Here are ten reasons why I think Family Guy is a bad show:
10. Stewie, the most popular character, is a double ripoff. His world-domination ambitions and dictatorial rhetoric are ripped off from the Brain of Pinky and the Brain. And his design and personality are ripped off from Jimmy Corrigan, a comic-strip character created by Chris Ware. A Jimmy Corrigan strip from 1996 can be found here.
9. It constantly recycles its own meagre store of gags. It's got about three basic gags -- a cutaway to something that references a work of '70s or '80s pop culture; one of those "stretching out something so long that it's funny" routines (they do this one about five times an episode), and sexual-innuendo jokes that are sort of The Golden Girls for frat-boys. I don't mind that they sometimes use jokes from other shows -- recycling jokes is inevitable in comedy -- but they managed to get through 50 episodes without coming up with a new kind of joke, and that wears thin.
8. The characters are so boring, such a dull collection of sitcom stereotypes from the creator's youthful TV-watching binges, that there is virtually no humor to be gotten from the characters. Good comedy writing gets laughs from the characters; the writers on this show write around the characters. By the last few episodes, Stewie was so tapped-out as a character that he was written out of character in almost every episode (that is, almost every gag featured him taking on a personality other than his own), a sign that the character had nothing to him in the first place except the stuff that was taken from superior characters (like the Brain). About the only actual character on the show is Brian the dog, and even he doesn't have that much to his character.
7. It uses references as a substitute for humor. Talk to the average young Family Guy fan and you'll usually hear that what they like best about the show is that it refers to things they saw when they were growing up, and they're just tickled to find that someone else remembers it -- like the "kid in me/adult in me" commercial. Well, I remember that stuff too, but that's lazy comedy writing: there's no perspective on the stuff Family Guy is referencing, no actual joke beyond the reference itself. A golden rule of bad comedy is that if people recognize the reference, they'll laugh even if the joke's not funny. Family Guy goes beyond that; it doesn't even try to have a joke half the time -- it just assumes that making a pop culture reference is inherently funny. Another Family Guy hater makes a similar point here.
6. Seth MacFarlane's voice acting is quite poor: uninflected, monotonous, recycling the same few vocal tricks over and over the way the show recycles a few gag concepts. Mike Judge, Trey Parker, Matt Stone and others have developed into good vocal actors, but Seth MacFarlane is the best argument against creators voicing their own creations.
5. It's one of those things that presents itself as "cutting-edge" but is actually gutless. Its "offensive" jokes are neatly calculated to make sure they don't actually risk offending their fanbase; instead they make jokes that would be offensive to the kinds of people who don't watch the show -- sexual prudes, for example. Any genuinely cutting-edge comedy will risk offending people who watch it; but how is a penis joke supposed to offend the average college student? The answer is, it's not supposed to offend anybody who watches the show; it's supposed to give college kids a smug sense of superiority in believing that someone else might theoretically be offended by that penis joke. (An animated sitcom that actually dared to be tasteless and offensive was Duckman, which took on actual social and political issues; another animated sitcom that actually dares to challenge its audience is South Park, which takes the things that its youngish viewers have been told on other TV shows -- say, saving the rainforest is good -- and tells them the opposite.)
4. The style of the show, which its fans consider such an innovation, was pretty much familiar to anyone who had been following the Saturday morning and weekday cartoons of the early to mid '90s. Sitcom-style stories that went off into weird directions; a look and feel that parodied sitcoms of the '50s to the '80s; constant jokes about '80s pop culture: this was all characteristic of the funny kids' cartoons of the '90s. Essentially, if you watched enough episodes of the early Johnny Bravo (which Seth MacFarlane worked on) or some episodes of Tiny Toons or various other kids' shows of that era, then Family Guy looks like what it is: a kids' show, with all the things that characterized the kids' shows of the '90s: attempts to be hip, suspicion of big heartfelt moments, and lots of references to the shows the kids watched when they were very little. In other words, Family Guy isn't a sophisticated take on the sitcom; it's a kiddie show with some PG-13 references for older kids.
3. The animation was probably the worst of any animated sitcom ever, maybe neck-and-neck with the animated sitcom version of Dilbert. One veteran artist, who described Family Guy as the worst show he'd ever worked on -- and he'd worked for Hanna-Barbera in the '70s, so he wasn't saying that lightly -- summed it up this way:
When I'd suggest some sort of minor gag... [the director] just looked at me and, deadpan, asked "why"? The designs of the characters were murder to draw, so bland and expressionless, but I was somehow expected to get more "acting" out of them. Believe me, Peter's model sheet poses for "happy" and "depressed" looked practically identical! I was told not to add eyebrows, not to distort eye-shapes, not to draw "cartoony" poses...but still, somehow, creating "acting". Yeah, right.
The animation on "The Simpsons" or "King of the Hill" may not be classic-level, but every character acts with his or her face and body to a certain extent; they have, let's say, at least two expressions. "Family Guy" has the most inexpressive characters I've ever seen, and the only distinctive movement on the whole show is a gag that the supervising director (Peter Shin) invented to make characters fall down really fast... a gag that was then repeated to death for the rest of the series.
2. The scripts are bad. I mean apart from the shoddy recycled gags and characters, most of the scripts are just frankly terrible in terms of story construction, coherent satire, etc. The satire is, again, gutless and timid (taking on such never-before-seen satirical targets as tobacco companies and feminists); the dialogue is sub-According to Jim; the stories tend to feature one plot point per act surrounded by many minutes of filler. I guess you can say that what I call "filler" is really the point of the show. Even if the gags were funny (which they are not), I wouldn't buy this. The show is in the form of a sitcom and it should have good story construction and all the other stuff one expects of a sitcom. Otherwise all you're left with is a big overlong comedy sketch with the same characters every week, not unlike a really bad year of Saturday Night Live.
1. Plenty of other animated shows that went off the air didn't get anywhere near the same kind of following, and certainly didn't get revived. Futurama, of course, was far better; but so was Pinky and the Brain when it was in primetime; so was Duckman, which was the offensive, shocking show that Family Guy never had the guts to be (and Duckman's "Road To" episode was a million times better than Family Guy's). Even The Critic, which had some of the same problems as FG (bad animation, unmemorable characters, over-reliance on pop-culture references as opposed to genuine satire or parody), displayed a higher level of craftsmanship. Essentially Family Guy is a story of poor craftsmanship rewarded. I can't help but resent that.
Now, what do I think of the fact that this show has become so popular among younger viewers, popular enough to make it a huge DVD hit and guarantee a sizeable 18-35 demographic for the new episodes? First of all, I think that the Family Guy cult will look really embarrassing a few decades from now, because the '80s references will no longer be comprehensible, and so the episodes will consist largely of dead spots (since there are no jokes, just the references, which are supposed to be funny just because you "get" them). Second, I think it proves that people of my generation don't have better taste in TV than people of my parents' generation; in other words, how can I make fun of some elderly relative for enjoying some badly-written, badly-made CBS show, when I have younger relatives who enjoy the worse-written, worse-made Family Guy? In other words, I think "geezer TV" has been replaced by a new category... call it "whippersnapper TV": bad TV that succeeds because it appeals to the sensibilities of a particular age-based segment of the audience. All of which is a long way of saying that lots of bad shows become hits. This is another one of them.
Now, to add some fairness and balance: I actually did think that the last season of Family Guy showed some improvement, in the sense that there was some attempt to write coherent stories and give the characters something resembling a personality. It wasn't good, but it was better, and I suppose it's theoretically possible that the new episodes could be better still. There was one episode from the last season that I thought was just plain good: "Brian Wallows and Peter's Swallows," where Brian the dog meets a reclusive old lady who used to be an opera singer. That episode featured an original song that was quite a good attempt at a pastiche Broadway song, certainly better than anything Joss Whedon came up for for his Buffy musical, so I've got to give Seth MacFarlane credit for that, as well as for proving to college kids that musicals aren't for dorks. (I read that the upcoming Family Guy CD includes a song from Take Me Along by Bob Merrill, so he gets more points for that.)
Also, despite the life-ain't-fair tone of # 1, I'd say that in general, most animated sitcoms have gotten a fair shake; King of the Hill is still on, as is South Park; Futurama and Duckman got 70 episodes apiece; the animated sitcoms that outright bombed are mostly the ones that deserved to. So Family Guy's success doesn't actually take anything away from more deserving shows. It's just another mediocre-to-poor show on the air. The TV universe will survive that.