All the things that make us laugh and cry

As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “There is still so much we have to learn about TV!” For a long time in that medium it had seemed that Seth MacFarlane, the creator, writer, executive producer and voice actor of Family Guy and American Dad, and arguably an heir to Vonnegut’s testy humanist wit, could do no wrong. When The Simpsons had begun to suck and no one wanted to admit it, MacFarlane graciously stepped in to make Fox’s Sunday nights brilliant again. Now the thing that no one wants to admit is that he has made them unbearable. MacFarlane also executive produces The Winner, a newish live-action sitcom created by longtime Family Guy writer Ricky Blitt, which now juts out of the Fox Sunday primetime lineup like a gangrenous thumb. It is embarrassingly awful, and maybe even dangerous.

Well, the common complaint about MacFarlane is that he simply goes too far. Although self-consciously in line with primetime-television tradition (for revolving around an overweight ignoramus protagonist who somehow married better than he deserved to), Family Guy at its best is a frenzy of political incorrectness, near-psychopathic aggression and glib pop-culture-riffing non sequiturs. American Dad does likewise, pretty much reiterating Family Guy’s shtick but retooling it with the hot buttons of Bush-era political life. Smartly deployed, both shows succeed on the merits of unabashed cartoonishness. Anything goes, and so it should. The swishy evil-genius baby, the wryly observant English-speaking house pet, the gun-loving reactionary FBI functionary: Some things just work better when they’re animated.

But then there’s The Winner, which has real-life characters but not much in the way of real life. Set for no particular reason in 1994, it stars Rob Corddry as a 32-year-old virgin—well, at least he was until last Sunday—who works in a video store, lives with his parents and hangs out with his only pal, an intellectual equal who’s all of 13. The only thing funny about this is that a premise so dumb could also seem so already-been-done. (There’s The 40 Year Old Virgin, for starters, not to mention some 40-year-old sitcoms.) Worse, for its stilted pacing, willfully cliché-mongering plots and hoary punch lines, The Winner is somehow even more of a train wreck than the previous cartoon-night interloper, that other lousy live-action placeholder The War at Home. Which must be why Fox lately has so parsimoniously forced viewers to sit through multiple episodes of The Winner in exchange for skimpy helpings of the usual weekly MacFarlane fix.

If Big Seth’s strategy is to cast his cartoon shows in a new light—to refresh their reputations through juxtaposition with something so crudely corporeal and much worse by comparison—then, well, maybe his brilliance really can’t be overstated. Say what you will about American Dad: that it’s just Family Guy redux, or too cheaply political, etc. Maybe. But next to The Winner, it’s like animated manna.