TV currently has several animated popular animated series, offering from low-brow humor to gross-out comedy to intellectual fare. Now, what separates these is not really theme or art, but approach.
"Futurama" is one of my favorite animated shows, now penciled yet resurrected through a series of straight to DVD movies (which is the perfect solution as far as I'm concerned). Where has it failed? Well the futuristic settings besides, it's basically a Springfield of the future with a colorful cast of characters thrown in. Where can it go wrong? Well, in its diversity it fails to be cohesive and lacks consistency. Something a lot of shows suffer from.
Take for instance "Family Guy". Sure, it has it's base of fans, and devoted ones as such, yet it has struggled with failure. Why? Because it is uneven and repetitive in nature, but first and foremost lacks soul. It may revolve around an American family of 5 (6 including the sophisticated speaking dog), and it may deal with day to day life, but in the way it shrouds everything in low-brow humor, focusing on rapid delivery of rarely intertwined jokes, so unrelated to one another, it fails at being a good comedy show. It's good for certain laughs, every character in itself is a source of comedy, yet as a whole they still continue to work as individuals rather than as an ensemble. The show may have its moments, but on the long run, you grow tired of it.
"The Simpsons", on the other hand, a show from which "Family Guy" has borrowed a lot, and to which it owes a lot, is in its 19th season, with a successful (if late) movie under its belt. Why has it succeeded? Because it has heart. No matter how acid its satire, no matter who or what it speaks against, or for, we believe the nucleus of family at its core. We identify with each and every one of those characters, no matter how dumb or outrageous their actions. We do not have trouble believing them, because they represent general human traits and values. Homer may do stupid things, but never something unforgivable or something for which he can not, in some way, redeem himself later in the same episode. Bart is the mischievous young rebel, who, despite his poor activity in school is not really dumb, but rather ignorant (something he has in common with a lot of kids in the US currently). Lisa is the perfect A student, that sometimes just loves to show us her insecurity and unexpected defects in her seemlessly flawless personality. And Marge is the perfect mother and housewife, still stuck in the '50s, yet somehow a woman of the modern age. And to round up this nucleus, there are a whole lot more characters with which you can easily fall in love, all of them easy to identify with or place within your circle of friends or acquaints. And although the show has seen some decline in its past seasons, it still continues to be above-average television.
"South Park" is entering its 12th season. It has achieved its place in popular culture through the most outrageous, obnoxious, disgusting and offensive writing in the history of, well, television. I doubt there's something they have not yet insulted in some way. But all that is just a facade for exploring different issues. From gun policy in the US to the effect the media has on people. Every single episode might be something you've object to, but it has a clear message in mind, basically the writers expressing their thoughts on the subject deal with. Which is what all creation is about, purveying one's view to the audience, being it through a book, a painting or a TV show (although the latter has its misfires) .I've always said "South Park" is a "dumb" show written by smart people.
So what makes a successful animated series (or any other sitcom for that matter)? Is it just humor? I think not. It must put something else on the table, be it emotional charge, innovation, or tackling sensitive issues. Because your average viewer might be looking for comedy, but he will stay for what's beneath.