With the news that Russell Brand is following Jonah Hill’s lead and creating and voicing a new animated series for Fox, I’ve started to wonder: Are we close to animation becoming mainstream television entertainment for the second time?
Don’t get me wrong; The Simpsons has clearly been mainstream for years – decades, even – now, but even so, I’d always kind of assumed that the other animated shows on Fox were more of a niche thing, hooked around the idea of an “animated block” on Sundays. After all, both Futurama and Family Guy got canceled for low ratings for awhile, and I refuse to believe that American Dad is more than some weird contractual obligation to Seth McFarlane than a real success in and of itself. But between the Jonah Hill show, this new Russell Brand series and the upcoming Napoleon Dynamite animated series, it feels as if something is happening, somehow.
We’ve been here before, of course, with shows like The Flintstones (A revival of which is forthcoming), The Jetsons and all of those classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons that you can find on Boomerang these days; in fact, I’m not entirely sure why cartoons even fell out of favor as a mainstream medium for so many years (There’s probably some sociological reason, but I like to pretend that it’s really just because the stories in Top Cat proved to be so ridiculous that audiences realized they’d rather watch live action, instead), but for decades, they were consigned to Saturday mornings, with low budgets and, as time went on, increasingly low ambition and expectation. American animation slowly made itself into the ghetto that television had decided it was years earlier.
I get that the success – both in terms of ratings, but also profit – of The Simpsons has proven that audiences will accept mainstream, not kid-centric, primetime animation, but I suspect that what’s behind stars like Brand and Hill taking up the medium is more the creative legacy of shows like Beavis and Butthead, The Venture Bros and some of the more culty animated shows out there, coupled with the fact that voicing an animated show takes far less time for the name stars than making a live action show of the same running time, but keeps their name out there in the public eye. I’m not arguing that animation is necessarily cheaper than live action – It’s certainly more time-consuming once you factor in the time it takes for the show to be animated – but for the name brands that the networks are hoping to take advantage of? It’s much, much easier of a time commitment to handle.
Of course, for it to become properly mainstream, it’ll need more than Fox to put cartoons on in primetime. I feel like that’s the next step, really, towards the second respectability of television animation; another broadcast network putting its own animation series as a primetime anchor. All it takes is for Fox to have another breakout animated hit on its hands – which, for all we know, could be Napoleon Dynamite – and one of the other networks could sign on for their own animated show, and then it becomes a trend. Not that all trends last – or even catch on – but… Well, doesn’t everyone wish that we could have a Jetsons revival, just a little bit?