Family Guy: The Book of Joe (13-2)

Ah, Season 13, Episode 2: “The Book of Joe.” Kinda has a familiar ring to it. As an episode title, “The Book of Joe” appears to be a weird biblical allusion to the book of Job (at least, it appears that way to my Sunday Schooled self), although I’m a little unsure of whether Family Guy’s writers just wanted to make a shallow pun (Joe does write a book in this episode, after all), or if I’m expected to dig into the subtext to compare the sufferings of Joe the cartoon character to those of Job the Bible character. I don’t want to do that in any sort of depth, and this is Family Guy, so I won’t. It should suffice to say that, yes, Joe is subjected to a lot of bullshit due to Peter’s shenanigans, and Job went through a good deal of bullshit of his own. Let’s leave it at that. Any more would be too much.

The episode kicks off with a pool party in Joe Swanson’s backyard and is quick to establish that Joe has pool-party-hosting anxiety - not a trait that I’ve identified in him previously, but who knows - primarily based on his fumbled use of notecards to keep his party banter on track when the Griffins arrive. I enjoyed that joke well enough in spite out of its out-of-nowhere-ness, but I was a little more confused by Peter pointing out that Cleveland was using temperature-checking as a pretext for cleaning off his feet in the pool. Why are Cleveland’s feet dirty? He has shoes, he lives in a nice house just down the street, he’s had multiple bathtubs installed on the second floor - I don’t get it, really, but I did laugh when Cleveland eventually moved on to overtly rinsing off dirty paintbrushes (“Is the pool too warm for paintbrushes?”).

As the pool party wears on and Joe is unable to get the Griffins moving towards the door (another pool-party-hosting fail, I suppose), Peter wanders into Joe’s writing studio and discovers mock-ups of “The Hopeful Squirrel,” a children’s book about a squirrel in a wheelchair that Joe has been writing under the pseudonym "David Chicago." Peter cranks out a few lackluster jokes about dongs and Bono’s sunglasses but otherwise encourages Joe to pursue his dream of publishing the book and inspiring special-needs kids, and it’s immediately clear where this episode is headed: Peter is going to hijack the book, shit all over Joe’s dreams, and ultimately learn a valuable lesson about friendship. And that’s more or less exactly how the episode plays out.

Peter becomes the “face of The Hopeful Squirrel” after taking over for Joe at a live reading at a local bookstore (the bookstore morphs into a Target during Peter’s conversation with Joe’s agent, which is a great visual gag and also sadly topical); from there, he gets to work on a sequel with the help of Quagmire and Cleveland after Joe angrily extricates himself from the dirty business and Peter’s questionable motives. Again, there’s probably some kind of forced conversation to be had here concerning the cynical manufacturing of pop personas in the year 2015 - such manufacturing exists. artists are doing it all the time, maybe Peter re-packaging the artistic output of Joe and becoming David Chicago constitutes related commentary - but I can’t quite bring myself to believe Family Guy has that sort of agenda. I think Family Guy just wanted a reason for Peter to use his high-pitched squirrel voice. During a brainstorming session for the sequel, Quagmire suggests that the book incorporate laser-eyed cats, which is all well and good, but what really got me was Cleveland’s excited and thoroughly indecipherable question/statement, “And if there’s a bison!” Peter is appropriately confounded. Predictably, Peter’s new direction for The Hopeful Squirrel 2 (buzzsaws, hookers, drugs) does not sit well with the audience of parents and kids, and he is accordingly fired. He and Joe make nice (“Friends?” “Frasier.”), and that’s that.

Along the way, Peter and Lois have a string of successful non-cutaway jokes, which furthers my theory that there’s plenty more genuine humor to be mined from that relationship. In their routine, sort of mundane moments, Peter and Lois have a rapport that effectively conveys that they love each other, but also that sometimes they just tolerate each other. Obviously, these are cartoon characters, but Peter and Lois are a natural fit and continue to play off each other well (much like the oft-used Stewie/Brian pairing). Peter, upon Lois hopping into bed after leaving the bathroom: “Did you just poop and then get into bed without underwear on?” I realize that’s two weeks in a row of Lois-pooping jokes that I’m deeming successful, but as long as they’re funny to me, I can’t very well complain. Then again, my sense of humor remains steadfastly juvenile, so I can’t exactly speak for everyone. Even funnier was Lois’s subtle dig at Peter for having the gall to have his fight with Joe on the same week as her “big fight” with her sister, which causes Peter, not taking the bait, to go immediately into silent, neutral-face mode and follow that up with, “Goodnight, Lois.”

Meanwhile, in the B-story, Brian stages a meet-cute with a jogger at the local “Hot & Muggy” coffee shop by pretending to be an avid runner himself. I don’t recall having ever encountered Hot & Muggy in Family Guy before, but I’ll go ahead and say it: that’s a hell of a pun right there, and it might be my favorite part of the episode. Curiously, Brian’s fake-jogger routine is an almost shot-for-shot remake of a scene from the movie “Hall Pass” starring Owen Wilson (you’d think that the writers for Family Guy and Hall Pass would be on a similar enough wavelength to be aware of each other’s material, and yes, I’ve seen Hall Pass...more than once), but what worked there works here as well. Brian gets a date with Jogger, Brian shows up to date with Jogger, Jogger suggests they go for a pre-date jog, Brian almost collapses, Brian gets an endorphin-infused runner’s high and achieves spectacularly animated nirvana, complete with Korean moon and “black guy” sun. From there, Brian progresses through a number of increasingly alarming “serious runner” stages: he adopts the requisite lingo, turning down Lois’s offer of breakfast because it’s nothing but empty calories and he needs “fuel”; and he signs up for a marathon, eventually over-training himself into a skeleton with a bunch of creepy, easily-chafed nipples protruding from his chest and stomach. When Skeleton Brian snaps his leg into at least three disconnected pieces at the starting line of the marathon, Stewie asks, “Brian, why does everything you touch turn to garbage?” It’s a good question - at this point, Brian has a well-established tendency to pursue activities and act pretentious about them until he gets what’s coming to him, as he does here. At least the character is consistent, I guess.

All in all, it was an okay episode with some ups and plenty of downs. Nothing to see here, folks, although you won't hate yourself if you have twenty minutes to kill.

C+

Random Thoughts

  • No Meg! The Meg-less Episode Count is now: ONE.

  • The only cutaway that even halfway worked for me actually worked the WHOLE way: Cee-Lo shopping for pants was fantastic. “Yeah, I need to find something a cartoon apple would wear…?” Also, was that actually Cee-Lo doing the voice work? Sure sounded like him.

  • The most under-the-radar joke was also one of the best: when Tom Tucker introduces his talk show as “Cross-Legged Chat,” Peter quietly crosses his legs.

  • I might be the only one, but I was thoroughly - and delightedly - caught off guard when Stewie’s plan to get Brian to try and itch his ankle through his cast backfired.

Family Guy: Simpsons Guy (13-1)

So, Family Guy is still a thing. Let’s talk about it. Not because you want to talk about - I’m sure you probably don’t - but because it needs to be talked about. Although, on second thought, that’s probably not true. I’m guessing it could actually go un-talked-about and live out the rest of its apparently eternal life flying deep under the radar and no one would miss it or care much, but I feel a close enough attachment to it based on its Golden Years that, for whatever reason, I’m compelled to give it some sort of ongoing coverage as it limps along. Everyone else has given up on you, Family Guy, but I’m right here. And I always will be.

Somehow, we’re on Season 13 of this show. In my opinion, the Golden Years took place over two isolated periods of time:  the revolutionary-if-anyone-had-watched-them first three seasons that kicked off in 1999 and were rewarded with dispassionate cancellation in 2001, and the few years following the show’s improbable return in 2005. Things started out a little rocky in 1999 - Alex Borstein had yet to find her Lois voice and spoke in a molassas-y, Janice-like drawl; Meg, her soul briefly uncrushed by life, was voiced by an off-puttingly bubbly Lacey Chabert; and Stewie’s accent and vocabulary were distinctly more upper-crust, and every second of his free time was spent trying to very literally murder Lois - but that’s business as usual for a new show. By the time Family Guy resurfaced in 2005, it had fully settled into itself, established a slew of recurring characters and jokes, and received a welcome bump in animation quality. Ernie the Giant Chicken and Peter had engaged in their first extended battle royale, Herbert pretty clearly wanted to molest everything in sight, Quagmire was perverted to a probably-illegal degree, and so on. Some things changed after 2005, mostly Cleveland-related for whatever reason, but the point is, by the mid-2000s, Family Guy’s sticky foundation was mostly poured and in the process of drying.

And now it’s 2015. A decade out, it’s fairly easy to see that what once seemed like a show settling in was actually more like Han Solo being encased in carbonite. The jokes simply never changed. You can blame that on whatever - I like the explanation that all the good writers were siphoned off to American Dad when Family Guy got the proverbial axe (American Dad remains a far funnier show to this day, although 100% of the unsaved souls to whom I have tried to spread that gospel have stared back at me blankly, pity in their eyes).  Whatever the reason for the stagnation (Jabba the Hutt?), the fact remains that Family Guy in 2015 feels like one interminable, ever-more-exhausting Giant Chicken fight. Peter is Family Guy, and that makes us, America, the Giant Chicken, forever being punched in the face, set on fire, and nuclear bombed, only to have to grit our teeth, stand back up, and keep taking it.

Now, that’s a pretty grim analogy, and maybe not an entirely fair one. Family Guy can still make me laugh - it just makes me do a fair amount of frowning, too. But those momentary shiny, laughy spots give me hope that Family Guy might one day get its shit together and quit making me grimace so much, and that’s why I’m about to embark on this doomed voyage to recap/review/commentate on Season 13. It may take me to some pretty dark places in my psyche, but stand close to my torch and maybe we’ll find some daylight on the other side.

So let’s get to it! Season 13, Episode 1: The Simpsons Guy.

Right off the bat, it looks like we’re sailing into some troubled waters. Crossover episodes are rarely the harbinger of anything not-stinky, and that firmly established scientific law more or less holds true here. With an extended episode like this, however, a few high points do necessarily rise above the mess, so even though the whole conceit smells a little desperate, it’s not entirely a wash. And it’s not as though Family Guy and The Simpsons didn’t have some sort of confrontation a-brewing, so this makes more sense than, say, an episode where the Griffins wander haplessly into South Park or wake up on the set of Happy Days or something.

The episode kicks off in fairly standard Family Guy fashion, with Peter taking advantage of a vacancy in the Quahog newspaper to begin an improbable career as a cartoonist, and already we’re retreading ground:  Peter’s terrible/misogynistic creative endeavors have been repeatedly highlighted by the like of Petey’s Funhouse, his local-access TV show from Season 10, and PTV and his Peterotica line of romance novels from Season 4. Here, we have one-panel cartoons a la The Far Side, and they’re about what you’d expect from Peter: regressive, dumb, 1950s-era jokes based on antiquated gender roles that enrage not just Lois but the populace at large. What is interesting about the cartoons is that they inspire peripheral comments from Chris and Peter about the nature of creativity, a theme that ends up underlining the rest of the episode. Whether you agree with their take on the issue is a different matter - I’m fully on board with the idea that creativity builds on itself and that Family Guy can borrow elements from The Simpsons without committing wholesale idea theft, and I suppose there’s no reason why Family Guy shouldn’t make meta-commentary to defend that stance. I’m less clear on why there’s any compelling need to do so in Season 13, with Family Guy’s popularity all but flatlined and any copycat controversy long since dried up, but it does at least give the writers some new material to spank around.

Regardless, the Griffins are eventually pitchforked out of town by the outraged locals. This opening segment of the episode does actually have some solid jokes, and, tellingly, none of them take place inside cutaways (Family Guy’s relentless “Just like that time _______” device). Peter receiving two bricks through the window, only one of which he ordered, is a nice touch, as is Quagmire’s nonchalant suggestion that Peter “maybe draw Lois taking a hot tub dump and she just says whatever,” and Peter’s thoroughly nonsensical throwaway Michael Jordan comparison (“I’m like Michael Jordan - going out on top of a flurry of gambling rumors”). I’m a sucker for any character-based non sequiturs between Peter and Lois (Peter completely failing to catch on to Lois’s “boner” puns from Season 6 springs to mind), so I’m also 100% on board with Lois’s delighted reaction to Peter offhandedly calling her “babe.” Character-based, non-cutaway humor is where Family Guy is still capable of eliciting genuine laughs, at least for me. Your mileage may (probably does) vary.

At a pitstop on their road trip to wherever, a shadowy figure steals the Griffins’ sedan (prompting Peter’s apt observation on the sheer weirdness of seeing someone else drive your car), and the family finds themselves marooned in ::drumroll:: Springfield! Who knew the Simpsons-verse was such a short car ride away? The Griffins should get out more often. Everybody quickly pairs off as you’d expect, and each pairing adopts its own mini-mission to tackle. Some of these storylines fare considerably better than others - Brian’s accidental liberation of Santa’s Little Helper feels particularly expendable, in that it never really goes anywhere interesting (although it does, in one notably effective ongoing gag, allow Chris the opportunity to unleash his fantastic Matthew McConaughey, Jack Nicholson, Ed McMahon, and Al Pacino impressions), and Marge and Lois are left without much to do at all.

The Peter/Homer and Stewie/Bart couplings are more interesting, albeit not exactly funny. Far too much of the episode is spent simply unveiling Simpsons character cameos - look, it’s Ralph! Look, it’s Otto! - as if their simple appearance is a joke in itself, which is all the more confounding if you pause to consider that The Simpsons is still on the air. Why all the cameos when you can just watch a new episode on Fox? We already see these characters all the time! Strange stuff. The centerpiece of the Peter-and-Homer saga is a “stolen car wash” meant to ensnare the thief of the Griffin-mobile, which quickly devolves into a thoroughly inexplicable and bizarrely graphic “sexy” washing montage, wherein Peter and Homer, luridly animated, cram their fat, weirdly glossy bodies into daisy dukes and cut-off t-shirts and rub their soapy butt cheeks and man-cleavage all over everything in sight while “Pour Some Sugar On Me” oozes in the background. It’s a very strange, overlong, anti-funny scene, and the less said about it, the better. I’ve said too much already.

Meanwhile, Stewie and Bart recognize kindred spirits in one another and get to work terrorizing the citizens of Springfield, each in his own special way. Bart is rightly horrified by Stewie’s way-over-the-line tendencies and rebukes him for both his rape-based prank phone call to Moe and his violent kidnapping and imprisonment of Bart’s rivals. In a scene that constitutes the episode’s second extended set piece bomb, Stewie even goes so far as to straight-up torture Nelson. The sheer mean-spiritedness of the scene (and Stewie’s behavior generally) seems wildly out of place in the Simpsons’ relatively happy-go-lucky universe and only ends up highlighting Family Guy’s twilight-years tendency to use shock-humor (even if it’s not particularly shocking by this point) as a crutch.

After Hans Moleman fortuitously runs over Peter and Homer in the Griffin-mobile (he was wearing it as pants, see), the two fat patriarchs head to Moe’s to enjoy a beer in celebration, only to quickly realize, in another bit of meta-commentary, that Pawtucket Ale is a direct rip-off of Duff Beer. Cue a lengthy back-and-forth about who is stealing what from which show (meh), after which Peter ultimately declares, “I am over the Simpsons.” I'm guessing that declaration is meant to be a sort of tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of Family Guy’s decriers (“Look, the Simpsons has already gone through this hell!”), but there’s also a whiff of desperation, which, as we all know, can be quite a stinky perfume. The argument eventually erupts into a massive Giant Chicken-esque fight sequence between Peter and Homer that, as usual, includes nuclear weapons, trips to space (with a welcome cameo from American Dad’s Roger! Hi Roger!), and gratuitous violence (again, strangely out of place in Springfield). Peter and Homer both survive, of course, agree to respect each other, and head on home with their families. It’s a weak end to an uneven episode, and the closing scene of Stewie weeping and using the classic Simpsons chalkboard to promise himself that he won’t miss Bart doesn’t feel earned or even generally true to the character. Why was Stewie so enamored of Bart in the first place? I don’t know. I doubt the writers do either.

And there you have it - episode one! I’m going to give each episode a letter grade, but remember that I’m approaching these reviews from a place of immense skepticism, so an A- here does not mean that this show would stack up against an A- from a show that is actually consistently good. It’s all relative, baby! And this isn’t getting an A- anyway. Also, the immense length (and girth, depending on your browser) of this review is not representative of future reviews, since this one included a sort of “Welcome to Family Guy Reviews” section, and the episode itself was a double-order.

B-

Random Thoughts

  • Meg’s saxaphone saga with Lisa pretty much lines up with where Family Guy seems to have landed with Meg’s character:  sad-sack Meg is given a longshot hope of redemption, only to have it thrown back in her face by Peter/the universe. Here, Lisa discovers that Meg is inexplicably awesome at the sax (better than Lisa, somehow) and tries to suppress Meg's secret talent so she can stay saxmaster. At least, unlike Peter, Lisa eventually realizes she’s been selfish, lets Meg know she has some redeeming qualities, and tells her to shut up in a quasi-nice way. Victory for Meg! Kinda.

  • It’s Gloria Steinem’s half-birthday! Very odd recurring joke, but I guess the writers wanted to obliquely acknowledge the existence of feminist activism in the face of Peter’s usual buffoonery.

  • The rapid-fire Family Guy/Simpsons peripheral character comparisons in the courtroom was actually pretty fantastic, particularly Krusty asking Mort Goldman if Mort is a “Jewish clown” (pretty much, yes), and the James Woods v. James Woods face-off. The Kool-Aid man joke, though, I could have done without.

  • The brief, electricity-induced body switch during Peter and Homer’s fight, showing Peter drawn as a Simpsons character and Homer drawn as a Family Guy, was also awesome, and makes me wistful for what could have been a much more interesting episode (visually, at least).