Thursday, June 19, 2014

MY TAKE ON Seth MacFarlane

Last week, I made a very last minute decision to view Seth MacFarlane’s new film A Million Ways to Die in the West, a comedy that I had been dreading since reading the first bad reviews from reliable critics. This dread was not out of any kind of loathing for MacFarlane. It was quite the opposite. I really like him. A lot of his creations have made me laugh uncontrollably. I simply wasn’t looking forward to the disappointment.

For me, MacFarlane is like a friend whose company you enjoy even though some of your other friends don’t. You try not to let their opinion of him bother you, but whenever he has his lame moments you start to resent him for not being all that he can be.

When he started Family Guy in 1999, I immediately forgave the show for trying to be a more irreverent version of The Simpsons, when I realized that its jokes were great. At this point, Simpsons was starting to get weak and Family Guy, like South Park, may not have been a replacement in quality animation or progressive messages, but it was quite adequate in giving me the laughs I so desired.

Multiple timeslot changes, a hiatus and an official cancellation followed. It seemed as though MacFarlane couldn’t catch a break. Eventually the advent of DVD television seasons and syndicated reruns escalated the show’s popularity. Before long, it was back on and in the few years that followed, it was at its absolute funniest. MacFarlane started new shows but the ones that lasted never managed to grow in a good way. 

Through writing, directing, producing and providing voices, he proved to be something of a cottage industry, but he was bound to stretch himself thin. Now, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t go out of my way to see a new Family Guy. I have no idea if it’s going to be amazing or terrible.

I've known people who have considered his work to be hit-and-miss. I've known others who have never liked anything he's done either because he lacks the skills to package his jokes with any sense of order, or because his humor is mean-spirited. I've found myself defending him, especially when he hosted the Oscars. No matter how offensive his jokes got, most of them made me laugh pretty damn hard. I felt that if Mel Brooks were young again, he would have said similar things.

What bothers me about him now, is that MacFarlane is a businessman without consistency in his products. One of the greatest things his success accomplished was the ability to afford big expensive throwaway jokes, which might require famous actors, higher quality animation or the rights to use music or clips from famous movies. The other greatest product of his success is his huge investment in one of the most important educational programs to air on network television. But that’s another story.

So why does A Million Ways to Die in the West suck? Well, it showcases very little of MacFarlane’s talents and demonstrates that years of multitasking have prevented him from developing any new ones. He still has some rather immature attitudes, especially about relationships between women and men. He’s also never been an interesting storyteller and is at his worst when he needlessly focuses on the narrative aspect of his work to no avail. This is why the final act of the mostly-hilarious Ted suffered. The results of low-brow insanity followed by sincere drama is like watching a Marx Brothers movie and getting a Frank Capra conclusion.

The trailer for A Million Ways had my enthusiasm. The concept of a movie that shoots down romanticized notions the Old West by showing all the disease, starvation, murder and poverty in a light-hearted context should have provided endless laughs. Instead, I counted about four.

MacFarlane can sing, do voices, run multiple shows, make movies and many other things. The problem is that he can’t do all of this alone and maintain the quality that his long-time fans expect or win over new fans by fixing the flaws that have always plagued his work. He needs to make a change. Mass-success can lead to business obligations, which kill creativity. Just look at George Lucas. An ego can do the same. M. Night Shyamalan is the proof in that area. I just hate to see talent go in a horrible direction. 

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