Family Guy: “Cool Hand Peter”
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Family Guy: “Cool Hand Peter”

A disappointing episode of Family Guy is never surprising. At this juncture, disappointment is an expectation, something I have to fight against whenever I sit down to watch the show in an attempt to give each episode a fair shake. I’m no longer looking for how low an episode will sink, but for which of the remaining myriad different ways the show will find to disappoint viewers. This week, I was at a bit of a loss, because despite a return to an older, more successful formula, with a clearly plotted path, Family Guy didn’t muster up enough material to fill out the A-plot of a half hour.

Cleveland is back in Quahog, but just for the week, and most likely just so Family Guy can use some miscalculated too-meta jokes about improving that show’s ratings. Peter’s cell phone ringtone is the theme song for The Cleveland Show. His reasoning? “Well... the numbers ain’t so good, so we have to do everything we can.” That call serves only to fill a few minutes with plot distraction and a trademark self-congratulating elongated joke for zero laughs, with Peter on the phone with Lois, then pretending to be someone else, then revealing it’s been him the whole time, which has Lois sarcastically congratulating him on his fake voice. Back-to-back cutaways for Joe and Quagmire follow that up, wasting a few minutes before knee jerking to a road trip for the guys to reclaim their masculinity from their wives. Of course, this leads to the obvious cutaway B-plot for the wives to have a “ladies night” that will inexplicably last a few weeks.

While driving to New Orleans, the guys get lost, then pulled over by a Southern cop, and then Peter messes things up to the point that the cop plants drugs on the car and the road trip becomes a two-week prison sentence at Dungarees County Work Camp, but only after the episode’s best cutaway, where a jury made up of Simpsons characters find the quartet guilty. Even years late and senselessly on the nose, it was the only bit of meta-humor that made me laugh tonight.

Though the episode is named “Cool Hand Peter” and the gang ends up in a Georgia prison camp, that Paul Newman homage seems tacked on in typically half-assed fashion. It has no dramatic zeal, no morality play, just a goofy sideshow. There have been plenty of episodes that referenced Hogan’s Heroes in cutaways or throwaway lines, but this episode did next to nothing with the prison camp setup. It could have used The Great Escape or any other prison break genre films, or even something out of the usual Deliverance city boys in the country bag of tricks. Anything else comedic or entrenched in popular consciousness with a sense of humor would do, but Cool Hand Luke is a staggering miscalculation, precisely the wrong film of this type to reference because of its dramatic edge.

I wasn’t just confounded by the lack of a guiding parody. For a brief moment I was glad that the plot wasn’t copying anything too directly, until I realized that basically nothing was happening. The episode plodded along, hitting all the requisite marks, but without any energy, no drive to actually do anything of consequence with the plot or make any truly memorable jokes. The escape attempts had little imagination, and when Joe used his paralysis to elicit enough pity to keep the guards from watching the guys escape, it felt completely unearned. We knew they’d get out, and that everything would return to normal, but everything took the path of least resistance, which allowed for few moments of humor to arise from the actual premise.

Buried in all the banal jokes and missed opportunities was the most frustrating aspect of the episode: a few really good laughs. Peter’s “would you rather” streak continued from “The Story of Brenda Q” with a hobo vs. Hitler comparison that stretched out to a bunch of improbably funny musings from Cleveland, Joe, and Quagmire as they sorted through options and asked follow-up questions. It was a great comic strip that didn’t go for an easy Hitler joke, but actually considered the intricacies of the bizarre pairing. The first random b-plot cutaway to the women drinking wine had very little humor, but when we come back to the women in the third act, they’re on a huge wine bender. In order to force Brian into a bee costume for no reason, they let him ramble for a minute about Jonathan Franzen’s new book, which made me laugh, followed by Stewie delivering an expected but still hilarious kicker to round out that time-wasting and completely unrelated part of the episode. Peter and his friends were the overwhelming leads in this episode, and that’s too bad, because Brian and Stewie provided my favorite moments back to back within 30 seconds.

Meta jokes that directly address the audience have become a much more integral part of Family Guy’s self-reflexive humor, but in the last few minutes, those jokes added up quickly, a strange left-turn at the end that landed with a thud. On the train the guys reference “McDaniels” and “Burger Queen” while Quagmire directly calls attention to the inability to use licensed names. One time would be fine, but less than a minute later, at the climax of the escape back in Quahog, they go back to the well again. Joe gives the moral lesson to the Southern cops that comes out of nowhere, preaching to cops to be more upstanding than the citizens they protect, but that’s immediately undercut by Peter going through the “I learned a lesson” motions by making gibberish noises in the same cadence as a typical episode wrap-up. That provided the least effort of all, not even using words to close things out, or somehow try to tie things off in a coherent fashion. It was mush, a series of guttural noises, signifying nothing.

Stray observations:

  • Unofficial cutaway counter: 7.
  • Best cutaway for me was the Simpsons jury, and the worst was the candy from a premature baby gag.
  • Requisite racist humor: The “black guy work song” was pretty bad, but the upbeat show tune and mini tap number for Peter, Joe, and Quagmire was much better.
  • Quagmire knows what handcuff and shackle keys look like. In the same vein, his thought bubble early in the episode using beads was another weak joke breaking the fourth wall.
  • Too many shows comment on how anyone chasing the heroes with guns is a terrible shot with their weapons, but the bit with the officers facing every which way made me smile.
  • Adam West pops in with less than a minute to go in the episode to deliver the completely unnecessary gay joke of the night.
  • “Well, wait a minute. Now how come I gotta be Cripple Hitler, and he’s still White Hitler?”
  • “I guess this is the night bitches die.”

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