Sunday night, Fox blocked out one hour for Family Guy, as it was a “special” 150th episode. Titled “Brian & Stewie,” it would be followed by a clip show of musical numbers from the series. Now, FG has several episodes focusing on Brian and Stewie; they’re rough parodies of the Hope/Crosby “Road” pictures of the ’40s. Naturally, I assumed that this would follow suit. In reading blurbs about the episode, though, I found out that the episode took place entirely in a bank vault, and “Road to Bank Vault” doesn’t sound all that appetizing.
I missed the live airing, so I watched the episode late, as Queta was going to sleep. One thing she noticed as she was settling in for the night was that I wasn’t laughing that much. Or at all.
We’re all fairly familiar with the usual structure of the show; if not personally, then via South Park. I happen to be a fan of Family Guy, something of a divisive issue amongst comedy enthusiasts, and I like it because of the structure and the places it goes. But #150 wasn’t a typical episode. Set entirely in the vault, with no cutaway gags (like if Jack Bauer didn’t torture a citizen to get info about a bomb in an episode) or musical score, it felt more like a stage play. Oh, and I think it was trying to be serious?
For what it’s worth, [SPOILER ALERT]. Dog and child are in a bank vault. Brian is tidying up some things in his safe deposit box. Stewie needs to leave because he has to return a $3000 sweater. (Just… we’re moving on.) The vault door closes, and the pair realizes they’re trapped until tomorrow. Then Stewie realizes it’s Saturday. While there, Stewie has a soiled diaper, and tells Brian he can’t run around with poop in his diaper or he’ll get a rash. He convinces Brian to eat the poop and clean his butt so he won’t get a rash, and we sort of get to see it, in a scene almost Human Centipede-ish in its inducement of nausea. To clear his palate, Brian pulls out the bottle of scotch he has in the box, and they both get shitfaced. In their stupor, Stewie convinces Brian to pierce his ear, and Brian obliges, leaving Stewie with a mangled earlobe. After some bitching and arguing, and a discharging of the gun Brian had in the box, Stewie asks why Brian, long known as a full-on blue stater, even has a gun. Brian explains that he is often suicidal, and had the gun there in case he decided to go through with it. Stewie convinces him he’s got something to live for, they go to sleep, the vault door opens the next morning, and Brian takes Stewie and leaves. Fin. [END OF SPOILER ALERT NOW YOU CAN GET BACK TO LIFE].
Now, I’m reluctant to say that FG actually jumped the shark here. I still have faith in the show, and it still entertains me on a weekly basis. Has it declined from earlier seasons? Sure, that’s inevitable. But I’m not yet concerned that it’s exceeded its shelf life as The Simpsons did years ago. However, it is a warning sign. When a show has a grand failed experiment, it can be cause for worry. Look at That 70s Show and its “musical episode.” I love that series and that episode scared me with how bad it was. And not too long after, Topher and Ashton left the show and we got Seth Meyers’ brother. What is it with 70s Show and less-famous celebrity siblings?
Look, at least they kept Kurtwood Smith.
I feel bad whenever someone experiments and it doesn’t go well. On one hand, artists have the right to expand upon what they normally do. 70s Show wants to do a musical episode, good for them. Family Guy wants to do a Beckett play, A for effort. Lou Reed does “Metal Machine Music;” hey, you were in Velvet Underground. You deserve it.
On the other, when the experiment fails, people get upset, and it just underscores why you’re known for the things you normally do. FG is a ridiculous show which bends both character and continuity to hit the jokes it wants. A lot of people don’t like that about the show, but it’s been doing it for eight seasons now, to the greatest success it’s ever had, and that’s its trademark. So when MacFarlane does an episode which throws that out the window for a serious discussion about the characters, it leads to some serious whiplash. And that would be forgivable if the experiment worked.
But it didn’t. This wasn’t a case of a “very special” Full House where the show’s 90% the same, but there’s a bit of extra drama because DJ found some ecstasy pills in Kimmie’s bag, and she’s torn about what to do. You’re still going to have Uncle Joey do Popeye impersonations, and Uncle Jesse complain about his hair getting ruined, and Danny dole out life lessons while being tall. There’s just going to be that extra “serious” scene where the family confronts Kimmie about the dangers of X in the living room, and she agrees and flushes them down the toilet. Then Michelle says, “You got it, dude!” and we all laugh and then cry because we just watched an episode of Full House.
Now, imagine if, instead, the episode was DJ and Kimmie locked in the basement for an hour of screen time, and Kimmie telling DJ she’s suicidal. And there are, maybe, two jokes. Now you get it.
MacFarlane himself said that it was an attempt at doing the old All in the Family episode where Archie and Meathead get locked in the cellar. But that episode was more in line with the flavor of its parent series. FG is a show where the lead character gets into protracted fights with a giant chicken, and an elderly pedophile roams the streets. For it to turn into a Pinter play at the drop of a hat is too much whiplash. As I watched the episode, I kept waiting for the reveal. I kept waiting for the point when Peter would show up and fart on Stewie’s head. But it didn’t happen.
Remember South Park when they were going to reveal Cartman’s dad’s identity? The following month, when the cliffhanger was supposed to resolve, we instead got “Terrence and Philip in ‘Not Without My Anus?'” That didn’t go over too well. Judging by audience reaction to this episode, I don’t think this Family Guy is either.
Lesson: Experimentation, while noble, must be delivered well. It may seem unfair, but when you’ve established a universe with its own accepted rules and expectations, breaking them completely is a bitter pill to swallow for the fans. Do it right, and you have a landmark episode. Do it wrong, and you get Chris Gaines.
A couple side comments:
I love that episode of that April Fool’s episode of South Park, and it’s probably my favorite of the show.
We once had dinner with Garth Brooks at the Benihana in San Francisco. I was the only one who recognized him and nothing interesting happened.
Did he sing to you?
He did not! But he was pleasant and his family seemed nice. He was wearing the cowboy hat, and no soul patch, sadly.
Good lord Garth looks like Fernando in that picture.
Or… Fernando looks like Garth?
I saw the show too and it was the worst FG ever, I am very forgiveing of the show cause I love the total random quality to it. My fav example is Peter talking about when Abraham killed Issac and it cuts to Abraham Lincon on the love boat shooting Issac the bartender. Point is I think you are right, too much whiplash at once. We weren’t ready for it. That and really spending 10 minutes on the soiled diaper was overkill.