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After 5 seasons, two cancellations and a now militant army of fans the show has amassed, I don't quite know what to say about "Family Guy" anymore.
When "Family Guy" debuted in 1999 it was a shotgun blast of comic brilliance that came out of nowhere and went unheard by an audience still enraptured by the antics of "Friends". At first it all appears relatively routine, even - as many have accused - a ripe-off of "The Simpsons". Fat, child-like, head of household Peter Griffin (voiced by creator Seth MacFarlane) screws things up while dotting wife Lois (Alex Borstein), put-upon daughter Meg (Mila Kunis) and genetic copy Chris (Seth Green) look on. Also in the mix is genius, homicidal infant Stewie (MacFarlene) - one of the most deserving break-out characters in TV history - and Brian, the family's talking dog.
If the characters sound like clichés, that's the point. MacFarlane uses them simply as vessels and with the show regurgitates every pop culture childhood memory to create a full-length parody of 70s and 80s sitcoms. Even better than a parody, a satire. Just as Archie Bunker was a product of the 50s being imposed on by a changing 70s culture, "Family Guy" is about the new millennial values juxtaposed on sitcom camp of the last century. In MacFarlane's world there are child molesters on "Lost in Space" and "Eight is Enough" actually refers to disciplinary beatings.
Yes, "The Simpsons" have covered similar ground, with a particular emphasis on random flashbacks and fantasy scenes. But with "The Simpsons" in a creative tailspin for the last decade, MacFarlane and crew swoop in to fill this gaping void. To out-Simpson "The Simpsons" if you will. What MacFarlane brings to the table is pitch-perfect comic timing - an ability to know how quick to cut or how long to drag out a particular bit to get the laugh. As well as utter fearlessness. From bits in which Jesus Christ turns water "into funk" or a TV parody "Gumble 2 Gumble: Beach Justice" staring Greg and Bryant Gumble as bicycle cops, "Guy" isn't just one of the funniest things to grace TV, it was freakin' brilliant. This breaks from are more often like an animated version of "The Far Side", then "The Simpsons".
Then it was canceled only to be renewed at the 11th hour. And then it was canceled again, brought back supposedly by strong DVD sales. But given the networks ownership of the show and how Fox beat to death the equally strong "Futurama", it's hard to buy that. This constant shakeup has got to take a toll on a series' rhythm. When the show returned for a 3rd season it felt lacking of something. As if the network notes to "slow the pace", "tone down the fantasy scenes" and "thicken the story lines" were rigidly being followed when the breaking of these rules was what made the show great in the first place. Still it contained classics like "Emission: Impossible", "The Thin White Line", "Road to Rhode Island" and "Brian Wallows, Peter's Swallows" to keep us satisfied.
Upon the 2nd return, giving us seasons 4, 5 and beyond, the show has completely lost it's footing. After a LONG agonizing wait, the 4th season premiere is a disappointing "North by Northwest"/"Passion of the Christ" parody. The rest of the season follows suit in which only "PTV", the show's satire of the TV ratings system, recaptures it's prior lunacy. MacFarlane makes the crucial mistake here, actually wanting us to care about them. Given that they where envisioned as clichés in the first place, putting the weight of a story on their backs only shows how lacking the show is for character depth. Even Stewie, once a source for huge laughs, is stripped down to a single latent homosexuality joke. The show gets story heavy where it shouldn't. Slows down when it should speed up. Goes broad when it should go cult. Gets political and angry when it should be mindless escapism. "Family Guy" was about velocity, randomness and obscure 1% gags.
I won't go as far as to say that "Family Guy" beyond seasons 4 and 5 is proof that a dead show should probably remain dead. But it is proof that a show can't go through constant cancellations and reshuffling and remain intact. It also suffers from the same fate that has plagued "The Simpsons". It is full of itself. It has become lazy in a belief that it can do no wrong in the eyes of it's fans. "Family Guy", in many ways, has sold out. It isn't the acerbic TV rebel it used to be. It is now part of the system itself
"Guy's" humor has a masterful ability to appeal to "Star Trek" nerds and drunken frat boys alike. And it is hard to deny the TV geek in my doesn't flip out when they do something half of either audience won't get like weave a "Star Wars" joke into a "Curb Your Enthusiasm" reference. But the show's die-hard legions of fans (some damn near sycophantic over the show's brilliance) have allowed it to be lazy and complacent and paved the way for MacFarlane's head to slide right up his own posterior. In some ways he deserves it, the show can still be very, very funny. But the true fans out there know that it can do much, much better.
* * * ½ / 5
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