How ‘Family Guy’s Counter-Intuitive Bottle Episode Completely Defied Expectations

brianandstewie‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined

“What would I do if you weren’t here? Life would be unbearable.”

Family Guy has certainly become a polarizing sitcom. You’d almost forget that it was the unusual, groundbreaking little-show-that-could that got canceled all those years ago before the masses demanded that it was brought back to life. Now, a show that has almost become a parody of itself (but then again, it’s hard for a show not to once its put thirteen seasons under its belt), it’s hardly heralded with the same enthusiasm that it originally was. Still, the show’s lasting power is certainly a testament to something, and the program was the first brick in Seth MacFarlane’s monopoly to take over Sunday nights on Fox. To the show’s credit, there is still an energy behind it that makes it capable of producing powerful, meaningful episodes of television. Family Guy took their 150th episode as such an occasion to make something different, using the bottle episode construct as the frame to contain it all.

What the show does here is get Brian and Stewie locked in a bank vault together for the entire episode. It’s a very basic premise, but it’s one that allows these two characters just to riff off each other for the episode, shifting conversation topics as they see fit. The episode is very conscious about making Stewie and Brian the focus here. Not only are they the only characters, but the episode is also without a score of any kind and even goes as far as featuring no cutaway gags, which are the show’s bread and butter. It all works very well here and it would almost defeat the purpose of doing a bottle episode if you’re allowed to pop out of that bottle every so often to cater to a cutaway. Here there is no luxury of escape, and the proximity that Brian and Stewie are being forced into is simultaneously felt by the audience.

Brian and Stewie’s relationship has always been the growing core of the series. What began as a humble bond between Brian and Peter (who is the only Griffin who isn’t mentioned in the episode), shifted to these two weird members of the family. Increasingly they’d be paired up, with their antics being what audiences seemed to want more than anything else. Therefore it makes a lot of sense for this episode to be all about dissecting their relationship, finally getting to the truth behind it all and dealing with it. It’s almost like a therapy session for the characters. We see them ping pong between deep animosity and hatred for each other to utter love and devotion for one another. They need one another, ultimately, more than they need anyone else. What follows too is a deeply considerate, respectful ode to who these two are and what their relationship really is.

It’s only appropriate then that the idea for this episode happened to be based on All in the Family’s similarly set-up, “Two’s A Crowd,” another bottle episode that took a heavy look at a fundamental relationship and backbone of the series. As a successor to “Two’s A Crowd,” the episode is definitely successful, hitting the melodramatic extremes that it does, while still retaining its Family Guy flavor through it all.

And speaking of melodramatic extremes, this one certainly doesn’t hold back (and again through the best friend of the bottle episode, alcohol). I mean, Brian outright confesses to thoughts of suicide here while Stewie messes around with him masochistically just to see if he can, and you see just how fragile and pained this dynamic is. Leave it to Family Guy to take something as abstract as Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, as a gateway topic before getting into what it means to live life, seize the day, and if Brian’s life has purpose. So much of this somber resignation is hiding behind laughs and punchlines through the bulk of the series, which now gains even more poignancy when you see the damaged place that Brian is coming from (which isn’t to say that Stewie also doesn’t have his own obsessive, sociopathic issues that are brought up here as well). Without the glamor of the humor they have no choice but to confront these things, and it’s all pretty amazing.

The episode even brilliantly turns their bottle into a literal death cage when a fired bullet from Brian’s gun ricochets amongst the tiny space in an extended sequence. Brian and Stewie’s behavior towards one another has been dangerous enough, but now actual hazards are erupting that make the space especially volatile. All you’d need to happen next is for the vault to slowly start filling with water.

While the episode does elevate above the usual Family Guy material, it’s still careful enough to contain some particularly offensive content. Most of which starts the episode off (and certainly takes its time) before the harsher material sidles in. Content that was so ridiculous that not only has material been edited out of it for the syndicated run, but that it also caused the president of the Parents Television Council to say, “…It seems as though Family Guy creator, Seth MacFarlane, carefully reviewed the legal definition of broadcast indecency and set out to violate it as literally as he could.” Hey, what can you do? The claustrophobia of a bottle episode will make you do crazy things. That’s the whole point of it.

The show fought their impulses and denied their support systems while they tried to do something different here. It’s kind of fascinating that the show stripped away the elements that so many critics and audiences weren’t crazy about, and gave them their ideal episode here, so to speak. It’s much more like a one-act play than an episode of television, let alone an episode of Family Guy. It plays out in real-time and Brian and Stewie are the only characters in the episode, a feat that becomes all the more remarkable when you realize then that the episode is essentially Seth MacFarlane having a conversation with himself.

It’s an absolute success in that regard, and the bottle episode structure is paramount to all of that. That this is the device that they chose to celebrate their 150th episode with, rather than, say, a musical (something that feels much more within the show’s sensibilities, as well as being what padded the second half of this special hour-long “event”) is deeply indicative of the power of this device and why it is still resorted to so often.

Very impressively though, not only does “Brian & Stewie” act differently than a typical Family Guy due to its bottle format, it actively tries to rise above what the show was and evoke a different feeling entirely. It wants to catch its audiences off guard, confuse them, make them think, and it does all of those things. You’re genuinely tense through this installment, not knowing exactly where it’s going to go, and increasingly scared when you see the places that it does explore. It feels like old friends are baring their souls to you, in what comes across as a genuinely honest, provoking conversation. If anything the episode even functions as a primer on how to talk to a depressed friend, showing how to genuinely deal with a loved one who has demons. You forget that all of this is between a dog and a baby who are voiced by the same man.

The episode received large critical acclaim and good enough ratings that it’s a surprise that the series hasn’t returned to this structure again. Maybe Chris and Meg could get locked in together, in what could be an entry that even outshines this one. There’d be some real depths that you could hit there, and it’d feel more like an addendum or sequel to the idea than a retread. Maybe they’re waiting for the 300th episode to bust that one out.

With Family Guy often appearing to take the crudest and simplest way out of a situation, it’s always a little jarring when something with this scope and magnitude is put together. The spark that was once with the series may still mostly be absent, but even if we still get entries like this a fraction of the time, it’ll all be worth it.

Let’s hope someone has to go back to the bank soon.

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