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November 8, 2013

Let's discuss Family Guy (Part 1).



*headdesk*

All right.  Let’s get this over with.

Hey, have you ever seen that show Rules of Engagement?  I didn’t think much of it for a while, but since reruns started airing I’ve seen it in a new light.  That’s not to say that it’s anything better than average, but I’d like to think that there’s a deeper level to it than David Spade playing a put-upon sleazeball  (though I guess you could say that about most of the things he’s done for a good chunk of his career).  I’m convinced that every one of the main characters are purposely exaggerated, and their traits are meant to show how deeply miserable they are.  Jeff the macho husband guy is so emotionally crippled that he can only pretend to understand love and friendship, his wife Audrey is such a nag that she quite literally has no friends, sleazeball Russell is like Barney from How I Met Your Mother if he didn’t get his character development and spiraled into sex-filled oblivion --


Oh, right.  That.  Guess I’d better talk about that.


…Speaking of How I Met Your Mother, I’m bummed that it’s destined to end, but man oh man has it been a great ride.  If you go back and look at earlier episodes, you can see all these little hints leading up to plot turns and relationships, along with all sorts of consistencies and running gags.  That continuity is something to be appreciated, especially for those that have been watching from day one.  That all said, I could make a pretty strong argument that the core five characters are emblems of man’s struggle between will and reason.  Lily and Barney are mostly will-driven thanks to their nigh-untamed libidos, and both will go to surprising ends to get what they want (to the detriment of others, sometimes).  Marshall and Robin are reason-driven, using their heads instead of their hearts -- even if that leads to them trying to use reason where reason won’t help, or letting them get crushed by the reason-filled world they support.  Ted -- as the leading man -- occupies a space somewhere in the middle, and his quest for true love forces him to reconcile --


Oh yeah.  That.  Fine, fine.  Let’s do this.


…I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this in passing before, but I’ll admit here and now that Everybody Loves Raymond is one of my absolute favorite TV shows.  The jokes are great.  The characters are great.  The ideas are great.  The performances are great.  It’s a show about family, obviously, but it’s got more to it than that; in fact, I’d go so far as to say each member of the Barone family is supposed to represent one of the Seven Deadly Sins…though to some extent, all of them have their moments of excessive pride.  Then again, that’s kind of the point; keeping up appearances is a huge undercurrent in the show, so it’s only natural that each character tries to create their own veil of impressions as best they can.  Marie is most guilty of this, to the point where she’s arguably the show’s key antagonist, albeit a benign one.  Whatever the case, peeling away those appearances and embracing the truth is just as vital as --


Damn it, that’s right.  This is a post about THAT, isn’t it?  Fine, fine…I guess I’d better.


…Can we talk about King of the Hill for a while?  I’ve been thinking on that one for a bit, plus it’s still pretty good even if its run has --


Okay, how about Bob’s Burgers?  I’m one of those strange and awful people that think The Simpsons is still funny, but I’ll gladly admit that the title of Sunday’s funniest primetime animated sitcom has been taken by the misadventures of the Belcher family.  I think a lot of it has to do with the overwhelming presence of Louise/Kristen Schaal, but even so --


Would you be all right with a post on Kamen Rider?  Fourze is --


Gravity FallsAgents of SHIELD?  For God’s sake, I’ll even talk about The Big Bang Theory!


SonofaBIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIITCH!

Urgh.  All right.  Let’s get this shit over with.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may have seen my post on Meet the Browns.  If you haven’t, I’ll give you a quick summary: it’s terrible and I regret its very existence, let alone watching it.  But what’s interesting to note is the last line of that post: “It’s still better than Family Guy, though.”  I stand by that.  As bad as Meet the Browns is -- and make no mistake, it’s bad -- Family Guy, especially in its current form, is significantly worse.  Significantly.

I didn’t leave that last line at the end of that post just to take a shot at a show that has done no harm (not intentionally, at least).  I had every intention of doing a post on FG one day in the future.  Fairly soon, in fact.  There was just one little problem: doing a post on FG would require me to watch FG, and I just didn’t have the willpower for it.  As soon as Bob’s Burgers rolled its end credits, more often than not I’d hurl myself at the remote to avoid the entertainment carpet-bombing about to air.  I say “more often than not” because -- as evidenced by my time with Final Fantasy 13-2 -- I am nothing if not a patient, fair, forgiving person.  “Okay, FG has been kind of awful in the past, but surely this next episode will be better.  If I just sit down and watch a full episode, maybe I can get back into it.  Maybe I can watch it without risking an aneurism.”


I’d use a better picture to illustrate, but I’d need a JPEG with the same dimensions as the Empire State Building.

I’ve tried with FG.  I’ve really, really tried.  I watched all the Star Wars-themed episodes.  I watched the “Road to X” episodes.  I watched the semi-recent Christmas special.  I watched the crossover episode where Cleveland came back, as well as the corresponding Cleveland Show episode that brought in Team FG.  I watched the murder mystery two-parter.  I watched several season premieres.  I watched the “Brian and Stewie” milestone celebration.  I watched more episodes than I care to admit, because I wanted to believe that a show that could be funny and HAD been funny in the past could find its spark.  Move past its weaknesses.  Stop being such fucking shit.

It hasn’t.  And it’s not going to.  But even if there’s some miniscule chance that FG corrects course, I’ve reached a point where I’ve completely given up on it.  And I can pinpoint the exact moment when it happened -- because it was actually fairly recent.  I watched as much of the episode where a mini-Peter erupts from Peter’s neck as I could, alternating between “it’s not worth it, I’m done” and “give it a chance, it might work out” so fast it’s a miracle my brain isn’t broken.  Eventually I made it to the end of the episode, where everything is going to be okay, the characters are giving their “heartwarming” spiels, the status quo is restored, and mini-Peter strikes out on his own.  And then the episode ends with mini-Peter walking onto an animated version of ABC’s The Middle, saying “You are just terrible”, and then…the episode ends.

And with it, I decided to swear off FG forever.  Because that one moment encapsulated nearly everything wrong with the show.


Oh, let us count the many ways.

One: it’s a cutaway gag that undercuts the resolution of the third act as well as the entire episode for the sake of one more “joke”.  Two: it’s in complete contradiction of everything we know about mini-Peter; the entire crux of the episode was that mini-Peter was a better guy than real Peter, and seeing him take a shot at another show is wildly out of character, even if it was for a joke.  Three: THERE IS NO JOKE.  It just shows The Middle, and mini-Peter walks on-screen to say that they’re terrible.  WHY are they terrible?  WHAT makes their show worse than yours?  HOW are you going to show that The Middle is something worth mockery?  Answer that before you even think about setting up the joke.  Four: it’s the laziest pot-shot I could have possibly imagined, because the family is just sitting around in silence, giving the audience nothing to go by but mini-Peter’s word. 

Let me make a confession.  I haven’t seen that much of The Middle.  I’ve seen a few episodes, and parts of a few episodes, and to be perfectly frank I think it’s pretty good.  If the show has flaws, then I’m not aware of them.  But if nothing else, it at least knows how to get the most out of its cast.  It at least knows what it can do with its teenage daughter (and does so surprisingly well), while FG hasn’t demonstrated in years that Mila Kunis is anything more than a guest star.  Which ultimately begs the question: Family Guy, what right do you have to take a shot at a show that is not only better than you, but take the laziest shot possible based on the assumption that “I called a show terrible, so now my audience will laugh”?  What do you stand to gain?  Out of all the things you could have picked to hassle The Middle over, why in the hell would you choose nothing?


A show like this isn’t allowed to be this terrible.  It just isn’t.  But it is, and that might be more harmful than anything else out there.  At least with FF13-2, it garnered about three million sales, and I’d wager less than ten million have actually played it through.  At least with Meet the Browns, it’s been over and done for a while, limping its way into syndication after airing at times and on channels out of harm’s way.  But FG is still on, in a time slot that’s perfect for viewing by an audience that has to number in the hundreds of millions at least.  It’s constantly getting exposure.  It doesn’t need people to enjoy or even like it; the show is satisfied and survives as long as it’s playing as background noise, or in front of an empty couch.  Minimum effort, maximum reward.

Let me get a few things out of the way.  If you‘re reading this and you like Family Guy, then I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong.  Your opinion is your opinion.  My opinion is my opinion.  I’m just going to use this space -- however needlessly long it may become -- to explain why I feel the way that I do.  It’s one thing to spout off an opinion, but it’s another entirely to go about justifying it…as you may have guessed, considering what I just finished talking about.  So if you’re the sort that is a diehard fan of the show and don’t feel like getting into a debate, leave now.  It only gets worse from here.


The other thing I want to note is that I’m not going to just heap hate on guys like Seth MacFarlane.  It’s true that I could, given his importance to and presence in the show, but I know he’s not responsible for anything (and if what I’ve heard is true, these days he’s responsible for a lot less than one would think).  As always, I’ll try to focus on the sins the show commits, not its crew.  There’ll likely be some overlap -- direct and implied -- but I prefer to throw my complaints at the product unless it’s absolutely necessary to drag actual people in.  Got it?  All right.

…I’m already almost two thousand words into this, and I’ve barely gotten anywhere.  This is gonna suck.

All right.  Let’s take this step by step…starting with the big one.


1)  “This is just like that time I made the show terrible.”
It’s pretty much a given that the cutaway gags (or manatee jokes, if you prefer) are the defining factor of the show.  They’re what make the show what it is, for better or worse.  Usually worse.  But I’ll get to that in a minute.

There’s something that’s been on my mind for a while now.  Every time Family Guy pops up, I can’t help but think back to that Seth’s Cavalcade of Cartoon…whatever it was called.  From what I could gather, that was just a bunch of randomly-generated cartoons that were over and done in a flash -- no longer than a few minutes, at most.  The one I remember most is the one with Mario saving Princess Peach from Bowser, and getting into an argument over the reward he deserves.  It was…okay, I guess.  Nothing worth getting excited over, but passable.  And the same could likely be said about however many other cartoons popped up for the “program”, even if they were just assorted YouTube shorts.  Are they still going on?  I don’t know, and I don’t care enough to look.  But that was a format that -- if it DID get dropped -- had potential.  If FG is best known for its cutaway gags, its patented “rapid-fire comedy delivery service”, then why not drop the series entirely and focus on those shorts?  Especially if their coexistence ends up crippling both?


All right.  Let’s say that an episode of FG lasts about 22 minutes on average.  If what I’ve gathered from The AV Club reviews is right, then there are 12-14 cutaway gags per episode, at least in these later seasons.  Now let’s assume for a moment that the average cutaway gag lasts about twenty-five seconds; some are shorter, some are (much) longer, but again, we’re working with the average here -- even if that “average” is a conservative estimate.  If we go by that, then that means there are roughly five to six minutes of time spent on cutaway gags per episode. 

Five to six minutes may not sound like much, but when you’re working with a half-hour block, it becomes a lot nastier of a number.  Up to a quarter of any given episode gets lost just for these gags, and that’s likely setting aside all the go-nowhere gags “set up” in-universe.  So basically, that means the plot of the episode -- or plots, in the case of an A-plot/B-plot scenario -- has to cover a lot of ground in an even shorter amount of time.  Little wonder, then, that in most cases FG isn’t just incapable of handling it, but almost gleefully dives headfirst into a pool full of dunce caps.


I’m not saying that FG or any show has to commit to the standard plot structure, especially if it just ensures more comparisons to The Simpsons.  But there’s an unspoken rule: whatever you do, do it well.  And that unspoken rule has been completely ignored by FG; it just does things and hopes for the best. 

There are two major problems with the cutaway gags, at least for me.  The first is that by and large, they’re not that funny.  They have been in the past, but the further the show goes, the more it proves that whatever spark it once had has been stamped out.  Or am I supposed to think a gag like this is funny?


You don’t know how painful it is to know that I actually looked for a FG clip.

So here’s the question: what do you do when your show’s central gimmick is bland at best, intrusive often, and infuriating at worst -- and by “worst” I mean “also often”?  I could come up with a few possibilities (reduce the number of cutaways, improve the quality of the cutaways, strengthen the main plot of each episode), but I have my doubts that FG has any intent of improving beyond just maybe having some of its random gags actually be good for once, for an grand total of one per episode.    

But the second major problem is that the mere presence of the cutaway gags hurts the show, especially when they aren’t funny.  The gags aren’t just coming in at opportune moments; they’re randomly tossed around, with characters stopping whatever they’re doing vis a vis the plot/conversation to lead into a gag that isn’t even worth it.  There’s no flow to the show, which might as well be a death knell for what’s ostensibly a comedy.  The plot and its awful gags can’t get going because everyone has to stop to get the awful random gags going, and those same random gags are as welcome as a dead skunk.  But it’s this vicious cycle where one feeds into the other, over and over and over until the episode is over, you’re free to go, and if you don’t put a bag of ice the size of a warthog on your head your brain will explode.  

Side note: if memory serves, the very first cutaway gag in the very first episode featured a jealous, featherweight Hitler being angry and jealous over a Jewish bodybuilder and his arm candy.  I’m sure that’s got nothing to do with this post, though.

2) When in doubt, take a shot at someone else!  (Or just explain the joke.)
Quick question: who is this supposed to be?


If you guessed “Hugh Grant”, you’ve either seen that episode, or you’re some sort of esper.  I certainly wouldn’t have been able to make the connection; I don’t even know Hugh Grant well enough to judge whether that caricature is accurate.  (I almost got him mixed up with Hugh Laurie.)  I guess that’s my fault, though, since I’ve never been much in the way of celebrities.  So when FG makes a joke about Julia Roberts being self-absorbed, it flies over my head.  Or Minnie Driver having a big head.  Or Uma Thurman having eyes that are too far apart.  Or Tom Cruise being unwilling to admit he’s gay, to the point where he has to “run away from his gay thoughts”.  Or [insert recognizable name here] being [insert random insult exaggerated to ridiculous proportions here].  I don’t think there’s ever been a show so hell-bent on taking every celebrity ever down a peg.  Well, except maybe South Park, but when they do it, it’s actually…you know, good.

I’m not so much of a Boy Scout to say that no joke should ever be made at the expense of others.  It’s just that you have to make your jokes good -- and on top of that, you have to use your jokes wiselyFG’s scattershot approach can’t possibly accomplish that.  It’s a gluttonous mess that confuses straight-up insults for comedy.  When it makes fun of people, all too often they appear as gross exaggerations -- Ben Stiller and his ears, for example, or Adrien Brody’s nose -- that only emphasize the caricatures, not the foibles of the person.  Of course, it doesn’t always have to be a celebrity, and it doesn’t always have to be a body part or personality quirk; no, everyone and everything is a target for insult, even if -- ESPECIALLY if FG has to bring the episode to a halt to explain to you why it’s terrible. 





Post’s over.  Post’s over.  The whole series is over.  Go read a book or something!  I’m out.


…Okay, I’m back in.  But you guys had better be thankful for all this.

Apparently a mantra behind FG is that anyone’s a target.  That’s good in the sense that there IS comedic potential in there somewhere.  That’s bad in the sense that in order to achieve that comedic potential, some skill and tact are vital.  Not an impossible feat…unless you’re a show that will gleefully and repeatedly make fun of women, Jews, the elderly, Asians, homosexuals, Jews, Christians, women, Jews, Latinos, teenagers, the physically handicapped, the mentally handicapped, women, and…jeez, it feels like I’m forgetting a group.  What was it?  Oh, right.  Jews.  No wait, it was women.  Oh wait, it’s both.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.  Just because you can make a joke at the expense of someone or something doesn’t mean that you should -- especially if that’s the go-to card in a hand of three.  But a huge percentage of FG’s humor goes toward being as caustic towards everything in the world as possible, and the fact that it happens so very, very often only makes them meld into a single gray sludge of negativity.  It’s mean-spirited shit-flinging that comes off as nothing more than a desperate attempt to make itself look better in comparison, immune to complaint, counter-argument, or condemnation.  It's a rich, fat slob that thinks he has every right to swagger into a party late, steal everyone's food, and strut out after setting half the place on fire.  


FG is going to tell you that The Middle is terrible, which is hilarious and should make you laugh.  FG is going to turn one of its oldest characters, Mort Goldman, into a painful stereotype for no reason besides a cheap joke, which is hilarious and should make you laugh.  FG is going to introduce to you Consuela, who only has two possible avenues for jokes; every time the show swipes at the lowest-hanging fruit, it’s hilarious and should make you laugh.  That’s it’s logic.  That’s what gives a good fifty percent of any given episode its oomph.

That seems to be the M.O. in spite of the fact that making a joke that doesn’t take potshots at celebrities, nationalities, religions, genders, sexualities, politics, economics, organizations, movies, TV, or modern-day conventions would not only show greater effort, but be MORE surprising AND more effective AND more creative because it ISN’T just taking the easy way out.  It doesn’t take much effort to make a racist joke.  It takes effort to be funny.  There’s a difference.

And with each passing season, FG proves it doesn’t understand that difference. 


…Cripes a la mode.  I’m almost four thousand words in, and I haven’t even reached the characters yet.  See?  This is exactly why I didn’t want to do this thing -- because I knew I’d be here for a trillion hours.

But I guess there’s no helping it.  If FG isn’t going to put in effort, I will.  I don’t like leaving stones unturned when it comes to explaining my rationale -- so if it takes me more posts to prove my case, get this show out of my system, and be done with it until its underwhelming conclusion a dozen years from now, then fine by me.


This is gonna be a fight to the finish, even if it kills me.  And judging by the headache I’ve got, it just might.

6 comments:

  1. The most potent point of this post is your complaints of the cut away gag. If it would be used once or twice an episode with good comedic timing, the show would be tolerable. The proof of this is the walking past Family Guy makes the show funny phenomenon.


    A friend was watching an episode of FG and I walked past twice. The one in question involved Peter being in a rehab clinic. His roommate, Cookie Monster, gave me two sincere laughs.


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9C4-TsaNENo



    and here


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGTYgRh-PI8



    Any show can get lucky with gags. But FFS Family Guy just comes across as sad in it's desperate grabs for attention.

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  2. Fun fact: I had to consult Urban Dictionary to find the meaning of FFS. How shameful, leaving such clear openings in my Net Fu offense.


    You know, I've heard that The Cleveland show uses cutaways a lot more sparingly (I wouldn't know, since I haven't watched more than a few episodes of the first season), and comes out better because of it. Same goes for American Dad; as far as I know, it doesn't use cutaways at all. I can tolerate, and every so often enjoy both of those shows. A correlation, perhaps? Who's to say.


    (The answer is yes.)


    Interesting to hear about "walking past FG", though. Of course, I can't help but wonder how people would react to walking past the Conway Twitty bits. Would they even know FG was on?


    Conway Twitty. Damn. Just thinking about it fills my throat with caustic juices. I should probably go see a doctor about that.

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  3. I actually liked Family Guy's first few seasons, I don't think it suffered from quite the same issues of coherence and utter lapses into non sequitur bullshit insanity. I may tempt your fate by asking, but are you going to cover the gag that almost soured the relationship between Matt Groening and Seth McFarlane? I don't want to mention it if you don't know what it is, because it is really horrible.

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  4. Oh yeah, I liked FG's first few seasons, too. Those I don't mind watching, even now. But you can almost pinpoint the exact moment where FG goes from being entertaining into...well, whatever you'd want to call it now. (I'd use "terrible", but that's not nearly a strong enough word.) I'd argue the Conway Twitty cutaways -- and how sad is it that I have to use the plural form? -- are the biggest signal, but there are probably other telltale signs. It'd just require me to think more about FG, and my soul is already wailing in pain as it is.


    I've actually been thinking about THAT gag, but I haven't decided how (if at all) to integrate that into the discussion. I don't feel like I can talk about FG without talking about The Simpsons, but what I want to bring up might not be directly related to THAT gag. We'll just have to see how it goes.

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  5. Well, the only one of the gags shown that had the potential to be funny was the Carl Sagan redneck one. I dunno, maybe the whole god debate is just something that HAS to be made fun of to lighten the dire mood it always created between individuals. Of course, in the hands of a better writer and comedian (or picking one someone else like Richard Dawkins or William Lane Craig), it could work.


    Good thing I generally can't stand sitcoms, or animated comedies. Sure, Big Bang Theory is adorkable in short bursts, and South Park made me belt out into hysterics once or twice... but it's shows like The Simpsons I can't stand. After reading this, maybe it was wrong of me to put the yellow-skined, blue-haired mutants at the bottom of the barrel. Talking, bloodthristy babies and a dog walking upright is SO much WORSE. At least the Simpsons make me chuckle. Family Guy makes me ask why it exists.


    Its just boring. There's nothing to it. Maybe that's another reason to hate it. One of the greatest crimes a piece of work can do is bore you to tears, you know. The jokes give me no reaction, save for maybe a raised eyebrow.


    Random slapstick is just not my thing. Dry banter between lovable characters is more natural and far superior. No need to guess which model Family Guy follows.

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  6. Yes, you're exactly right. Those jokes -- any joke, FG-born or otherwise -- can work, but it takes a certain level of skill and savvy to pull off. Even if a joke is targeting or slamming someone or something. I'd like to think that once upon a time, FG understood that. Nowadays it doesn't. Granted that's probably because writing duties have been passed off to a new staff, but the way things are now you'd think that the manatees are running production.

    "One of the greatest crimes a piece of work can do is bore you to tears, you know."



    Quoted for truth. That's probably why I can't stand FG now; I'll watch it, and watch it, and watch it, and try to soldier on in spite of the headache the show's giving me, and I just want to shout "TELL A JOKE!" The random approach just doesn't work.


    Then again, a part of me wonders if FG is really as random as it tries to be...but that's a topic for another day.

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