Animated shows are a weird beast. They’re made well before their air dates (except for South Park), and once a mildly successful concept is found, the shows last for a long time because their seasons are ordered so far in advance. This also means that animated shows can sometimes seemingly go on forever. This is epitomized by The Simpsons, which has been on almost as long as I have been alive, but today’s TV Roulette selection, Fox’s Family Guy, isn’t far off. Despite heading into the end of its 14th season, Seth McFarlane’s creation seems to be showing no signs of shutting down anytime soon. The Simpsons is now a shell of its former self, so the question is, how has Family Guy held up after all this time? I used to be a regular viewer, but that changed years ago when the show already presented signs of slipping. That leads me to wonder whether it’s fallen even further. We’ll find out after the rundown.
TV Roulette Week 16
Family Guy; ‘Take a Letter,’ Season 14, Episode 17
April 17th 2016
Have I Seen This Show Before?
I am not exactly sure. Probably more or less every episode for the first nine seasons or so (especially the first three seasons), but not so much the past couple of years, when I’ve tended to check in every once in a while, or catch a re-run of an episode late at night if I’m bored.
Family Guy‘s transition from niche show to mass success is always going to be one of the more impressive things a TV show has ever done. Its first three seasons aired during an era when Fox seemed to have no idea how to market a show. The day of the week Family Guy aired was constantly in flux, and in the pre-DVR days, people eventually had no idea when the hell to watch it. Add in that Fox struggled to explain why this was more than a Simpsons clone, and it’s not that surprising that the show got cancelled. Then a funny thing happened. Adult Swim bought the rights to re-air the first three seasons, and people began buying the show’s DVDs. This led to a huge popularity swell for the show, as new people began to see and love it for the first time. Eventually this led to Fox’s decision in 2005 to bring Family Guy back, and the show has been a constant presence on Fox’s Sunday animation line-up ever since. Once on the outside looking in, Family Guy became a part of the mainstream, and it has unfortunately been downhill from there.
This isn’t simply some hipster statement about how the show was cool before everyone liked it; it’s a sad warning about the dangers of complacency. No one would ever say even at its peak that Family Guy was the epitome of high quality television, but in the early run, both the show’s individual gags and its overall satiric viewpoint would target a wide variety of topics. Plus, it treated all of its characters like, well, characters, not just joke-generating machines. This didn’t change immediately after the show came back, but there was a gradual decline as Family Guy began to realize it could do whatever it wanted because it had basically become cancellation proof. This led to creative stagnation, accompanied by the fact that many of the storylines and jokes became pretty mean-spirited. Now, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; South Park is just about the meanest thing ever, but unlike Family Guy it has never had such a consistent creative low point. But that’s because South Park doesn’t really play favorites with its characters, and is willing to attack anything and everything, while Family Guy increasingly just began attacking specific things over and over again. Like women, and, well, women, and while there are other things the show would attack, dear Lord this show got petty in its attacks towards women.
The show’s increasingly shallow characterization has lead to basically every character in the show becoming caricatures of what they were when the show first aired (other than maybe Peter, who hasn’t changed because his character was already basically a caricature of “sitcom dads”). Meg has suffered the most, as the show has basically changed her from a viewpoint character to a punchline whom everyone is supposed to hate for no reason. Which admittedly was somewhat funny, until you realized the show took this hate a bit too seriously, and made it the only thing defining her character outside of the occasional episode that directly addresses this hate so the show can justify using Mila Kunis to do Meg’s voice work. In terms of radical character shifts, Meg is not alone, as Brian also went from being the voice of reason on the show to an intolerable douche who fails any time he tries to do anything really meaningful with his life. And then there’s Chris, who seems to have no purpose on the show other than to keep Seth Green around as his voice actor.
To Family Guy‘s credit, its main strength has always been its consistency. The formula it used never really allowed it to do anything truly spectacular for the most part, but it also gave the show a higher floor than normal. The problem is, the show allowed its writers room to become an echo chamber that fed into what creator Seth McFarlane found to be funny, and while McFarlane has grown as a writer over the years (especially in how he treats women in his more recent live action movies), he increasingly seemed to use Family Guy as an outlet for his baser impulses. Family Guy became increasingly more predictable, and for a show that even at its best was never going to do anything that innovative, this made it grow stale. That staleness, plus the show slowly crossing the line from edgy to offensive, made it impossible for me to keep watching on a regular basis. But that was way back in Season 9 or so. Five seasons later, Family Guy is still chugging along, although its ratings have started to drop the past couple of seasons as more and more people have grown tired of the show’s bullshit. So how far have things continued to drop in Season 14? Not much, but that’s only because the show didn’t have much further to fall.
‘Take a Letter’ showed off one of the few true strengths of this show, while still highlighting its big weaknesses. The good part of the episode is it continued to realize that putting Brian and Stewie together for basically anything is going to pay off. Perhaps it makes sense that two characters voiced by Seth McFarlane work best when talking to each other, but that doesn’t change the fact that McFarlane makes their interactions very entertaining. There is a much better show that would just involve the increasingly surreal adventures of Brian and Stewie that breaks away from the family sitcom tropes that basically have trapped both Family Guy and The Simpsons for all these years. To some extent, Family Guy realizes this, which is why most of the big event episodes of the show have increasingly been about the adventures of these two. This episode doesn’t give us much, but Stewie’s attempts to show off to his new friends from his rich preschool are humorous, and he and Brian throwing a party in another person’s mansion so the rich kids won’t know Stewie is poor is a fun storyline that leads to some mildly funny moments, including a cutaway that shows that Stewie only thinks of cars as being used for groceries, because he is still just a baby. There is nothing groundbreaking about this story, but it is fun and an example of why Family Guy is still on the air: it is still entertaining when it wants to be.
Much less successful is the episode’s “A” storyline involving Lois and Peter. Lois, in her new job as a postal worker, discovers a letter that Peter sent to an ex-girlfriend Gretchen a week before Lois and his wedding twenty years ago, but which never got delivered. That idea has potential for some interesting things, but instead the show went the direction of having Lois deliver the letter so she could figure out what it said. Apparently, Peter had doubts before the wedding, which makes sense because Lois and him got married when they were both, like, 20. And, you know, all evidence in the show has always pointed to the fact that Peter and Lois had doubts about their marriage, because that is what you do in a show like this. Of course, this leads Gretchen to believe that Peter and her were actually meant for each other, so she goes all crazy ex-girlfriend on Peter, first trying to blackmail him and then to kill Lois. It’s a frustrating story. There is clearly supposed to be comedy behind the idea that someone would think Peter is worth all that trouble, but the show doesn’t really delve enough into that. Instead, Gretchen’s sole characterization is that she is a crazy person. The show gets some credit for Lois’s reaction to Peter’s doubts about their wedding ultimately being fine–she had doubts too, but she knows they are right for each other now–but the fact that all of this comes while Gretchen exists to be some terrible “ex” stereotype undoes a lot of that work.
What makes this worse is that the show had the framework for a much more interesting storyline. When Lois first brings this letter to Gretchen, Gretchen lies about what its says in what first appears to be an attempt to prevent a 20-year-old letter bringing up unnecessary drama. This could have been a springboard for Lois and Peter to have a walk down memory lane about their wedding and how far they have come over the years. Lois could have become somewhat friendly with a normal person version of Gretchen as the two discuss what the letter means. They could have even gone in the direction of Gretchen still going to see Peter, but just to clear the air and to look at the comedy of Peter having a conversation with his ex. Instead, the show went with making Gretchen a crazy person because women being crazy is just the most hilarious thing ever, am I right? No, I’m not right. But Family Guy certainly thought so.
Ultimately, though this episode is funny on the whole. There is nothing hysterical in it, but it keeps you entertained, and proved to be quite enjoyable. At the very least, unlike current episodes of The Simpsons, Family Guy is not simply the soulless shell of what it used to be. This still means the show is better in small doses, as watching multiple episodes at this point is just painful, but the show still has some creativity going, and there are certain parts (mainly involving Brian and Stewie) that will continue to work for years to come. There are certainly better things to spend your time doing than watching Family Guy, but if you are just looking for something to watch while you relax, there are certainly much worse choices.
Notes and Observations
- Seriously, the show should just write Meg and Chris out at this point. Meg appears twice in the episode, and while her ability to decipher text messages from crazy people was funny, it didn’t really justify her being on the show. Chris is even less useful, as he basically just appears at the end to say something. Mila Kunis and Seth Green’s contracts must be amazing and forcing the show to keep them around.
- Peter’s joke to Gretchen about Facebook’s purpose being to say hi to old friends and exes without having to meet in person is so very true.
- The Peter Catcher joke is one of those weird jokes that I wish Family Guy would do more of. It is so random. Though it does highlights the show’s odd penchant for child molestation humor. They’re kind of funny when applied to adult Peter, but they get really disturbing when you think about them for more than two seconds.
- Cleveland has some good bits in this episode, but a lot of them straddled the line of being racist and offensive, so that is just great…
Episode Grade: B-
Will I watch more?
Well, yes and no. Yes, in that I always imagine I will watch re-runs for whatever reason if I channel surf and have nothing else I feel like watching. But no, this is never again going to be a show that I watch on a regular basis when it is new. The show is just not engaging enough anymore for that.
That’s it for this week’s TV Roulette. Tune in next time for more. Until then, remember not to chi-ka chi-ka too early. It will only cost you in the long run.