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).