Since I don't have a television, I didn't actually get to watch the Academy Awards this past Sunday; however, I did follow its proceedings on Twitter and read many of the none too pleased reviews of Seth MacFarlane's hosting job. The criticisms of MacFarlane that I read reminded me of why I never took to Family Guy although I've always enjoyed The Simpsons (even though I can't attest to its quality for the past five years).
The difference between The Simpsons and Family Guy, as I see it, lies in the relationship of the animator to his characters. The humor and storytelling of The Simpsons evokes the attitude of a teenage boy to his family. He might mock them at times, point out their foibles, and be embarrassed by their eccentricities; however, ultimately, he still loves them. It comes as no surprise that the show originated in Groenig's cartoons about his own family. The characters on The Simpsons often do things that are foolish, misguided, obnoxious, insensitive, callous, overly controlling, overly lax, ignorant, or utterly narcissistic. However, they are ultimately good-natured at heart, even if that goodness only really shines in moments of ethical crisis or resolution. Groenig loves his characters even as he laughs at them, and he wants you to like them as well, no matter how annoying or foolish they can be. They are exaggerations or caricatures of human beings, but they are ultimately intended to seem human.
I've never felt that same relationship between author/animator and character on Family Guy. Seth MacFarlane doesn't seem to bear any particular fondness to Peter, Lois, and the rest of the family. Their callousness, narcissim, and occasional crassness rarely get balanced or redeemed by an inherent goodness. MacFarlane is laughing at his characters (Look at those fools!) and wants you to laugh at them, too. Meg and Chris neither show the camaraderie of Bart and Lisa nor serve as foils to each other in the same way. Meg is the awkward "black sheep" of the family (although we're never sure why she has that designation), and Chris never manages to muster an iota of competence. Stewie, the baby, is the inversion of the sweet yet clever (if at times impish) innocence of Maggie Simpson; he lacks any genuine affection or moral sense and is only funny in the extent to which he strays from type. Peter is Homer Simpson with his flaws accentuated: fatter, more ignorant, and more selfish. It can be funny to laugh at their mistakes, their ignorance, and their awkwardness, but you develop no fondness for them because their creator has none. And you don't see the humanity in them that reminds you of people you know in real life (for better or for worse) because that link has been severed.
There are also key differences in the structuring of stories. Episodes of The Simpsons always have a central plot, which often begins after an unrelated comic scene. Even if the episodes don't follow each other, an episode has a sense of linearity to it, and its humor comes from both memorable lines and a comical series of often unintended consequences----basically, it is a standard situation comedy rendered by the hand of an animator. Family Guy episodes lack the same sense of linearity and derive more humor from antics, asides, and flashbacks ("Remember when...").
The Simpsons also aims to satirize society--politics, religion, education, diet, entertainment, family life--as any good sitcom does. Family Guy, however, doesn't care as much for the exaggerated realism essential to satire and veers more toward a gimmickry and a parody of culture, hence the frequent asides and allusions. The Simpsons takes society and pokes fun at its cherished institutions. Family Guy takes the family trope of the sitcom and turns it upside down, denying it the sense of resolution and redemption that can often border on treacle and laughing at sentimentality itself.