I know this maybe a controversial one since Family Guy has been around for a while and there will still be a lot of rabid fans out there who want some kind of sacrificial justice for anyone who criticises the property of Lord Seth Macfarlane but calm down fans of Family Guy because I’m one of you and I’m doing this for Family Guy’s own good.
The first season of Family Guy brought in a spectacular 12 Million viewers for just 7 episodes which is very impressive but for the last completed season (Season 15), the show has a pitiful 4 Million viewers for 20 episodes. In this article I intend to discover what went wrong and what is stopping the public from watching their second favourite dysfunctional family after The Simpsons.
Before I begin, I just want to make my position on Seth Macfarlane very, very clear and in the true style of my previous Green Day article, this is going to be another love letter so stand by for some first grade mush.
As far as I’m concerned, Seth Macfarlane is one of the most talented individuals I have ever come across in my life-time. In the nearly 20 years since Family Guy was first aired, Mr. Macfarlane has become so much more than the creator of an animated sitcom. He’s become the creator of three animated sitcoms, three Hollywood blockbusters, four studio albums and currently stars in his own ‘Star Trek-esque’ television series ‘The Orville’ which I’m currently watching and will do a review on but from what I’ve seen so far, I like it.
On top of writing, and acting, Macfarlane also holds ‘Producer’ credits in other animated series, live-action sitcoms and documentary series.
As for the four studio albums, Macfarlane happens to be a remarkable singer with ‘Swing’ being his main calling. There’s something of the ‘Frank Sinatra’ about him which can sometimes be almost unbearably erotic to listen to. I know it’s not ‘cool’ or ‘hip’ to say this but fuck it, swing is my thing.
I think it’s fair to say that Mr. Macfarlane has done a lot in his time but just for now, I will focus on the very thing that made him famous, ‘Family Guy’.
Actually, if anyone knows the story behind how ‘Family Guy’ began then it will give you whole load of respect for both the show and it’s creator as it did with me.
As a fresh faced young lad clean out of film school, Macfarlane gained a position at Hanna-Barbera as a writer and storyboard artist after they saw an animated piece created by Macfarlane called ‘The Life of Larry’ which essentially was an early edition of what would become ‘Family Guy’. There he worked on some of my favourite childhood shows, my favourite of the favourites being ‘Johnny Bravo’ which would never be shown to children today and that’s why I love it. If parents are boycotting the new ‘Peter Rabbit’ film because of berries then ‘Johnny Bravo’ doesn’t stand a chance.
Anyway, after some time at Hanna Barbera and doing some freelance work for Walt Disney Television Animation on various shows, Macfarlane created another Life of Larry cartoon called ‘Larry and Steve’, the titular ‘Steve’ being a talking dog. All of this sounding familiar?
Macfarlane took the idea for a prime-time animated sitcom to FOX who already had two prime-time animated sitcoms in their schedules (The Simpsons and King of the Hill) but decided to give him a go anyway, I imagine because the two shows mentioned above brought in a lot of viewers and made a lot of money. FOX executives offered Macfarlane a $50,000 budget to come up with a pilot. $50,000 sounds like a lot of money to a pleb like me but bear in mind that for one episode of an animated show with a run time of around 20 minutes, the price tag is somewhere in the region of $1 Million.
It took Macfarlane 6 months to hand-draw the pilot and present it to FOX who immediately commissioned a first season with a late January 1999 premiere date. And so at the height of the Superbowl, on January 31st 1999, the first episode of Family Guy was broadcast to the nation.
Family Guy centres around the dysfunctional Griffin Family of Quahog, Rhode Island. Head of the household is dad, Peter (voiced by Seth Macfarlane); his wife, Lois (voiced by Alex Borstein), their teenage son, Chris (voiced by Seth Green), their teenage daughter, Meg (voiced by Lacey Chabert for the first season and then by Mila Kunis), their baby son, Stewie (Also Seth Macfarlane) and last but certainly not least, the family’s all talking, all singing, all drinking dog, Brian (Also, also Seth Macfarlane).
For the last 16 Seasons and almost 20 years, the town of Quahog and its inhabitants have put up with a lot of shenanigans, the ringleaders mostly being Peter and his friends; sex addict pilot, Glenn Quagmire (Also, also, also Seth Macfarlane), paraplegic policeman, Joe Swanson (voiced by Patrick Warburton) and kind-hearted, Cleveland Brown (voiced by Mike Henry).
As with every TV series, it takes some time for the show to finds it’s feet and discover exactly what show it’s going to turn into based on how the public reacts to it. I would say, and this is my personal opinion of course, it took Family Guy three seasons to do that before the show started getting really good and some memorable moments were created.
I’m not saying that there’s no fun to be had in the first three seasons. I personally enjoyed the ‘Road to…’ episodes that have sadly lost their way in recent years. These episodes also became a fondness for the fans as they were the excursions of only Brian and Stewie therefore cementing a relationship that makes them an appealing double act. There would also be a ‘showstopping number’ at some point during the episode which were ever entertaining and also funny. It would be cruel for you to ask me to pick my favourite but if I had a gun pressed against my favourite cupcake and were being pressed for an answer then I would say that you can’t get much better than the first, ‘Road to Rhode Island’.
The episode itself is the normal Family Guy set-up, a main plot with Brian picking up Stewie from his grandparents house and losing the plane tickets to Rhode Island so they have to find whatever measure they can to get home. There is also a side plot where Peter and Lois attempt marriage counselling via video tapes that turn into quite the treat for Peter. I like the episode because we learn something about Brian’s background in which we discover that he was taken away from his mother as a puppy and he decides to confront his mother about the decision only to discover that she is dead and has been stuffed. Brian and Stewie steal her body and give her a proper burial. Also the song at the end is one of my favourites from the show.
But like I say, Season 4 was the big new kick-start that the show needed after it was saved brought back from cancellation. The writers quickly realised that Stewie had become a fan-favourite so they gave him more to do instead of the zany side-plots with him trying to kill Lois. Season 4 also holds one of my favourite episodes, ‘Brian Sings and Swings’ which features a special guest appearance by the late Frank Sinatra, Jr who sadly passed away in 2016. Frank Sinatra, Jr became a friend of the show and appeared in a few episodes over the series. Just like in my other favourite episodes, the song at the end that is sung in the style of The Rat Pack by Brian, Stewie and Frank Sinatra, Jr is nothing short of spectacular.
Another regular that came abound in Season 4 was both the actor and the character, James Woods. I say both ‘actor’ and ‘character’ because I can only hope that James Woods the actor is not the same as the way James Woods is in the show. He befriends Peter after Brian gets a new girlfriend and starts spending all of his time with her. But when they break up and Peter starts spending all of his time with Brian, James Woods becomes the ‘Glenn Close’ type and starts stalking them. How they dispatch Mr Woods, again, became a famous scene in the show. ‘Ooo, a piece o’ candy’. James Woods also became a frequent contributor, appearing in several episodes over the series.
Seasons 4, 5, 6, and 7 show a steady average of viewers being at around 9 Million per season but Season 8 was were the viewers started to drop ever so slightly and coincidentally, it’s were the quality in the writing started to drop for me also.
Season 8 was one of the seasons that had some of the most controversial storylines which also garnered a lot of publicity. The season premiere ‘Road to the Multiverse’ was a great opener to the season with 10 Million people tuning in to watch Stewie and Brian hop around various dimensions but there were two episodes in particular that would become particularly troublesome in terms of media attention.
‘Extra Large Medium’ had a story in which Chris dates Ellen, a girl from his school with Down Syndrome. Two jokes specifically were brought to attention. The song which Stewie sings to Chris, ‘Down Syndrome Girl’, as he gets him ready for his date and a comment from Ellen where she says that her mother is the ‘Former Governor of Alaska’, implying that her mother is Sarah Palin who has a son with Down Syndrome. Naturally, Palin wasn’t happy and took to the media to voice her outrage. Actually, she went to Bill O’Reilly and if she’d have known how that whole thing would have turned out, I don’t think she’d have bothered.
The other controversy was that contained in the episode ‘Quagmire’s Dad’ in which Quagmire’s father has a sex change operation and becomes Ida. To my knowledge, I don’t think anyone had a problem with the inclusion of the character because the character of Ida was, in my opinion, a positive representation of a transgendered individual. It was the behaviour of the other characters that sparked a controversy. Or more specifically, a scene towards the end.
Quagmire has difficulty in supporting his father’s decision and so Ida spends the night in a hotel where she meets Brian and the two end up sleeping together. Upon learning from Stewie that Ida is Quagmire’s father, Brian proceeds to vomit for a really long time. I think it ended up being 30 seconds because someone actually timed it. This sequence and some of the comments by the other characters were deemed insensitive towards the transgendered and LGBT community.
I personally didn’t mind the episode as in the end, Quagmire learns to accept his father’s new identity and the two are closer than ever. It’s a nice happy ending… except for Brian because he gets the shit kicked out of him by Quagmire.
This I feel is the first problem with Family Guy. In the early days, it felt like the show just wandered accidentally into controversy but from season 8 onwards, Family Guy strongly gives the impression that they were actively seeking out trouble. There’s a difference between saying something a bit edgy and putting on a ‘Terri Schiavo musical’.
Imagine if you will that animated sitcoms were a family. The Simpsons would be the father, been around the block a few times, had some fun in it’s early years but nowadays tends to hang around for the sake of nostalgia; King of the Hill would be the mother, attempting to be funny but not quite achieving that goal, American Dad would be the cool older brother and in keeping with this analogy, in these years Family Guy would the insufferable toddler, banging its head against the door frame and flinging shit against the walls for attention. But no one pays attention to the riotous toddler because that’s what the toddler wants and only encourages their behaviour.
In more recent years, past season 8, Family Guy has gained some annoying traits in the writing style. I can’t even tell you how annoying it is when a character breaks the fourth wall. It’s not funny. It’s painful and it’s cringy. I’m not even talking about references to the show’s creators in the show. There’s a sequence in the Season 9 episode, ‘And I’m Joyce Kinney’ where Kinney states that her old last name used to be ‘Chevapravatdumrong’ which is the last name of one of the show’s writers, Cherry Chevapravatdumrong. That’s not what bugs me because it would only be an in joke for the hard-core fans or to those who glanced at the bottom of the screen when the credits are flowing through. I’m talking about specific moments where character’s address the audience at home. For example…
There was an idea that each of Macfarlane’s 3 shows (Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show) would have an episode on the same week involving a storm and all 3 characters from the shows would converge in the same episode of any given show. Not a bad idea and the American Dad version was particularly well crafted and entertaining. BUT. The Family Guy version contains a sequence which I still find hard to watch. Stewie makes a reference to Brian and immediately looks to camera where a chorus belts out ‘Stewie just said that’. Later on, the shot switches to Stewie mid-conversation where he is looking at his phone and he says “People are already tweeting ‘Stewie just said that’.” It’s that kind of thing. It’s the show waving an ego-stiffy around in my face and I don’t want it anywhere near my face, thank you very much.
As well as fourth wall breaking, you know a series is in trouble when the writers reach for the special code that opens the secret door underneath FOX HQ where they keep the really weird plots. Going back to the ‘flinging shit against the wall for attention’ analogy for a moment, having a plot line where Stewie becomes pregnant with Brian’s baby is pretty the much the show running around with a meat cleaver held against it’s neck shouting “Look what we’re doing now! Someone had better stop me before I hurt myself.” and that makes me uncomfortable.
Also, also, I fear the show maybe suffering from what I like to call, ‘The Simpsons Syndrome’ which is a condition where the writers have run out of ideas as to what to do with the core family and so they start to focus on the other characters in the town. All of Peter’s friends have had episodes dedicated to them along with the other bit players such as news reporter, Tom Tucker whose own episode consists of Peter helping him revive his old movie career.
But all of these little gripes are nothing compared to what I would favourably call ‘the killing blow’. I don’t know whose idea it was to kill off Brian but I hope that person was severely reprimanded. If it was maybe an idea for just a one episode storyline then maybe it could have been forgiven but to make it look so permanent with the inclusion of a new character, Vinny the dog (Voiced by Tony Sirco) is just a piss-take. That episode wasn’t even funny. It was fucking heartbreaking.
I learned of Brian’s death on the news of all things and had to see it for myself. I sat down and watched the whole episode and I was so pissed off that I vowed never to watch Family Guy again because I just didn’t see the point. If they were willing to do this to ‘shake things up a bit’ then what else were they prepared to do. But I should have known that the show would never stick to a ridiculous idea like this. Brian was gone for all of one episode before Stewie finds a way to go back in time and save Brian before he was hit by the car, telling him that he is irreplaceable (despite already having been replaced) and wishes him a Merry Christmas. Everything’s now the way it was, or should I say, the way it should be.
However, even though Brian was brought back a few episodes later, this dramatic twist had a lasting effect on the viewing figures. Before Brian’s death, the viewing figures for Season 12 were holding steady at an average of 5 Million per episode but afterwards, the figures dropped down to 4 Million. The figures have been showing a downward trajectory in recent seasons with the only high point being the Family Guy/Simpsons crossover which was a highly publicised affair.
Nowadays, to be fair, Family Guy has been behaving itself. It seems to have found a happy medium between side-splitting hilarity and cock-dribbling awfulness as it just spends most of the time ripping off recent film plots and sniffing it’s own farts.
To round this article off nicely, these days I would recommend American Dad over Family Guy as that show still seems to have kept hold of the special elements that made it fun in the first place and the changes that it has made still make it fun and entertaining to watch. I would also recommend anything that is written by Seth Macfarlane alone. The ‘Ted’ movies are funny or should I say the first one was funny, the second one just felt like number one done again and with more of the Family Guy formula and jokes. ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ was a really good film. It was funny, balances death and humour really well with some good jokes and set-pieces also it’s nice to actually SEE Seth Macfarlane do a bit of acting in front of a camera because he is a tremendous comedic actor.
But back on the topic of Family Guy, despite all the whining I’ve done about this show, I don’t want to see it crash and burn. I already know the potential that this show can reach. Sure, it’s OK to try things and it’s also OK if those things don’t work, experimentation is no bad thing but to continue with the things that don’t work and are awful just in case they become great is not a good thing either. You don’t stick your fingers in your ears and close your eyes as the timer hits zero.
I know for a fact that no one on the writing team gives a shit what I think but I like to think that I whine a lot but then offer some solutions so for what it’s worth here’s what I think will bring Family Guy back up from the gutter and it’s very simple. If we could just have less fourth wall breaking, less weird plots, less attention seeking in the jokes and some more fun musical numbers then that would be freakin’ sweet. Peace out.