Sympathy for the Dysfunctional: the American cartoons that ate the world

The original satire on the cosy suburban sitcom, the Simpsons family is dysfunctional but sympathetic. To begin with, the focus was on young Bart's problematic behaviour but, as the show developed, his dad Homer became the central figure. His stupid, selfish, profoundly passive response to the world makes him one of the most profoundly human characters on television. Key Homer quote: "Donuts - is there anything they can't do?"

Hank Hill may be a red-neck, but he has a heart of gold. He is struggling with traditional Southern values, modern masculinity and a son thicker than old molasses. His friends are paranoid survivalists and he is the world's most stubborn propane salesman. But like The Simpsons, this multicultural and confused vision of small-town America is more honest than anything you will ever see starring real Americans. Key Hank Hill quote: "I'd rather die with a burger in my colon than live and eat tofu."

Now they're major movie stars, claims that the Rugrats are subversives can be discounted. However, this low-angle, high-tone satire of adult hierarchy, venality, vanity, vulnerability and dinosaur-dependency is acutely observed, despite its mainly-for-kids feel-good vibe. The good guys are morally dependable, if shrill; the bad gal is incredibly shrill, manipulative and morally bankrupt. Post-Freudian America as it prefers to see itself. Key Angelica quote: "You dumb babies!" Key Chuckie quote: "Tommy, I'm scaaaaared!"

Only a cartoon as sick as this can do justice to the trash end of America's culture. It satirises all the fare of the supermarket tabloid, from alien abductions to diet plans, with crazy Vietnam Vets and C-list celebrities. Some of it is plain weird: one show had a dancing "Christmas poo" tackling anti-Semitism. Key quote: "Oh my God, they killed Kenny."

It's questionable whether MTV's two sniggering teens satirise anything at all, apart from sniggering teens. Beavis and Butthead simply portray the life of pubescent grunts, heavy metal and death worship. If cartoon dogs Ren and Stimpy are more anarchy than satire, Beavis and Butthead are their nihilistic owners. Key Beavis and Butthead quote: "Huh-huh-huh huh-huh-ahuh."

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