Seth MacFarlane makes cartoons about dumb guys. That’s his job, and he’s done it so well with clueless buffoons like Peter Griffin that Family Guy has become one of the top-rated shows on Fox. So why is his latest pilot, Dads, which he created alongside fellow Family Guy producers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, inspiring so much outrage over its “racist” humor that one watchdog group is calling for Fox to reshoot the pilot?
So far, Fox is standing behind Dads, despite the controversy. The pilot has already been sent out to critics, including EW, and although some early reactions (including our own) have called out Dads for its insensitive jokes, sources tell EW that a reshoot is unlikely. At the Television Critics Association, Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly asked critics to be patient with the show, pointing out that it scored highly among a cross-section of viewers during focus testing. “We don’t want the show to be the racial insult comedy show,” added veteran executive producer Mike Scully, comparing the public outcry to the early days The Simpsons, when some viewers were troubled by Homer strangling Bart.
And, of course, the jokes on Family Guy aren’t exactly progressive, either. This is a show that once found Peter proclaiming his abstinence by insisting that he was going to be “as untouched as the turn signal in an Asian woman’s car.” (Cut to an Asian woman wondering aloud, “How much signal I need to cut across eight lane? None?”) But you could argue that Family Guy isn’t so much a racist comedy as a comedy about racism, one that skewers ignorant Americans by reducing them to oversimplified caricatures like Peter, and showing just how absurd their ideas about other cultures are. Cartoons are supposed to be cartoonish. You don’t just laugh at the punch lines. You laugh at the meatheads who say those punch lines out loud, even though they don’t realize why they’re funny.
Now, you could argue that Dads is also a cartoon about dumb guys — but the difference is that we’re asked to laugh along with them, not at them. Giovanni Ribisi and Seth Green play childhood best friends Warner and Eli, the 30-something founders of a video game company, whose fathers, Crawford (Martin Mull) and David (Peter Riegert), can’t stop intruding on their lives. Green recently told EW that MacFarlane’s intention was to make a “modern” version of shows like All in the Family, which used racist characters to provide larger social commentary. And Dads certainly tries to portray Crawford and David as out-of-touch, Archie Bunker types. Crawford refers to Asian people as “Orientals,” and when he learns that his son Warner has a meeting with Chinese investors, he insists, “The Chinese are a lovely and honorable people, but you can’t trust ‘em. There’s a reason Shanghai’s a verb.” It’s no wonder he’s close with David, who thanks Warner’s “beautiful maid” for making delicious food, only to learn that this lovely Latina woman is actually Warner’s wife, Camilla (Vanessa Lachey).
But the show ends up reinforcing the same stereotypes that make these misguided old guys look stupid. On Fox’s web site, Camilla is described as a “hotheaded,” which is almost as much of a Latina stereotype as the idea that she might be a maid. And, as it turns out, Warner actually does have a Latina maid (Tonita Castro), who speaks in the same offensive broken English you might remember from Family Guy’s infamous “Are You Smarter Than a Hispanic Maid” sketch. At one point, her grammar is so bad that Warner has to ask her if she’s asking a question or making a statement. No wonder David is confused: In MacFarlane’s world, all Latinas talk the same way.
The biggest problem is that there’s no Michael Stivic to rage against these Archie Bunkers. Sure, Warner responds to Crawford’s “Shanghai” comment by pleading, “Daddy, NO!” but only because he’s afraid that the Chinese investors might overhear him and pull out of their deal with his company. The young guys here are just as bad as their dads. Warner forces his assistant Veronica (Brenda Song) to dress up like a “sexy Asian schoolgirl” to charm the Chinese investors. Then Eli demonstrates: just go like this, he tells her, giggling with his hands covering his mouth. When she complies, coming out in full Sailor Moon regalia, with the buttons undone down to her lacy red bra, Warner howls, “Hellooooooo, Kitty!” Is this a brilliant commentary on how racism gets passed down from one generation to the next? I doubt it. The fact that the studio audience responds with wolf whistles suggests that they’re aligned with Warner, and we’re supposed to be, too. Worse yet, Veronica doesn’t seem to mind. When she catches Warner and Eli arguing about whose dad is worse, she quips, “You’re lucky your dads are American. My dad beat me with a math book until I was 16.” The underlying message here? Asian jokes can’t hurt this woman if she tells them first.
This kind of silent compliance might be the most dangerous part of Dads. It’s not just that racist jokes go totally unchecked, it’s that the people who are the butt of those jokes end up playing along, just to show everyone that it’s okay. When Crawford asks Camilla, “Would you mind pretending to be my secretary?” she smiles and nods silently, to which he responds, “Gracias, muchacha.” When he visits Warner and Eli’s so-called “ethnically and sexually diverse workplace,” he asks, “Where’s your gay guy? Show me your gay guy.” And the sole gay man grins and waves, while Crawford quips, “You go, girl.” The pilot even ends with a studio-audience “Aww!” moment that finds Veronica cozying up to the dads: apparently, a creepy Chinese businessman sent her a dirty photo, and she’s using it to blackmail him into investing in the company. Together, they bond by making fun of what Veronica calls “his tiny China penis.” “It looks like something you’d pick out of a salad!” says David. “An inchworm in a little tiny fireman’s hat!” says Crawford. Clearly, Veronica’s job is to make these guys feel like they’ve got bigger balls than that inchworm, even if it gives a bad name to all the man-parts in China.
Maybe it’s telling that one of the most offensive scenes in the pilot doesn’t even have any real jokes. Halfway through the episode, Eli steps up behind David, mocking him behind his back while his dad just sits there popping potato chips into his mouth, staring at the television. You have to listen closely to hear what’s on screen: it’s a documentary about the 11th century Grenada Massacre of the Jews, and David is watching it like some kind of popcorn movie, amused at whatever he’s seeing. This doesn’t seem to bother Eli — he’s too annoyed at the throat-clearing noises his dad makes every few minutes — but it bothered me, if only because it wasn’t treated as a big enough deal for Eli to mention it. It’s just good television, MacFarlane seems to be telling us. No need to get all worked up over every little thing. But judging by what MacFarlane views as entertainment, you can’t say the same thing about this deeply unfunny show.
Follow Melissa Maerz on Twitter at @MsMelissaMaerz