Nov 25, 2013

Channel Surfing: Family Guy - "Life Of Brian"

Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
For those that have followed the Bob's Burgers recaps, there is knowledge about the loathing nature that I place towards Family Guy. In truth, the earlier episodes had some merit and were overtly funny satires deemed worthy of conversation. Sometime later, things became too self-aware and even the good will that had been built with their solid take down of the F.C.C. was now in their shadows, left with weekly incoherent ramblings that sacrificed plot for jokes and jokes for references. Family Guy essentially is now a shell of its former self that keeps chugging along thanks to the popularity that brought the show back twice and gave Seth MacFarlane four other shows on the network at varying points.
However, when things became heard that this past Sunday's episode "Life of Brian" was meant to create a water cooler effect usually saved for Breaking Bad, things became more intriguing. Family Guy was becoming relevant again, and while it could be argued that it was simply a tactic for attention, the methods in which this was going about did seem a little edgy. Edgier than any one of their racist, sexist, homophobic jokes over the years could feel. They were going to kill off a beloved character: Brian (MacFarlane).
This got me thinking about the modern classic examples in which cartoon characters have been killed on more adult animated shows. While majority point to the Simpsons' (who also plan to kill off a character next season) "Alone Again, Natura-Diddily," there is a more reverent, iconic example that I feel solidified the show in the pantheon of classic Animation Domination Fox shows: King of the Hill. With the episode "Death of a Propane Salesman," the show displayed comedy and grief in ways that neither more successful show has done. With an event set in motion the previous season with "Propane Boom," it became a summer-long speculation of who would die.
The answer was Buckley, who was essentially one of the show's weaker characters. Over the course of the episode, it explored the grief of a propane explosion that happened at a supermarket through the eyes of protagonist Hank and the citizens of Arlen, Texas. Things get crazy and there's even an anecdotal joke told at the funeral. The episode remains humorous, but it also explores some traumatic territory. Characters are shattered emotionally and the series is shaped forever differently. The show began to feel more mature and defined itself in that third season. 
Maybe that is the huge difference between the iconic death episode of King of the Hill compared to the Simpsons or this week's Family Guy. It came figuratively early and shaped the show into what it was. Family Guy is currently in its 12th season and is not at its peak of popularity. While the season pick-up of Dads suggests that the MacFarlane charm is still rampant at Fox, there is no way that the show resonates as much as it used to. I cannot attest to how popular the show is week-to-week nor can I recite a current gag, but the presence in the lexicon pales heavily in comparison to how it was even five years ago.

The episode itself feels like it is using the death more as a twist than a plot device. Opening up on a quest between baby Stewie (MacFarlane) and Brian travelling through time and fixing issues involving Native Americans, the episode is rampant with the typical racist humor and absurdity that the show is known for. The one twist comes shortly after a tirade of Native American jokes when Stewie decides to destroy the time machine in order to avoid any further close calls. Shortly after, Brian is hit by a car and around the eight minute mark of the episode, things attempt to turn bleak and humble.
Attempt is the correct word, as the show is notorious for being scatterbrained no matter what the circumstance is. It cannot handle grief without throwing in a few nudges towards the audience. This is a comedy show, after all. The show feels uncomfortable going too long reminiscing on the character without cutting to someone spouting a pop culture reference. In fact, during the funeral scene, a character talks about a sport player's inability to play correctly. It has nothing to do with the moment, yet it feels shoehorned in for comical effect. 
Therein lies the issue that I generally have from Family Guy. There is no humor derived from Brian's death at the funeral. It had to come from a pop culture reference. While the hospital scene preceding it did a better job of setting tone, the show never felt like it was honoring its character correctly. Even if the episode ended with Stewie crying over his lost companion, everything between Brian's death and that moment didn't resonate all that much. The show wanted to be funny, and it did so while not really paying tribute to Brian.
With King of the Hill, the remembrance was acceptably simple because Buckley wasn't that integral to the emotional core of a show. Yes, Family Guy is more humor than emotion, but considering that Brian has been around for the past 12 years and has even been central to most of the show's best episodes, there is more to deal with. He wasn't just a character on the show like Buckley or Maude on the Simpsons. He often was the central character in which most of the best jokes were given to him. For an episode based around his passing and called "Life of Brian," it sure didn't feel like it was remembering him correctly.
The writers claimed that they did this in order to shake things up with the series. Of course, that feels applicable based on what I have said. In fact, this move does feel bold and an interesting way to draw in audiences. However, will it have a positive impact on the show going forward? Even if it failed to send off its character correctly, will it be able to replace him with some form of accuracy? A new character named Vinnie (Tony Sirico) is introduced as his replacement, though he is basically a dog embodying Italian stereotypes. Maybe it needs time to grow, but his introduction lacks the immediacy of Brian and the comical possibilities feel low with him.
There's been a lot of predictable backlash for this move and there is even possibilities that this show has jumped the proverbial shark for good. Where King of the Hill and the Simpsons could move on because the character was minimal to the overall structure, Family Guy is reliant on its dynamics, and that largely pertains to Stewie and Brian. While I doubt that the show will continue its terrible mix of nonsequitors and mourning, I cannot see the show's core being able to sustain this all too well. While some are theorizing that this is not set in stone and more of an arc in the story, it is a bold move, and one that will be hard to justify if it turns out to be a psych out.
Does this manage to draw back old viewers? Probably not for a long term guarantee. The episode itself is too melancholy to just be successful at its typical nuances. Even in the spectrum of great TV funeral episodes, this is not one of them. Buckley was more minuscule, yet there was a sense that his death impacted the community through varying degrees of influence. Even Maude's death caused her husband Ned to become a morally complicated character. It may be too soon to judge the difference that Brian made on Family Guy, but it seems impossible that it will work. The show is too much set in absurd, high energy comedy to ever address the heart of the issue directly, and that may be why the show is doomed, provided that Vinnie's existence doesn't work long term.

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