[29 July 2010]
PopMatters Associate Interviews Editor
For many years I have been a huge Family Guy apologist. When the Seth McFarlane show about a dysfunctional Rhode Island family first premiered, its initial success was countered by critics who claimed it was dumb, racist, and overly-reliant on arbitrary pop-culture references. In my opinion, however, it was a show that used dumb, racist characters to point out the inherent ridiculousness of the many prejudices that exist in modern society, and it’s “this reminds me of the time when…” cut-scenes were a wonderful way to insert sketch-style comedy into the family-sitcom dynamic while avoiding the pacing issues that often haunt live variety programs.
When the show returned after being canceled for several years –- a resurrection made possible by Family Guy’s immense popularity in syndication and on DVD – many longtime fans quickly became disenchanted with the new episodes. Initially, I didn’t understand why people were turning against the show they’d lobbied so hard to get back on the air. Most of the changes to the show seemed to me to be for the better. The evolution of Brian and Stewie from one-note ironic jokes to far more complex characters, for example, has created one of the most iconic fictional comic duos in years. Family Guy seemed to simply be suffering from “Simpsons syndrome,” the phenomena that The Simpsons themselves so perfectly examined in “The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show.”
Basically, no matter how well a long-running show maintains its quality, fans will always remember the older episodes far more fondly (especially when they spent years watching a limited number of episodes over and over again). Unfortunately, after watching the season 7 and season 8 Family Guy episodes collected on Family Guy: Volume 8, I find myself starting to understand why people have lost faith with this once cutting-edge TV show. Quite simply, Family Guy has become lazy.
The episodes on this collection rehash so many plots that have already been covered by Family Guy (some of which had even earlier been covered by the Simpsons). Once again, we as viewers are forced to watch an episode in which sad-sack daughter Meg Griffin realizes her classmates and family can barely stand her, and so she turns to religion in order to find some sort of happiness. We see Brian and Stewie go on adventures together, where they bicker but inevitably realize they need one another as they have so many times before. We see one member of the family, this time the obese son Chris, become popular but eventually realize it’s not for him. Of course, too, we see the Griffin patriarch, Peter, do lots of offensive or stupid things, like befriending O.J. Simpson and yet again becoming a Jew for all the wrong reasons.
This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the jokes still had the same bite they used to, but the show has gotten lazy there, too. Where its pop-culture references once went in directions that were absurd but made further jokes that took things in a direction that examined some aspect of that reference that was actually interesting, most of these bits are now just completely arbitrary or needlessly mean. The first couple of times the show makes fun of the simplicity of the humor in The Flintstones (a show which many see as an obvious forerunner to The Simpsons and Family Guy) or notes that the women from Sex and the City are not as attractive as their star status tends to suggest, it’s funny to see some sacred cows getting teased a little. When it happens for a third or forth time, it just becomes odd to see a group of very successful writers feeling the need to constantly heckle the competition.
Even odder is Family Guy’s need to make a joke every season at the expense of Seth Green (who voices Chris) and his other project, Robot Chicken. Several times Robot Chicken is mocked for being on the critically-adored but less-watched Adult Swim lineup, and then dug at for relying on nostalgic reminders of ‘80s pop-culture for its humor. There’s nothing wrong with a little meta-humor, but for Family Guy not to see the irony of these insults, when it is constantly accused of the same cheap-ploys and it also owes its current existence in part to the success of its reruns on Adult Swim, is just ridiculous.
One episode that perfectly sums up the problems that now face Family Guy is the season 8 opener, “Road to the Multiverse”. The plot revolves around a device that baby-genius Stewie has procured that allows him to skip between “alternate-dimensions”. There is some sharp satire, like the universe where Christianity never existed and everything is just fine, and some wonderfully silly bits like the visit a universe where the entire Griffin family is animated in the early-‘90s Disney style, and sit around singing happily about eating pie.
On the other hand, there are the aforementioned swipes at The Flintstones and Robot Chicken, as well as a trip to a “Japanese universe” where Family Guy gets to laugh-it-up at a bunch of tired Asian stereotypes, without providing any of the post-racial subtext it used to attempt in its minority jokes. It is an episode made up completely of vignettes, and one that relies almost entirely on Brian and Stewie. It shows the best of what Family Guy can do, but unfortunately also wallows it in its worst tendencies. It’s the best episode of the season, and yet it really does pale in comparison to the show’s earlier triumphs.
The extras on this DVD collection include a large selection of deleted scenes, and to be honest watching them back to back doesn’t feel too different from watching an actual episode. There’s also a short feature which details the making of “Road to the Multiverse” which proves that the crew at Family Guy are a talented bunch who have a gift for intelligently conveying their ideas to the screen, but only when they’re trying.