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'Family Guy' returns, just as funny as ever

Fox's ''Family Guy" has reached iconic status as a TV phoenix. After the animated sitcom was canceled three years ago, it became so popular on DVD and in reruns on the Cartoon Network that Fox decided to resurrect it on prime time. In the world of TV, corporate pride never wins over ratings and ad revenues -- and in this case that happens to be a good thing.

In the first new episode, tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 25, ''Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane takes less than a minute to tease Fox for its fickleness. ''Everybody, I've got bad news," says patriarch Peter Griffin to his wife, three kids, and pets. ''We've been canceled." He then goes on to name every failed show Fox has aired in the intervening years, including ''Skin," ''Greg the Bunny," and ''Firefly." It's a self-referential and self-serving opening joke, but one that happily proves the show will continue to be as crankily irreverent as ever. And without irreverence, ''Family Guy" would be nothing.

''Family Guy" bears a passing resemblance to ''The Simpsons," as a sendup of American suburbia with a good share of pop cultural references. But it's cruder, and more geared to viewers who are phobic when it comes to political correctness and politeness. You can't mind a pedophilia joke, or a masturbation reference, or a fart sound effect, if you're going to watch the show without getting offended. In the premiere, in which Peter and wife Lois try to rekindle their romance, the couple find themselves in Mel Gibson's hotel room, where they discover ''Passion of the Christ 2: Crucify This." Yep, it's Jesus as a gun-toting action hero.

This kind of material would wear thin after a while if the characters weren't as distinct and endearing as they are, most notably Stewie, the wrathful infant. MacFarlane's second animated sitcom, ''American Dad," shows what ''Family Guy" would probably look like without its warmth and inner life. ''American Dad," which premiered in February but begins its regular run tomorrow at 9:30 p.m. on Channel 25, is little more than an empty vehicle for clever jokes on America since 9/11. About CIA agent Stan Smith and his colorless family, it spins gags about Guantanamo Bay and domestic terror threats without making them matter. Let's just say ''American Dad" probably won't rise from the ashes once it has been canceled.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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