All right. Now let’s talk about The Simpsons for a bit.
Like I said before -- maybe against my better judgment -- I’m one of those terrible creatures that still think The Simpsons is still funny. It’s not the funniest show ever, mind you, and not always on-point; I’ll go ahead and mirror the sentiment that the show in recent seasons is at its worst when it goes on at length about modern technology (because those things and their usage tend to make fun of themselves). But for what it’s worth, when it’s on I’ll gladly watch it.
Still, there’s one thing that I want to bring up. I think The Simpsons is still funny, but sometimes I don’t feel like people are thinking about the show’s quality in the right way. I don’t think people should be asking if it’s still funny; they should be asking if it still has heart. I’m not implying that its crew is phoning it in -- especially in comparison to certain other shows -- but I wonder if they’re putting the effort in the right places. Getting in those jokes is simple enough, and expected of the crew, but if the Nostalgia Critic’s Top 11 list taught me anything, it’s that The Simpsons can and has handled more than just gags, slapstick, and the occasional bit of social commentary.
Ah, if only Family Guy could learn such valuable lessons…
Springfield is a realm of fantasy, but the people in it have struggles and problems that make them human. Identifiable. Understandable. Relatable. Bart’s in danger of repeating a grade. Lisa falls in and out of love (and breaks hearts along the way). Marge’s façade of a perfect, smiling homemaker is constantly being challenged from within and without. There’s a theory that Homer is the embodiment of nihilism. There’s heavier stuff in the show than just catch phrases and trombopolines -- and in a lot of ways, it makes for a better show.
Then again, even in recent years The Simpsons has proven that it can take on gravitas, even if it’s in the show’s signature -- i.e. flippant -- style. Lisa’s learned the hard way that in spite of her intelligence, she’s still an eight-year-old girl with much to learn about family (Homer’s constant betrayals), fear (all the science in the world can’t save her from monsters), and even death (Bluella her story end exactly how you’d expect a beached whale’s story to end). In an almost meta play on the canon and the status quo, Bart is effectively doomed to have every relationship he’s ever been in collapse thanks to his inevitable screw-ups. Marge is becoming more and more aware of the holes in her marriage and her life, with her fights getting longer and longer, and Homer having to work harder and harder to patch things up. By and large, Homer is still Homer -- for good and for ill.
Obviously, I still have faith in the show. Part of it may be because I’m too stubborn to admit that a show I’ve been watching for as long as I can remember might -- might have gotten slightly worse over the years. That’s very possible. But even with both its evolution and stumbles in mind -- with the changing of the guard and the loss of the series’ greatest champions -- there’s an inherent nature to the show that makes it worthwhile, even after all these years. For all the mistakes Homer might make, there is never, ever, EVER a doubt in my mind that he won’t do the right thing by episode’s end. For all the arguments and all the disasters and all the bad decisions on display in a five-minute slice alone, there’s never any doubt that the family will come together. There’s no doubt that these people -- friends and family alike -- care for one another. There’s a level of earnestness and sincerity to these characters’ interactions that sells Springfield as a lived-in place, from 742 Evergreen Terrace all the way to the half-shredded lemon tree just before the Shelbyville border. In some ways, that’s where the show’s heart lies.
The same can’t be said about Family Guy. At all. Whatever heart it might have had at the outset has been lost long, long ago for the sake of the next gag. There was a time when Peter genuinely tried to get his son back into the Boy Scouts; now he barely even recognizes Chris as a presence…and how delightful it is to hear Lois shut her son up just because all the good people (those voiced by Seth MacFarlane) aren’t in the room. For a show called Family Guy to completely disregard its central family smacks of S-tier idiocy. That is, until you remember the overriding principle of the show.
It always gets worse.
Earlier in this godforsaken miniseries, I said that FG would rather take shots at others -- actors, movies, shows, religion(s), races, women, what have you -- than do anything with its dozens-strong cast. I stand by that. And it, and the mean-spirited nature of the show, are proven in one fell swoop when one random “gag” leads to Quagmire having his way with Marge, somehow convincing her that it wasn’t so bad (to the point where she’s practically in love with him), heads back to Springfield for more lovin’, gets found by Homer, and then proceeds to kill every member of the family. Including the baby.
…You know, it’s said that an episode of FG costs anywhere from just under a million dollars to upwards of two million. It’s nice to know that all of that money is going towards such a good cause, and not being wasted on things like feeding the homeless, building houses, or finding cures for diseases.
I could talk about so many problems with this sequence. So many. Setting aside the fact that Quagmire effectively raped Marge -- or the fact that the whole thing sounds like a fanfic on par with My Immortal -- there’s the fact that A) Marge ended up veering way out of character and accepting the act because reasons, most of which I hope aren’t related to Quagmire’s freakish giant chin-face, B) Quagmire murdered the entire family in spite of being the one at fault, including a baby, C) it’s the most brutal and needlessly tasteless retaliation imaginable against a rival that’s been jovial at worst, and D) as always, it’s shock value for shock value’s sake. No jokes. No wit. No meaning. No nothing.
Actually, I take that back. There is a meaning behind it. Obviously, The Simpsons is not the origin of all comedy, all quality, all plots, and all formats. But in its multi-decade run, it’s picked up and created its own meanings. FG’s attack on The Simpsons is an attack on those meanings -- a rejection of what that show stands for, so instead the audience is more likely to (or is supposed to) accept what this show stands for. The Simpsons gave us a fictional, twisted family, but it did so with the knowledge that a comedy could be more than just a random string of gags. It could offer up something more. Something substantial. Something human, even if those proposing it are four-fingered yellow people whose hair might be indistinguishable from the rest of their faces. Something like, or very near, heart.
FG doesn’t do heart. Or at least it doesn’t anymore, because its family -- its core characters, and the origin and proof of all the show’s ideas -- goes beyond dysfunction and straight into madness. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up in the air.
Nah, just kidding. It makes the show even more shit.
7) Remember Meg and Chris? They were cool…ish.
So one day I was checking the AV Club review of one of the latest FG episodes, and I almost did a spit take when I read something about Meg dying. “Meg dies? Meg actually dies?” I thought to myself. “Like…she actually dies? For real? As in, she’s out of the show?”
As it turns out, no, she’s not out of the show. There’s only the implication that she dies a year after the episode’s events, but I have my doubts that it means anything. Which is a shame, because if they actually did do something as bold as killing off Meg -- seeing as how a month’s worth of episodes can go by without her even having a line -- then maybe it’d be the shakeup the show needs besides throwing in even more gags and hoping for the best. The old spray n’ pray. Think about it -- what, in the past several years, have they done with her character besides just making her the garbage can for terrible jokes?
It should go without saying, but I don’t understand why Meg and only Meg is the sponge of everyone’s scorn and disdain. Frankly, it comes off as bad writing (well, worse than usual, at least); we’re told repeatedly that Meg is disgusting, but she’s not nearly ugly enough to sell those jokes. She’s not even ugly, all told; she’s not the thinnest character, but she’s not exactly packing on the pounds. She’s exactly what you’d expect a fusion of Peter and Lois to look like -- especially since she’s pretty much a brunette Lois with a smaller nose. She came off as something of a brat in earlier seasons, but that was only because she actually had lines. Nowadays she can barely get a line out before someone “explains” why she’s terrible. Either that, or Peter just says “Shut up, Meg” and leaves it at that.
Once again, FG is asking too much of its audience. It’s just going “take our word for it” with its jokes -- or its insults, if you prefer -- without giving a proper setup OR a proper payoff. If Meg really is a terrible person, then showing us why she’s terrible and why she’s deserving of scorn is going to be infinitely more entertaining than just shoving her aside and calling it a gag. This isn’t astrophysics we’re talking about here; this is common sense that even a second-grader could understand. This show strikes me as the sort that’d botch the old “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke by just jumping to “To get to the other side” and leaping to a fart joke three seconds later.
This is making my blood pressure spike. Let’s switch to Chris.
I’ve heard the excuse that the reason for Meg’s mistreatment is because the FG writers don’t know how to write a teenage girl. Let’s set aside the fact that that’s a bullshit excuse that could be solved by A) getting writers that can write a teenage girl, B) doing something with the character besides just making her a teenage girl, given that she shares a house with a talking dog, or C) watching old episodes of the show to mine for ideas. Let’s say we’ll forgive them for not knowing what to do with Meg because, hey, female characters, amirite?
If that’s the case, then what’s their excuse with Chris?
Here’s a fun game (and remember it for the future, because I’m probably going to use it again): if you’re familiar with the show, describe Chris’ character and/or personality with at least three words. Adjectives, phrases, whatever -- just don’t say anything about how he looks. Can you come up with anything? I probably could, but not without some hard thought. “Awkward” is one of them, I guess. Once upon a time I would have used “loyal to his dad”, but since the evil monkey episode I doubt that applies anymore. “Looking for love” doesn’t work very well -- if at all -- because the same could be said about Brian. So what’s left? Does he still do the art thing? That was a prominent part of his character, but that hasn’t been mentioned in years. I guess in some ways he’s “meta” or “fourth wall-breaking”, but virtually every other character in this show does that on a whim. That’s hardly something unique to Chris.
What’s left for this character, then? It can be said that he at least gets a few episodes where he’s the central Griffin -- in theory at least, before Peter swoops in to make things worse…in more ways than one. But much like Meg (even if it’s on a different axis), the show isn’t getting nearly as much mileage as it could out of Chris. It seems like the only truly memorable moments where he actually matters -- outside of his “plot-centric” episodes -- are when he points out just how absurd things have gotten for his family.
He’s got to be one of the only characters who’s ever genuinely called Peter out on his slide into insanity, yet nothing substantial comes of it. I would expect a show like FG to be more aware of itself, and be more eager to make fun of itself with all the tools in its toy box. I would expect a character -- any character, but Chris especially since there’s so little done with him -- to be something like a voice of reason, creating some kind of contrast between the show’s manic states. But alas, it would rather slip a flaming bag of dog crap into someone else’s toy box.
There’s something wrong with a show when a third of its main cast can barely get a line in an episode.
8) What the hell happened, Lois?
Hey, does anyone remember that CBS sitcom Still Standing?
I’m not going to pretend like it was the greatest show ever, but for what it’s worth I found it plenty entertaining. It was -- for lack of a better word -- quaint. It had a charm about it. You could reliably count on it for a few laughs, even if it’d never leave you having a good ROFL. But one of the things that I find notable about it is that the character dynamics were a bit different from the norm. I’d like to think that the template for family sitcoms (or family anything) is that the father is a bumbler, an idiot, a manchild, or any mix of the three, while the mother is the mature, reasonable one who fixes a number of the show’s problems…with the side effect of being a nag.
But Still Standing did things differently. Yes, Bill Miller was still a lazy goofball, and his wife Judy had to get on his case several times, but there was a balance to their antics. Judy was just as likely -- sometimes more likely -- to be the troublemaker. She loved beer, sports, and rock just as much as Bill did, and could be reliably persuaded to ditch her responsibilities and screw around. She had a real edge to her that don’t always see -- something that set her apart from, say, Marge Simpson in her own unique and entertaining way.
Once upon a time, Lois Griffin fell into the same slot as Marge. A lot of the earliest episodes of FG had Peter doing something stupid or irresponsible, Lois calling him out and getting mad about it, Peter realizing he did something stupid and irresponsible and admitting to it, and Lois forgiving him by episode’s end. She came off as too perfect, too noble -- a low-rent version of Marge that didn’t add much to the show.
But somewhere along the line, things changed. Lois got wild.
This isn’t just a post-revival change. This is something that’s been a part of Lois’ character and evolution from just a season or two after the outset. Remember, this is a character that in spite of her wealthy upbringing fell in love with a crass and in-your-face towel boy. There was always a beast inside her, and as time passed -- as the show found its groove -- that beast started to awaken. Pre-revival, she partied with people half her age in a Spring Break celebration and planned to exact revenge on the popular kids. Post-revival (early on, at least), she wanted Peter to give her a smack on the ass because she’d gotten herself revved up with a simple conversation -- and just a few episodes later, discovered the thrills of shoplifting and went balls-deep into the modeling world, to the point where she could play her ribs like a xylophone.
Lois went wild, but there’s a VERY important distinction that needs to be made. She became a beast, but she still had her humanity -- her reason -- built into her core. When she went out of her way to pull a prank or party hard, she did so for the sake of her family. When she broke the rules -- society’s, or the law in general -- she was genuinely remorseful about it, and realized the error of her ways. She was willing to spend time in jail, simply because it was the right thing to do. The beast had to be caged.
But yet again, the show went too far. Because as you know, it always gets worse.
The show hit a good sweet spot with Lois. It made her a voice of reason, but it gave her plenty of personality and character in spite of (or maybe because of) her devotion to her family and understanding of social graces. But somewhere along the line, she became less active and more reactionary -- like she wasn’t generating the madness around her as much as she was responding to it. An episode where she meets her insane brother becomes more about Peter because said brother is “the fat guy strangler”. When she does get a plot to call her own, it’s either undercut by Peter being an ass or her problems being a twisted version of a housewife’s problems…which is to say she ends up coming off as a nag -- or worse yet, a woman-- so that her character overall is diminished. (It’s worth noting that whenever Lois does get a moment to be the voice of reason, her words are consistently turned into white noise for an event happening in the foreground, the background, or in the case of that Simpsons gag, at the bottom of the screen.)
In an almost meta-conceptual shift, Lois has actually become aware of this -- or if not Lois, then at least the writers reacting to audience reactions/their own bumbling -- and, for lack of a better phrase, gives up. That fire she had doesn’t exist anymore. She’s long since moved out of her sweet spot. She’s only doing things because Peter does things (i.e. be an asshole), and if/when she raises complaints, it’s dismissed or forgotten by episode’s end. Lois calls Peter out in the boxing episode, and it sounds as if Peter’s learned his lesson -- but it doesn’t stick, and come next episode he’s back to doing whatever he wants. How do you respond to that? What do you do when you know nothing you do matters? If you’re Lois, you give up. You stop caring about everything and everyone.
Teenage son trying to talk? Shut him up. Teenage daughter having problems? Suggest suicide. Infant son mistreated at daycare? Don’t even bother checking up on him. I doubt Lois is anything even close to friends with Brian anymore, and is just someone she either tolerates or uses for a good laugh. If you told me right now that “Lois still loves Peter”, I just might punt a goat into the stratosphere out of sheer rage. She’s a bitter, shriveled-up shell of her former self…and really, can you blame her? Can you think she’s at fault for saying the spark is gone from her marriage when her husband nearly blew her brains out with a sniper rifle once he found out she was Jewish?
Yeah, that happened. Because that’s what I think of when I think “comedy”. Attempted murder.
I’ve heard that Seth MacFarlane has actually said that if it were up to him, FG either should come to an end, or it should have ended years ago. I’d assume that the matter is way out of his hands now -- and locked deep in FOX’s clutches -- but he has a point. If FG is going to continue being what it is now, and get even worse (if that’s even remotely possible), then it should end. Let it die with some dignity, even if it is the Sunday block’s highest-rated show. As is, the show is pretty much the embodiment of Lois -- long since burnt out by the increasingly-brutal antics, and left as a bitter husk because of it.
But the show’s going to keep going for a while yet. It has to. Not just because FOX or the incoming money says so; because it thinks it’s still got aces in the hole.
Let’s bring this discussion to an end next time. I’d keep going, but I suspect my internal organs have ruptured from the stress. Normally I wouldn’t be too worried about that, but checking with a doctor is probably a wise idea right about now before it gets worse.
It always gets worse.