back to the Black Table
               
  BELIEVE THE HYPE? FAMILY GUY.  
   
   
 

I don't know anyone who's a huge fan of "Family Guy." I don't even know anyone who knows anyone who's a huge fan of "Family Guy." Mediocre shows I don't like survive on the air all the time; taste is a relative thing. But when a mediocre show gets cancelled

 
 

and then miraculously gets a second life because of out-of-nowhere fan devotion, it's worth investigating.

When Seth MacFarlane's Griffin family debuted in 1999, it was mostly dismissed as a cut-rate "Simpsons." Both shows were animated sitcoms, centering around a dysfunctional family led by a moronic father, heavy with pop references and a satirical view on "wholesome" middle-class American life. (Plus, the

       
 

new program's infant Stewie talked a lot like Mr. Burns.) The comparisons dogged "Family Guy," but MacFarlane and his writers never really tried to establish their show as markedly different than its predecessor. Fox moved it around the schedule several times and finally dropped it altogether in 2002. But when Cartoon Network later aired "Family Guy," it became a huge hit. When the show was released on DVD, fans came out in droves to buy all three seasons of episodes. This Lazarus effect occasionally happens in the film industry -- when, say, the first Austin Powers makes decent money at the box office but then rakes in phenomenal rental business, suggesting a burgeoning base of supporters hungry for sequels. But in a rather unprecedented move for the small screen, Fox has brought back "Family Guy" to its Sunday lineup, additionally running "American Dad," MacFarlane's newest animated sitcom, centering around a dysfunctional family led by a moronic father, heavy with pop references and a satirical view on …

Whether or not I know any "Family Guy" followers is irrelevant; somebody somewhere (and a lot of his buddies) loves this show and feels a passionate connection with the Griffins. So who are these fans?

If you're late to the phenomenon, the current Season Four is thus far not significantly different from the first 50 episodes. MacFarlane takes clichéd family sitcom plot lines and adds an ironic or "shocking" twist to them. The new neighbors aren't just wacky, they're nudists. Dad's not just upset that his son isn't doing better in school; he wants him to become Jewish so he can instantly be smarter. From "The Simpsons" to the "The Larry Sanders Show" to "Seinfeld," the '90s instituted a subversive postmodern approach to sitcoms that refused to reassure the audience that everything would be alright (or even resolved) in the end. These comedies argued that, deep down, we're all bastards -- and that can be pretty damn funny, too. "Seinfeld" creator Larry David has continued this approach on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," but MacFarlane takes the premise and mutates it horribly. "Family Guy" parades a disinterested, withering contempt for everything around it: families, society, media, the entertainment industry. I'm surprised so many people love it, but I understand why.

Going back and watching the previous seasons, I was reminded how instantly appealing -- and inevitably off-putting -- "Family Guy" can be. MacFarlane and his team never fail to generate a remarkable energy of ideas and gags; you can be irritated by how base the comedy is, but it moves fast with a giddy, bratty verve. The Griffins (dad Peter, mom Lois, son Chris, daughter Meg, baby Stewie and talking-dog Brian) each differ from their designated family-member archetype. There's nothing cuddly or lovable about the Griffins, and there's even clear animosity between some of them. (Particularly great is the realization between the dog and the baby that they're the sharpest tools in this particular shed -- and that they share no particular satisfaction in that discovery.)

Re-viewing the old episodes on DVD, I noticed how often I enjoyed these characters when they came on screen. They're drawn comically, and they're voiced humorously by MacFarlane and others, such as Seth Green and Mila Kunis. But as for the actual stories, my reaction arc was the same for every episode: amused, intrigued, underwhelmed, disappointed, kinda ready for it to be over. MacFarlane's writers unload their "shock" in the first act, and then instead of developing the satire, we get inundated with references -- movie quotes, bad TV parodies, kitsch cameos from Adam West. Like the recent years of "The Simpsons" -- when character development and clever storylines yielded to sophomoric physical humor and desperate randomness -- "Family Guy" isn't interested in saying much of anything. Even when they go for "edgy" commentary like on the unaired "When You Wish Upon a Weinstein," the supposed taboo-busting Jewish jokes aren't any funnier than the Optimus Prime gag they throw in for the hell of it.

This sort of weightless comedy is always blamed on "Seinfeld," but most people recognized that Jerry's show wasn't really about nothing -- it was a show about how the seemingly mundane minutiae of life actually defined and complicated everything we do. Conversely, "Family Guy" feels like the product of an empty life -- a community of individuals who get a perverse kick out of watching terrible television for how ironically "brilliant" its terribleness really is. Most guys grow out of this after college. (They wake up one more morning and discover what a dead end that endless loop of sarcastic comments and C-level Hollywood ephemera becomes.) But MacFarlane's show plays like a Never Never Land for undergraduates: Nobody grows old, and you can stay protected underneath its cozy skies of irony and condescension for as long as you'd like.

In a way, there is something fascinating about the appeal of "Family Guy." Like so much contemporary animated comedy -- and that includes Shrek and Shark Tale -- "Family Guy" doesn't ask you to think too deeply about the entertainment fixtures it touches on. You laugh because, hey, you know what they're talking about -- that's funny! MacFarlane makes sure you're part of the cool club by testing your pop-culture knowledge and then congratulates you for liking the same crap as him. (Heard of "Electric Company"? You're in. Remember the commercial for the Operation board game? Awesome -- right this way.) Whether the episodes were created before or after 9/11, the Griffins' world remains unchanged, populated by dumb people acting buffoonishly with brief flashbacks to earlier moments of dumb people acting buffoonishly. The depth of the show's insight is that Jennifer Love Hewitt has made some bad movies and that Mel Gibson has taken the religion thing a little too far. If it wasn't on cable at two in the morning, "Family Guy" knows nothing about it.

If the show was merely insubstantial, it would be less annoying. But there is a streak of deliberate meanness that negates its benign echo chamber of nonstop riffing. For example, it's common these days for family sitcoms and WB dramas to have sensitive, "misunderstood" kids who don't fit in with the popular cliques. In what could have been a novel idea, "Family Guy" distorts that overdone convention by making Chris and Meg painfully uncool. He's fat and dumb, she's fat and unattractive -- they are indisputable losers. And there's nothing sensitive or heartbreaking or redeeming about them, either -- they're spiteful and self-destructive. This is a clear reimagining of all the Lisa Simpson fictions out there, but these kids wind up just being helpless punching bags for MacFarlane. (Other than when we learn that Chris has a bigger penis than his father, I can't remember any form of kindness the writers have shown them.)

Maybe this is more lifelike, another way to show how typical sitcoms aren't real, but I'm not sure it's all that funny after a while. No matter how cruel the comedy, you have to like someone on a program to keep watching, unless you just love frying bugs with a magnifying glass. But not only does "Family Guy" reward its viewers' pop-culture trivia retention, it seems to delight in the smacking down of its characters. "Arrested Development" succeeded because Jason Bateman's good-son martyr act revealed a flawed, recognizable vulnerability; he grounded the show's absurd diversions and nasty humor. "Family Guy" drifts through its flashbacks, snide musical numbers, tired allusions and rampant sexual gags with a grim belief that everything's a joke and nothing's worth a shit.

Perhaps the fans dig "Family Guy" because it allows them to feel like Brian and Stewie, comfortably superior to those around them. But even Brian and Stewie understand how futile it all is. Knowing the theme song to "Welcome Back, Kotter" hasn't made MacFarlane or his followers happier or more fulfilled; all that pop culture has only turned them more cynical. There's a crippling fear of the real world that underlines everything in "Family Guy," but the show has no self-awareness of its own agoraphobia. It's too distracted to do much about it. Maybe a nihilist could write a devastating treatise on how "Family Guy" speaks to the alienated soul within every man, how it reflects a society where modern life merely reflects bad '70s television. Well, good luck with that. Me, I just wish it was funnier.

 

Believe the Hype Rating: 3 out of 10

 

Want more?

 

Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.