As you may have read, Sunday night is once more Animation Domination night on Fox. For the first time in five years, the two hours after football will be wall-to-wall cartoons, starting with The Simpsons, now in Season 31, straight through to Family Guy, merely 20 years old.
Want to know what other kind of domination has existed at Fox on Sunday nights? Here are some clues: Homer. Bart. Cleveland. Bob’s Burgers. American Dad. Family Guy. Son of Zorn (remember that one?). And then there were the live-action shows starring John Mulaney, Lil Rel, and of course, Will Forte, the Last — say it with me — Man on Earth. Fox’s Sunday playbook wasn’t Xs and Os, it was Ys and Os.
So it’s a pretty big deal that Fox not only went all-in on Sunday night animation again, but that it did so by awarding the open slot on its schedule to a show created, written, and voiced primarily by women.
Even more surprising, at least to me, is that Bless the Harts feels true right out of the gate. That’s saying something given its unpromising premise about a Southern family that never has enough money but is rich “in friends, family, and laughter.” Sounds like a reality show on CMT. Also, I have to confess to an irrational hostility toward every network cartoon that has aired since Bullwinkle. I wasn’t an early adopter of The Simpsons, and in 1999 I wrote a review of Family Guy calling it an “execrable Simpsons wannabe,” which turned out to be a compliment.
There was, however, one Fox animation I fell in love with from the first panel — King of the Hill, the easygoing, brilliantly written, whimsically drawn chronicle of life in suburban Texas with the Hill family and their peculiar neighbors, that aired from 1997 to 2009. As it turns out, someone else who loved King of the Hill is Emily Spivey, creator of Bless the Harts. Spivey has named the show as a major influence and even got Mike Judge’s permission to name the big-box store on Bless the Harts Mega Lo Mart.
The Harts at the heart of Bless the Harts are Jenny (Kristen Wiig), a single mom who’s trying, and failing, to keep up with the bills, and the two women who share her too-small house: Mom (Maya Rudolph), who loves printing out memes on her dot-matrix printer (and calling them “Mimi's”), and teenage daughter Violet (Jillian Bell), who draws comix and can’t wait to leave her sleepy North Carolina town for Asheville or Savannah or really anyplace else.
Rounding out the family is Jenny’s longtime boyfriend Wayne (Ike Barinholtz), a likable working stiff who hasn’t yet realized that after ten years of not being asked to move in, she might not be that into him.
If there is one guy Jenny’s into, it’s Jesus, and lucky for her she waits tables at The Last Supper, where the savior himself steps down from the wall painting to talk with her. It’s one of those things that would be horrible in the hands of, say, Seth MacFarlane. But this weird and not exactly all-powerful Jesus, voiced by Kumail Nanjiani, acts mainly as a snarky sounding board while Jenny deals with whatever worry is occupying her mind. As theology goes, I’ve seen worse.
Bless the Harts may be a new thing for Fox — trying to win over female viewers or appeal to the softer side of millennial males — but it’s not exactly throwing something against the wall. Spivey was a top producer on Last Man on Earth, which despite low ratings hung on for four years and was the funniest show about the apocalypse ever made (and was actually pretty gender-balanced, including a great role for Wiig in the show’s final season).
Getting an animated show on Fox is a virtual sinecure. Hell, even The Cleveland Show churned out 88 episodes. Bless the Harts is already better than that show ever was, it has The Simpsons as its lead-in, and every woman working in Hollywood is rooting for it. Jesus, take the wheel!
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.