Can ‘Family Guy’ Lift Itself Out of Its Perpetual Rut?
The long-running Fox animated sitcom Family Guy has made the news twice so far this season. The first time, it was because they “re-enacted” the Solange-Jay-Z elevator confrontation, which happened two and a half years ago. It was a cutaway gag with very few jokes, and all it featured was an animated version of Solange going after Jay-Z while Peter Griffin said the things that one might say while traveling down an elevator. It wasn’t anything special, but by referencing a pop culture event, even one that happened in the spring of 2014, they had managed to get some publicity from aggregation sites the next day. Hey, in season 15, Family Guy needs publicity any way it can get it, right?
A few weeks later, the show wound up in the headlines again after another cutaway gag took on a more recent event: the Donald Trump/Billy Bush tape. To their credit, this was a far more current reference, but the joke was still the same: Peter just reacts to the Trump/Bush conversation in the background. To repeat a frequent critique of Seth MacFarlane’s satire, it didn’t even seem like any commentary was being made, rather it was just an acknowledgement that yes, this thing did indeed happen. These moments might have earned some publicity for a show that could desperately use it, but they didn’t do much to change the perception that Family Guy is well past its prime, and seems to just be hanging around, waiting to be put out of its misery.
And yet, while this show was happening, the show quietly made a move that indicated there might still be some hope: they brought in Billy Domineau, who stunned the internet with his brilliant 9/11-themed Seinfeld script. Now, let’s start with a necessary caveat: adding one writer to a show, particularly one who has never written for TV before, is not going to significantly change things. Still, the addition of Domineau does offer a glimmer of hope, if only because his Seinfeld episode achieved the humor that Family Guy so often struggles to accomplish. Namely, it was dark comedy with a purpose. One thing that’s been plaguing Family Guy for years is that its attempts to be edgy often don’t really say anything. It’s dark-for-the-sake-of-dark, disturbing-for-the-sake-of-disturbing. Domineau’s script was disturbing with a point, and it led to a hilarious payoff. By contrast, Family Guy‘s references to topics like rape and domestic abuse often seem to have no joke other than “Hey guys, can you believe we went there?” Domineau may be a lone voice in the writer’s room, but his presence could guide the show towards dark humor that has a reason to exist other than just to shock people.
Of course, even if that aspect of the show were fixed, there are still a host of other problems, leading us to the larger question of whether or not it can be significantly improved or if after 15 seasons it’s just running on fumes. If aimlessly edgy humor is one of the show’s major problems, another, perhaps even larger issue would be how far off the characterization has gotten. People complain about how Brian Griffin has gone from a wisecracking alcoholic to an excessively preachy liberal atheist, and how Stewie has gone from an evil genius to something of a gay stereotype. These criticisms certainly have some truth to them, but if we’re being honest, Brian and Stewie have probably been affected the least by the show’s decline. At least they still have personalities, and at least the audience is capable of empathizing with them. The same can’t really be said for the rest of the Griffin family. Peter is a monster who treats his wife and family like garbage, and Lois really isn’t much better. The show completely abandoned trying to give Meg a personality, and instead relies on jokes about how gross she is, and how much the family hates her. This might have gotten a few laughs from a “winking at the audience” perspective, but it grew tiresome a long time ago. Finally, Chris was never the deepest character, but he did have a personality and some ambition, as we see in episodes like “The Son Also Draws.” Now, however, he’s just a significantly less funny version of Ralph Wiggum.
If the show wants to get its groove back, it needs to remember that the Griffins are actually a family, and not just a set of props for a sketch show. Early in the show, we saw Peter and Lois’s marriage be fleshed out brilliantly in episodes like “Emission Impossible” and “Death Lives.” Even in episodes where Peter acts like a jerk, such as “Running Mates,” he acts out of obliviousness rather than malice, and when Lois forgives him at the end, it seems understandable. Now, it’s quite clear that the pair is only together to preserve the status quo, and there’s not much reason for the viewer to care about their latest marital crisis. Fixing this problem could be difficult, if only because we’ve seen Peter act horribly so many times that even if the writers make him more sympathetic and add more depth to the relationship, his earlier sins might just be unforgivable. Still, in order for us to care about these people again, we’re going to need some reminder of why Peter and Lois fell in love in the first place.
Either that or…just have them get divorced. No, seriously. Let’s be honest, the storylines on Family Guy are completely bare bones now, especially when the plot involves Peter and Lois. The first act involves Peter being goofy in a way that has no relation to anything else. Then, it the next two acts, Peter acts like an asshole, then he apologizes at the last minute, then they make up because The Status Quo Is God. It’s tiring, and the show would be risking nothing if they tried something new. South Park revitalized itself by adding a serial storyline, and the same thing could end up working for Family Guy. Maybe doing a string of episodes where Peter and Lois are separated could add to the dynamic between the characters. They could re-discover each other in a way the audience could actually connect with. Or they could stay separated and see where that dynamic takes them. Either way, it would probably be better than what we have now.
And hey, there’s no reason a serial storyline couldn’t do wonders for some of the other characters. The time-traveling episodes with Brian and Stewie tend to be the one aspect of the show that still delivers even as everything else declines (sort of like how even with The Simpsons‘ significant decline, the “Treehouse of Horror” episodes are still good). Imagine what the show could explore if it wasn’t working within a 22-minute window. “Road to the Multiverse” is one of the show’s most ambitious and best modern episodes, and that was because of what it did as a standalone episode. Had it been able to be a three or four-part story arc, who knows how far it could have gone! If Family Guy were willing to work with some more experimental plotlines, the show might be a given some much-needed energy.
Of course, there’s also the possibility that Family Guy just can’t be fixed; that it simply has too many flaws, and has been on the air for too long. That may be the case, especially when we consider that we’re five years removed from Seth MacFarlane saying (perhaps jokingly) that the show should’ve been canceled three years earlier. Maybe this show is a lost cause, but there’s no reason not to try to fix it. If the show is going to be occupying Fox’s 9:00pm Sunday slot, it might as well do something interesting. Hiring Billy Domineau is a small move that can only have so much impact on a large writer’s room, but it is a subtle indication that the show is aware of its problems and is trying to get better. Let’s hope this show can find a way to get out of its long-running rut and remind us why we cared about the Griffins in the first place.