Family Guy has taken a bit of a kicking in recent years from some of the cooler kids on the block, attracting criticism for an over reliance on its “This is just like the time when” cut-aways, and bloated in-joke gimmicks like Blue Harvest. And although I’m not attempting to associate myself with the cool kids (I have tried, though), I did feel it had become overly derivative and fairly one-note comedy that didn’t seem capable (or willing) to develop and try something new.
Of course, it was always amusing to see Peter fart in Meg’s face, or witness Quagmire getting the horn, but the show seemed to lack the sort of writing that could sustain my interest, and had lost the clever surrealism that had made it essential viewing in its early days.
However, having caught up with the last few seasons on DVD, I was surprised at how many of the episodes had done away with the cut-aways (or at least limited their use to one or two per episode), and also contained actual plots that didn’t give way under the weight of endless self reference.
So it’s pleasing to be able to say that the latest release (Season 10*) is very much a series that has as much confidence, as many belly laughs and as many well-written storylines as anything that has preceded it. It still has its fair share of hit and miss moments, but the 15 episodes included here include enough humdingers to make it worth the disaffected giving the show a second chance.
One of the show’s main strengths, for me, has always been the use of several excellent double acts, and any episode that features Brian and Stewie, or Peter and Carter Pewterschmidt, will usually deliver the goods. Season 10 is bookended by two strong episodes featuring Carter that fully exploit the contrast between his barely-suppressed contempt for Peter, and Peter’s amiable blundering. First, when Peter organises a stag party for Carter (Business Guy), and later, when he takes him dating after Carter’s marriage hits the rocks (Welcome Back Carter). Each features enough crass male stupidity and arch humour to delight fans of the high and the low brow alike.
Brian and Stewie feature in some of the best episodes, combining as they do a nice variety of gross-out humour, some big laughs and several genuinely tender moments. Far less antagonistic than they used to be, they’re in many ways the more conventional sitcom married couple, filling the role that Lois and Peter’s lack of empathy and moral conscience denies them. This is best illustrated in the two hander Brian & Stewie, in which they both get locked in a bank vault overnight.
It’s an episode built around the contents of Stewie’s nappy and a dog’s nature, brilliantly contrasting Brian’s urbane sophistication and intelligence with his essential doggyness. It also concludes in a manner as touching as any episode of Family Guy that I can recall.
Go Stewie Go hits the mark in a parody of Tootsie, when Stewie is forced to drag up when auditioning for a role on his favourite TV show. It replicates whole chunks of the original film, such as the restaurant scene in which Dustin Hoffman fools his agent, the musical montage, as Tootsie is created, and the climactic scene when it is revealed that Tootsie is a man during a live television broadcast.
Further muddying the waters around Stewie’s sexuality when he falls in love with his leading lady, it is also one of the best sustained pop culture parodies the show has produced in recent years (and for my money, it’s cleverer and funnier than the Star Wars pastiches).
Speaking of which, the concluding part of the Family Guy – Star Wars trilogy aired as part of season eight in the US but, of course, is not included in this set as it is sold separately. What is included is the hour-long season nine opener that pays homage to comedy murder mansion movies such as Clue and Murder By Death, when a large group of Quahog citizens all receive an invite to a dinner party in a mysterious country house built on a towering precipice overlooking the sea.
The animation in the opening titles, like Stewie’s attack on the Death Star in Brian Griffin’s House Of Payne, is almost all computer generated, and gives the episode something of a cinematic feel, as the camera swoops across mountains and along hilltop roads as in The Shining. And once it gets underway, the episode itself is actually a fairly engrossing whodunit, that manages to balance a strong central plot with a high number of gags.
Again, I’d compare it favourably to the Star Wars episodes as, unlike those, it doesn’t feel as though the script is in a rush to dispense with the story just so that it can get to the next pop culture reference. It’s not as funny as many of the shorter episodes, mainly because it’s more difficult to sustain the show’s level of quick fire humour over an hour than it is 22 minutes, but it is highly entertaining, also giving us a chance to see more of characters usually restricted to brief appearances (including my own personal favourite, Doctor Hartman).
Of the weaker episodes in this set, they just so happen to be two of the more controversial ones (especially so in the US, where the abortion-themed Partial Terms Of Endearment has not been allowed to air). In grappling with this issue, the episode loses some of its usual zip, and although Peter’s conversion to pro-lifer is amusing, its humour feels more like a gentle tap on the bottom than the slap in the face one might expect.
I’ll concede that it may have more impact for viewers in the States, where the abortion issue is highly controversial and rarely challenged on mainstream TV. But it feels as though, in actually taking a point of view, the episode feels slightly preachy, and therefore lacking in its usual anarchic irreverence. It also lacks the cerebral bite of other animated shows I could mention that deal with similarly controversial themes. Having said that, fair play to Seth MacFarlane for actually tackling a subject that most mainstream American TV wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.
Also, the episode in which Chris asks a girl with Down’s Syndrome out on a date (Extra Large Medium) seems rather pointless, unless the point was to illustrate that people with Down’s Syndrome can be just as flawed and annoying as everybody else. In any case, these episodes seem to wear their controversial subject matter a little too proudly, and the jokes lack the impact of the material in other episodes.
There’s also an episode featuring Meg (Dial Meg For Murder) that’s about as interesting and watchable as Meg stories tend to get.
But overall, the good far outweighs the average. Other stand-out episodes include Excellence In Broadcasting, which successfully skewers liberal anti-establishment posturing, most amusingly in a scene where Brian defends the Tom Cruise film Cocktail after Lois accuses him of being someone who just disagrees with the consensus for the sake of it.
Then there’s April In Quahog, when a black hole threatens to engulf the Earth, and so Peter spends his time attending to his life’s ambitions rather than his family. And a particular highlight is Quagmire’s Dad, which features another in the long line of Family Guy sustained beatings, and the best last line of any of the episodes here. It also provides further proof (as if it were needed) that depictions of a character vomiting will always pass the point where it’s no longer funny to become hilarious again if only you can sustain it long enough.
So all in all, I’d consider myself back in the Family Guy fold. If, like me, you’ve had a take it or leave it attitude to the show in recent years, I’d recommend giving it another go with Season 10 (and if you’ve always loved it anyway, then you’ll be on safe ground with this lot). Because despite its faults, there’s still nothing quite like it on television, and when it scores it scores big, its best jokes capable of sustaining the giggles for hours or sometimes even days afterwards.
And screw what the cool kids say.
Plenty of deleted scenes (fair to middling) and a fair amount of commentaries, the most interesting of which is the one covering Partial Terms Of Endearment, which provides an insight into just how controversial this episode was in the US (it was banned outright). Also, included is an entertaining panel discussion from Comic Con 2010 and a variety of animatics.
*Due to the erratic numbering of Family Guy seasons on DVD, the episodes included here are actually from the mid to latter part of season 8 along with the opening three episodes from season 9 as broadcast.
Family Guy Season 10 is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.