First off, before you jump to conclusions: no, that grade is not a mistake. When I started reviewing Family Guy, I had a pretty good idea how this season was going to go. I was a big fan of the first three seasons before its initial cancellation, and tolerated a spotty fourth season when it returned to Fox, but I was pretty sure that like Rowan Kaiser’s experience writing the animated round-up last year, I too would be mired in examining Family Guy’s miserable descent. Then, I found out this episode was happening–Brian and Stewie time-travel to the pilot episode on January 31, 1999—and I felt something that has become increasingly rare since I started watching this show regularly again: hope and anticipation.
Todd’s blurb for this episode in “What’s On Tonight?” encapsulated my thoughts exactly, that this was a premise that Family Guy “won’t be able to mess it up, no matter how hard it tries.” At first, I was simply pleased that “Back to the Pilot” didn’t screw things up at the beginning, but as the episode went on, I kept looking at the clock and being amazed that it hadn’t dropped the ball yet. It used short cutaways and a plethora of self-referential jokes the writers must have stockpiled for years about the animation quality, voice quality, and structure of the pilot to every possible advantage.
Brian walks into the living room to show Stewie a tennis ball that makes other dogs in the neighborhood jealous. But there’s a better tennis ball—one Brian peed on and buried in the yard—but he can’t remember where it is, only that he buried it on January 31, 1999. I’ve always found that my favorite funniest moments with Brian—or any dog/human character, like Wilfred—have come when the dog acting like a human has to express dog-like thoughts and tendencies through human communication. I’m a dog person by default (since I’m allergic to cats) and I’ve got a soft spot for dog humor, and that bit with the tennis ball and the jealous other dog at the window made me laugh.
In the interest of further analysis, here’s how everything goes down: Stewie takes Brian to the time machine in his room—sitting in plain view against the wall, because, of course it is—and they’re off to that fateful night Brian buried the tennis ball, which is when the pilot episode took place, premièring after the Super Bowl that year. In a weird version of Biff’s plot from Back to the Future Part II, Brian wants to make the world a better place, by stopping 9/11 and generally improving his life—but Stewie forbids everything. After the original Stewie spots him, they decide they have to go back in time again to make sure they aren’t seen, but Brian breaks the rules. He tells his past self about 9/11, and is personally responsible for stopping it with some horribly canned catchphrases. Stewie turns out to be right about the whole Butterfly Effect, and when the two of them go into the future, a second Civil War has decimated the country. After a lot more time-travel and a big buildup of paradoxes and proliferation of Stewie/Brian pairs gathered in the Griffins’ driveway, the chronological tangent seals off, and the episodic status quo is restored.
Pilot episodes frequently offer poor representations of how a show ends up after an entire run, thus Stewie and Brian must offer hindsight commentary on some of the directions that have been abandoned over the years, like Stewie’s penchant for building advanced gadgets, and Peter’s large group of male friends we never got to meet. Since creator Seth MacFarlane voices both characters, recording the dialogue for this episode must have been like doing director’s commentary—only while still playing his own creations. It’s largely accepted that Family Guy has declined in quality for more than half of its run. Everyone thinks MacFarlane knows that, and he’s even stated publiclythat he thinks the show should already be over by this point. I don’t believe this episode was sticking it to Fox or some kind of direct admission of anything wrong with the past few years, but at the very least Family Guy echoed the sentiments of a large portion of its viewing audience.
Calling attention to the cutaways was great, first showing the Griffins completely silent, with Brian and Stewie unable to see the editing of the show. When they realized it, we got the best cutaway of the season so far, showing the family smoking, drinking, texting, and otherwise goofing off, referencing the length of time they can goof off before a typical episode of the show comes back to the plot. After some more teleporting and time-traveling, we get to see the hypothetical future of Family Guy in computer animation, with Cleveland back, and Peter directly addressing the camera to let everyone know a cutaway about Matthew McConaughey is coming.
I could list off a bunch of moments that I thought were funny, like Stewie noting Brian stuffing money into his “pockets,” distracting the Kool-Aid Man from his proper entrance into the courtroom, Cookie Monster inventing the “Cookiebook” social network, or Tom Tucker being unable to pronounce “Al Qaeda” because the 9/11 attacks never occurred. But the larger point is more significant: I can’t properly list all of the funny moments from this episode. Another milestone.
Though I can’t really call them my favorite episodes, the Brian/Stewie episodes have been the most consistently tolerable and funny to me since the show returned. Dominic Bianchi directed “Back To The Pilot,” and the other episode I could think of off the top of my head that he directed was “Brian and Stewie”—the only episode of the show with no cutaways, using the classic sitcom trope of trapping two characters in one place (in this case a bank vault). As for the other characters, I don’t like what Peter has degenerated into, how much of a shrew Lois gets made out to be, the constant scapegoating of Meg, and just general laziness with almost every other character. For some reason, I still find Brian and Stewie compelling. Their mushroom-trip plot in “Seahorse Seashell Party” seemed like a better candidate for the A-plot of that episode, and with Peter, Lois, Meg, and Chris relegated to cameos this week, a lot of the infuriating elements of Family Guy took a welcome week off.
Sure, there were bits that didn’t quite work—The George W. Bush cutaway in particular seemed designed to fire off one last stale, very belated barb at the former president—but most of them did. There is always a risk in getting self-referential about flaws within a show, and when Brian and Stewie gaze through the window of the Griffin house and find lesser quality animation, make passing reference to the fact that the girl who voiced Eliza Thornberry and played Gretchen Wieners was the original voice of Meg, and call direct attention to the cutaways while the past family stands around, I worried that I’d just be thinking about how much better the show was in earlier seasons. But I didn’t, I was laughing consistently, thinking through the time-travel paradoxes, and going with the flow.
So we get an episode of Family Guy that rewards every viewer who liked the show in the past, nearly despises it now, and sees a permanent downward trajectory into the future. Self-contained, this episode does nearly everything right, and makes the most out of self-referential jokes it only gets to make one time. I wouldn’t be surprised in any way if this is the high water mark of the season. Family Guy surely can’t take this episode and turn it into a nice run. For one, that’s not how animated production sequences work–a point I’ll hopefully come back to in a later episode. I think the best praise I can give this episode is that I found myself trying to pick away at it to try and break it apart and find what I didn’t like, and I couldn’t. I didn’t want to, because I finally enjoyed an episode of Family Guy from the recent seasons. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s not on the same level as the occasional brilliance that South Park reaches approximately once per season nowadays, but it’s the most fun I’ve had watching the show that didn’t involve a Star Wars parody in many years.
- Unofficial Cutaway counter: 5–but that’s counting the Family Guy-of-the-future cutaway that Peter directly calls attention to. I was tempted to say “0,” because the Griffins breaks during cutaways, Cookiebook, Gateway Arch, and George W. Bush cutaways seem borderline to me, but for the sake of keeping an unofficial count, I’m going with 5.
- Maybe this show is just better when viewed with other people. Every time I watch it with other people, from the times I watched with my dad and brother in the early seasons to watching with my roommates tonight, it's a better experience than sitting through the show alone.
- I thought Stewie’s “Japanese children’s books”—You Poop Now, Horton Hears A Suicide, and The Little Engine That Will, Or Get Great Shame—were very funny, and a much better way to do racial humor than with caricatures and accents. It also continued a string of well-titled faux books going back to You’re A Naughty, Naughty Boy, And That’s Concentrated Evil Coming Out the Back of You.
- I originally thought that Brian and Stewie distracting the Kool-Aid Man from entering at the right time would get Peter sent to jail, but I’m glad the episode went in a more catastrophic direction that kept the rest of the family away from the time-travelers.
- The Super Bowl always used to be the week of my birthday at the end of January. The San Francisco 49ers won the Super Bowl on my fifth birthday—before I really knew football and became a Raiders fan as I grew up. It was a bit of a shock to remember why that’s no longer the case. When 9/11 happened, the NFL season got delayed a week—the Raiders were supposed to play the New York Jets—pushing the season, playoffs, and Super Bowl back one week. It’s been further into February ever since.
- I laughed at the “Pat Tillman tackled by his own team” joke, and thought it landed right on the line of going too far.
- Brian’s best catchphrases: “Mohammad oughta stay home… ” which made no sense because most Americans only started to properly learn about Islam after the attacks, and the equally improper use of “Seacrest out!”