Yabba-dabba-do it again! Flintstones to be revived in new series

The impending revival of The Flintstones in a new series rather than just repeats marks a new phase in the evolution of cartoons for grown-ups.

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Before Homer and Marge Simpson and their children became television's most famous dysfunctional family, a caveman with an equally long-suffering wife was TV's best-loved blue-collar buffoon. Unless you've been living under a rock, you'll know that his name was Fred and the show was The Flintstones.

Starting in 1960 and running for six years, it was the first original prime-time animated series in US TV history and went on to become one of the most popular and memorable programmes the world has seen.

More than 50 years since its launch, animated sitcoms and other grown-up cartoons have never enjoyed greater prominence in TV schedules. What's more, The Flintstones will soon be remembered as more than just the show that started it all. Last week it was announced that Fred, Wilma, Barney, Betty and the rest of the prehistoric gang will return to the airwaves in an all new cartoon, set to appear in 2013.

The figure behind the revamp is Seth MacFarlane, creator of the Fox series Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show. It comes as little surprise that it took a producer known for mixing traditional sitcom themes with satire, innuendo and absurdist humour several years to convince the rights holder, Warner Brothers Television, that he would treat the hallowed property with the correct degree of respect.

Before The Flintstones made its debut on ABC, animated programmes had been aimed almost entirely at children in the belief that adults didn't want to watch cartoons. Such programmes typically comprised shorts originally created for the cinema by studios such as Walt Disney and Terrytoons. It was also believed that animation was too costly and time-consuming to be made simply for TV. But in 1957, a company set up by two Lebanese-Americans changed all that.

Hanna-Barbera, the studio behind not just The Flintstones, but also Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear, The Jetsons, Wacky Racers and many others, invented "limited animation". They found that by reusing as much material as possible and not drawing each frame anew, cartoons could be made cheaply and quickly.

The reason why many of Hanna-Barbera’s creations – from Fred Flintstone to Yogi Bear – wore collars and ties, was to conceal joins between the characters’ heads and torsos, allowing artists simply to animate a head rather than the whole body, unless it was required. In dialogue scenes for example, Fred’s head, or even just his mouth, would move while the rest of him remained stationary.

To compensate for the lack of action, Hanna-Barbera shows tended to be heavily dialogue-based. While this is now seen as part of their charm, they were once dismissed as “illustrated radio” by the Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones.

After The Flintstones left the airwaves, Hanna-Barbera continued to produce hit shows, but none earned the prime-time billing of Bedrock's best-loved family. By the 1980s, made-for-TV cartoons were again aimed squarely at younger audiences. Rather than the adventures of Mickey Mouse however, children were served more action-oriented fare, such as Transformers and He-Man.

But in 1989 the animated sitcom was revived. The Simpsons became the first prime-time animated series since 1974 and only the second since the demise of The Flintstones more than two decades earlier. Still running today after some 485 episodes, the hilarious and subversive parody of the American family is considered one of the greatest achievements in television history.

Packed with dozens of instantly recognisable characters and humour that plays to both children and adults, the show became more than just a cultural phenomenon; it also proved (again) that animation can made cheaply and quickly enough for TV. But rather than relying on limited animation, The Simpsons' producers achieved this by forming out much of the workload to studios in South Korea.

The decade that followed The Simpsons' arrival saw a boom in grown-up animations, but Matt Groening's show was only partly responsible. The rise of cable television meant that new stations, such as MTV, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon all began producing original content. Big-name shows such as King of the Hill, Family Guy and Futurama all appeared on major networks, while cable channels began producing programmes such as Beavis and Butt-Head, which were edgier than anything that had gone before. Cartoon Network now fills its 9pm - 6am schedule each day entirely with shows aimed at mature audiences. It has been responsible for producing some of the most ground-breaking animated comedies in recent years, including Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Robot Chicken, as well as broadcasting imported content, most notably from the UK and Japan.

The home of animated sitcoms, however, remains the Fox network. Alongside continuing seasons of The Simpsons, MacFarlane's existing shows and the soon-to-launch Napoleon Dynamite animated series, the return of The Flintstones can only strengthen its position.

“The very first cartoon character I drew at age two was Fred Flintstone,” said MacFarlane when it was announced that he would take over the show. “So it’s appropriate that events have come full circle, allowing me to produce the newest incarnation of this great franchise.

“Plus, I think America is finally ready for an animated sitcom about a fat, stupid guy with a wife who’s too good for him.”

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