Swell to say

“If cartoons were meant for adults, they’d put them on in prime time.”

Lisa Simpson’s wry reference to Hanna-Barbera, “The Flintstones” and her own family’s show reads differently after 21 years of followers including “Family Guy,” “Futurama,” “King of the Hill,” and many lesser ilk including “Dilbert” and “Ugly Americans.” (Remember Neil Patrick Harris in “Capitol Critters”? Good thing IMDB does.)

But doubtless the most successful of these is the formerly canceled “Family Guy,” whose creator has gone on to create 2 more shows (“American Dad!” and “The Cleveland Show”) with a 4th on the way. So with cartoons now apparently bigger than ever before, here’s a guide to the empire of a man who started his career at Hanna-Barbera: Seth MacFarlane, the world’s most powerful RISD grad.

First there was “Family Guy” (1999), a great show in its prime which gave the “Simpsons” formula a much-needed update. Today, the series has changed lots: Stewie’s not so evil, Lois is meaner, and let’s not start about Peter. That’s not to mention too-long jokes (sometimes “jokes”), the notorious overuse of cutaway gags, and plots paying less attention to where they’re going than a commuter with a smart phone. But the show’s still very popular, even if new episodes don’t match up to ye olde ones.

The success of “Family Guy” spawned “American Dad!” in 2005, a show which suffered from some hamfisted political satire and similarities to “Family Guy” — until it quickly went its own direction and since became the favorite for many fans.

Among the strengths of “Dad” is great animation which really puts the computers to work. In “Family Guy,” all the paper and ink seems to get spent on those cutaways, leaving the main scenes empty of interest and full of recycling settings. Cut away, indeed. But instead of minute-long jokes saving money with a static picture, the “American Dad” writers seem to relish in demanding all the bells and whistles. And the animators deliver, as seen below in the 7th season premiere.

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From "Hot Water"

In Sunday’s episode, they literally turned the house upside down.

And the writing is at least as good as the drawing. For one, the show is creative about doing new and exciting things with plot or comedy, rather than the preferred “Family Guy” method for pushing the envelope, which usually involves Hitler or dead celebrities. Where eventually “Family Guy” became addicted to cutaway humor unrelated to the plot or characters, “American Dad!” uses all the different kinds of jokes, based on strong characterization and yes, often a non sequitur. Somehow this show has a knack for the classic misdirection joke that keeps me from seeing it coming. But there are bonuses to the comedy: actual drama, convincing action sequences, and good acting from the animators and voice talent.

In 2009, “The Cleveland Show” debuted, and at least so far, it hasn’t made an evolution away from the “Family Guy” formula like “American Dad!” did. “Show” just started season 3 but has already been renewed through the 4th, so perhaps that’s not a negative thing for viewers. It does share in some successful formulas with both “Dad” and “Guy”: Laugh-out-loud surprises. Song and dance. Characters casually interacting with all sorts of fantastic neighbors — aliens, talking dogs, talking fish, talking birds, atheists.

And they all have genuinely funny visual humor, whether it’s Peter Griffin bawling and running up the stairs or Roger Smith just standing there with that look on his face.

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"The sun in the sky's got a smile on his face …"

Maybe if he didn’t drink so much his eyelids wouldn’t be so heavy.

As if to remind us who’s in charge of FOX Sunday nights, a marketing gimmick had all 3 shows share a hurricane-based plot this week. The episodes ended up airing this season as episode-twos, instead of in the spring as planned, following deadly tornadoes in the U.S. Who would have guessed planning a huge crossover event based around a natural disaster would create problems for the network?

But air they did, resulting in this final scene with the combative main characters:

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Belligerent, even.

There’s surely a reason MacFarlane’s cartoons have been so successful, even if I personally find only one of them worthwhile at the moment. While I prefer “American Dad!”, “Family Guy” tends to lead the ratings on “Animation Domination” night, with the “Simpsons” next, while “Dad” and “The Cleveland Show” are about even in last.

So clearly, it doesn’t matter what I think. Viewers, and even moreso networks, call the shots, and things aren’t looking up for some of the “Animation Domination” crowd. With newbie “Bob’s Burgers” popular in season 1 and the upcoming “Allen Gregory” and “Napoleon Dynamite” cartoons headed to the scheduling block, they’ll have to find room somewhere — maybe even with a whole other channel.

Where will the cuts come? “The Simpsons” is unlikely to be missed, and negotiations with the voice actors for a 24th season aren’t going well. And while “The Cleveland Show” is guaranteed for at least another two seasons, “American Dad!” seems to be in trouble — this season’s premiere, which ended with Cee-Lo Green pronouncing the entire family dead, was actually made as a possible series finale. Network and studio talk at the time had suggested the show was “pretty much DOA,” creator and executive producer Mike Barker said recently. Indeed, the show’s timeslot was even pushed out of primetime altogether last season, into the 7:30 slot. But following some shuffling, it seems to have been promoted this fall to 9:30.

Regardless of the individual fate of “American Dad!”, there’s no question that someone at FOX has “got a feelin’” about this MacFarlane kid. Because soon the Guy/Dad/Show family will be welcoming a bouncing 4th baby — specifically, a clone: an update of “The Flintstones,” prospects for which were pre-previewed on this blog.

So in 2013, when you stumble upon a new-looking Flintstones family, consider the confused lineage that brings the ancestor of the prime time cartoon back to us in a future it couldn’t possibly have imagined.

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