There are many things that I hate, as I’ve previously mentioned on this site. You could add to that list sarcasm, when you try to sleep on really hot nights, the expression “so called,” and the voice work of Matt Berry. However, one thing that perennially keeps its way off that list, despite its evermore humourless output, is Family Guy. There are plenty of reasons to hate it – the fact that it’s derivative, that it’s vulgar, or that it’s overexposed – but no, I don’t hate Family Guy. For all its ups and downs (four Emmys, two cancellations) I can still look back at episodes I’ve seen dozens of times before and laugh. Unfortunately though, I find myself searching the TV listings and exclaiming, “Oh, Family Guy’s on!” only to be bitterly disappointed if it’s any episode made within the last few years. BBC3 aired the Season 10 debut on Saturday night, and as I sat there dull-eyed and straight-faced as I sat through an hour of pathetic attempts at either comedy or narrative I wondered where it all went wrong.
Some people have attributed Family Guy’s recent decline as a result of Seth Macfarlane, the show’s creator, having spread himself too thinly – currently involved in spin-off The Cleveland Show, his other creation American Dad, as well as the release of his first film, Ted. It’s more likely, however, that the show has simply outrun its course – most shows have a lifespan and it takes a sage mind to know where that is – Jerry Seinfeld notably turned down a $100M contract for a tenth season of Seinfeld, pulling the plug before his – and its – popularity dropped.
Unlike Seinfeld, Macfarlane is in the privileged position of having a gun pointed over the Fox executives heads, because with his three shows all airing on the same night he essentially controls Fox’s Sunday night ratings – which are currently huge. If Macfarlane leaves, then Fox are up somewhere unpleasant without a paddle – and frankly, why would he leave? The show is as successful now as it’s ever been, at least in terms of viewing figures, and walking away from that would be a huge risk. After all, what has Jerry Seinfeld done since 1998?
And so despite Macfarlane admitting he has his doubts about the future of Family Guy, telling The Hollywood Reporter that he feels “Family Guy should have already ended. I think seven seasons is about the right lifespan for a TV series” the show has been renewed for an eleventh season, and brings to mind his contemporary in Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons. Groening has long held firm on his stance that so long as there’s still a viewership for The Simpsons he’ll still make them. While it looked like contract disputes might have killed off the dying franchise, it has subsequently been renewed and scheduled to run up until the end of its 23rd season.
But while once upon a time Family Guy could get away with its signature flimsy plots and machine gun gags, the show now seems to be running low on ideas. Jokes which were once one-gag material are now stretched out for twenty-two agonizing minutes, while formally two-dimensional characters have become little more than stock figures where every joke is exactly the same: Peter is stupid, Stewie is camp, and celebrities are there to be insulted.
Granted, Family Guy has never been a show revered for its plot and satire – coming closest with season 4’s “Patriot Games,” a mockery of showmanship in sports – but recent plots are so utterly devoid of merit, purpose or pathos that they have become unbearable. This is no more clear than in perhaps the worst twenty-two minutes of television ever, in season seven’s “I Dream of Jesus,” in which Peter sings The Trashman’s Surfin’ Bird in various different locations for eight minutes, then I smash my head against a wall when the plot veers off to be about Jesus Christ returning to earth.
To quote The Big Lebowski’s Maude, “the story is ludicrous.”
I don’t even remember if there were any jokes, I was so dumfounded by the fact this was clearly two half-written episodes stuck next to each other, while the writers twiddle their thumbs and hope no-one noticed. And clearly they don’t, the episode was voted the second best of all-time by BBC3 viewers last week. (Although the omission of “Road To Rhode Island” says it all about how moronic the voters are).
The only thing you might think the episode has going for it is that it’s “edgy” and “challenging.” Except that it’s not. For all the complaints Family Guy has had – 33 time winner of PTC Worst Show of the Week (27 of those came after the show’s second cancellation) – it’s never really “challenging” as everybody and everything it insults aren’t viewers of the show; it’s a very passive aggression. The mockery of Catholics and lesbians, and the Middle-East, and whoever else falls between the writers’ cross-hairs are largely the same prejudices the viewers of the show have. So who do they challenge? It’s hardly like the episode of South Park that actively decried that environmentalism was “gay.”
While South Park and Family Guy are two very different shows – as Trey Parker and Matt Stone made abundantly clear in “Cartoon Wars,” a forty minute tirade against Family Guy – one thing they have in common are the largely dickish behavior of most characters; you can safely say none of them are shown as people you’d like to hang out with. But unlike Family Guy’s increasingly oafish buffoons, we kind of feel empathy and understanding for the residents of South Park, even Cartman has understandable goals behind even his horrifying behavior – either riches or revenge. He brings to mind a personal hero of mine, Seinfeld’s iconic George Costanza.
Likewise, South Park’s original disabled child, Timmy, could easily be seen as a condescending and laughable figure is, upon reflection – as pretentious as it sounds – challenging the viewer’s preconceptions of disability. No-one ever makes fun of Timmy, nor do they bow down to him; he simply exists – and as a result he was voted the most popular disabled character on TV by disabled children.
Remember Family Guy’s fifth ever episode, “A Hero Sits Next Door”? It focused on exactly that –Peter is terrified and embarrassed that the ringer he selected for his company’s softball team was the paraplegic Joe Swanson, who’d go on to be a series regular. That episode finds a way in which to tackle the sensitive subject in a funny and awkward manner – a very Curb Your Enthusiasm kind of humour. It is beautiful and poignant and along with “Brian & Stewie” possibly the most touching the show has been.
What do we have now? Shots of Joe unable to climb stairs and being mocked for his sexual redundancy.
But it’s episodes like “A Hero Sits Next Door” that mean I will never hate Family Guy. After all, ignoring the low-points of otherwise classic TV shows is something we’re all going to have to get used to. It will seem like a long time ago to many that Simpsons show runners Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein quit, way back in 1997, bringing with it the end of the “golden era.” Many seem to either forget or ignore the rapid decline Friends had suffered at the end of its third season, not recovering until some time after Monica and Chandler’s wedding, while Scrubs nose-dived into its cancellation, and even the untouchable Seinfeld dropped off with the departure of Larry David.
We can only hope for the best for the future of Family Guy, but if history is anything to go by, then it will like feature an uglier conclusion than that time Peter had to listen to Vogon poetry.