second network premiere, again on Fox.
"We are confident that we are back on the air to stay this time," McFarlane says. "What was happening was the network wasn't quite sure where to put us and what to do with us. It took a while. Ultimately, it was Gail Berman, when she took over as the new President last January, who gave us the green light to produce more episodes, thank god. Up to that point we thought we were going to be cancelled."
Any media cognoscenti will tell you it's not that common for a series to be pulled from TV limbo. Even more amazing is the fact that, starting this fall, the show will be paired with the new live action version of THE TICK in the Thursday night time slot and frankly, this move suits the creator just fine.
"Patrick Warburton, who plays the Tick, does voices for FAMILY GUY," says McFarlane. "He's Joe, the hero cop in the wheelchair. He's a terrific actor, so we are happy to be lined up with him. In a way, it's kind of nice because sometimes it will become a Patrick Warburton evening."
The focus of the show, however, is not on Joe the hero cop, but rather Peter Griffin and his dysfunctional family. True to comparisons, FAMILY GUY does bear a strong resemblance to that other animated family from Springfield, but McFarlane can explain the similarities away.
"It's hard to do an animated series and not be compared to THE SIMPSONS," he notes. "They've been going for 13 years and broke the ground for the rest of us."
Still, McFarlane notes that his Peter Griffin is quite different from Matt Groening's Homer Simpson.
"Peter can best be described as a kind of person you only find in the New England region," jokes McFarlane. "There were like 500 guys I knew just like him. Basically, he's a good-hearted guy. He means well, but the elevator kind of stopped at his chin. He never stops to think about what he says. The advantage is you can write very un-PC stuff because it isn't hard to establish that Peter is ignorant and doesn't know any better. The big thing is his actions are forgivable."
While he is the title character, the series will begin to expand far beyond the adventures of Peter Griffin. The two characters benefiting the most from this development are Peter's youngest son Stewie and his martini-swilling dog, Brian.
"Stewie's a character that's branched out enormously," says McFarlane, who just also happens to voice this character, Peter and Brian. "He started out as kind of an evil Rex Harrison meets Adolph Hitler, but we've taken that as about as far as we can. Now there's much more than the guy who wants to take over the world. One of the upcoming stories has Stewie going to a Fame-type theatre school. The same ego that makes him want to take over the world also turns him into a temperamental actor."
Other future Stewie episodes involve the child taking a McFarlane described "fantastic voyage" into the body of one of his parents. The reason: to stop the Griffins from having another baby.
The changes don't stop here, however. Fan favorite Brian will also be the focus of several upcoming storylines.
"We're starting with a two-parter," says McFarlane. "It focuses on Brian. He's trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life. By the time we're done, he ends up in Hollywood directing adult films."
Of course, the ultimate episode, according to fans, would be one that focuses on both Brian and Stewie. And McFarlane admits he's got such an episode ready.
"Those two as a pair have kind of worked well for the series as a whole," says McFarlane. "When I first conceived them, that kind of Hope-Crosby pairing wasn't there. The other writers we brought into the show were the ones who saw it and got endless mileage out of it. One show coming will be a road show in the style of the old Hope-Crosby movies. We aired one already and we already have another where the two go to Europe. For that one we even bought a song from one of the old films and rewrote it. If the show goes further, we plan to do one of those every year."
As for the rest of the Griffin clan, there will be at least one episode where elder son Chris (voiced by Seth Green) finds a girlfriend. McFarlane also promises at least one show focusing on middle daughter Meg. The character who is going to be getting the most out of the series' new focus, however, is Peter's wife Lois.
"Lois has a lot to do this season," says McFarlane. "A lot of that has to do with Alex Borstein, who voices her. You probably know her best as Ms. Swan from MAD TV, but she's also a writer on our show. Alex has written a lot of great stuff that is just tailored for her, a lot of stuff that makes me think I wish I wrote that."
McFarlane also has plans for episodes revolving around such ancillary characters as Cleveland and Quagmire, Joe the Hero Cop and the TV anchor team of Tom and Diane. He attributes much of this mythology expansion to the series finally reaching its third season.
"That's quite common," says McFarlane. "I remember STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION went through that. I think what happens is in season three you've figured out what works and what doesn't. We all feel the third season is our best yet. We really hit our stride and there's some fantastic episodes coming."
Yet when push comes to shove, McFarlane appears to be quite relaxed about the future of his series.
"I've been lucky in that I've never had to look for a job, which is kind of nice," says McFarlane. "Even when I moved to Fox, I am under a contract that if FAMILY GUY doesn't continue, I will still be working for them. I'll just start developing other shows. On the other hand, I would love to do more seasons. I still see lots that I can do with these characters. I have plenty of stories to tell."
And hopefully, the execs at Fox will give McFarlane the opportunity to tell them.