Seth MacFarlane may have plenty of reasons to count his millions, but he’s had a pretty rough year of it in the media. Last winter he was pummeled for his boob-happy Oscar-hosting turn, which many critics found misogynistic and unfunny. And this week he’s been getting dragged through it all over again with the premiere Tuesday night of his live-action Fox sitcom “Dads,” which, in an unfortunate parallel to the Oscars, has been called racist and unfunny.
That’s of considerable interest to moviedom. MacFarlane has two big films coming out over the next 20 months: the comedic western “A Million Ways to Die In the West,” out in May, and “Ted 2,” the sequel to the Mark Wahlberg blockbuster that shoots next year and will hit theaters in April 2015.
“West” — starring an ensemble cast of MacFarlane, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman and “Dads’” Giovanni Ribisi — is about a sheep farmer, a duel, a criminal and other genre absurdities. It’s a big test for MacFarlane, since it takes him deeper into a new territory and much further from the “Family Guy”-esque comedy he’s known for on TV and was able to smuggle into “Ted.” Having a strike against you leading up to that film won't help the cause.
Indeed, the biggest problem for MacFarlane on “Dads” isn’t the offensiveness — it’s that, so far, it’s not bringing the laughs. Regardless of what you think of the so-called edginess — the Hitler video-game jokes, the cancer jokes, the Asian-school-girl jokes — that will matter a lot more than whether the show sets off taste alarm bells.
As Mother Jones said, “The real problem does not lie with any ethnic or racial stereotypes, but with the fact that it is unoriginal and often a painfully unfunny, lazy waste of production space."
Or as the Associated Press put it, "The truth is, viewers who celebrate MacFarlane as well as those who revile him should be equally dismayed by 'Dads.' It's just a mediocre multicamera sitcom, complete with formula humor and unearned laughtrack.”
The fact is, MacFarlane’s yet to prove he can pull off true live-action without quippy computer-generated people or animals. As my colleague Scott Collins asked, "Is Seth MacFarlane’s ‘Dads’ the worst-reviewed show of the season?"
But here’s why the movies probably won't take a hit. While TV types like to tout the open-ended advantages of the form compared to the constraints of film, in this case MacFarlane will have a lot more freedom working in cinema. He’s one of the rare commercial directors with heavy sway over the final cut. And the 22-minute multicamera sitcom is about as restrictive as it gets; compared to it, a 100-minute feature offers the malleability and creative freedom of a Tolstoy novel. He’s also directing the films, which usually means a more hands-on involvement than executive-producing a TV show.
So “West” may yet be a more interesting effort than “Dads.” And even if it’s not, he’s heard it before, and yet.... The 2013 Oscars were the highest-rated telecast in several years. The "Dads" pilot drew a solid 5.6 million viewers. It’s not clear if “Dads” will get any funnier. And given MacFarlane’s history, it may not matter.
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