Maybe it’s the high from The Simpsons referencing this little web site tonight, or maybe it’s how great that episode of Bob’s Burgers was—but the phrase of the night for the Fox animated lineup is “a rising tide raises all ships.” Meg-centric episodes have been reliably disastrous in the post-revival seasons of Family Guy, and of last season’s crop, only “Leggo My Meg-O” worked for me, and mostly because it devoted much of the time to Brian and Stewie. (The other two, “Seahorse Seashell Party” and “Quagmire And Meg” were complete misses.) But “Friends Without Benefits” is the funniest Meg-centric episode in years, surrounding a typically cruel plot with some great cutaways, one-liners, and running gags, temporarily masking the long-standing problems with the show.
Meg has a crush on a popular guy at school, Kent, and wants to ask him out. She does, but in a vague, noncommittal way that doesn’t make it clear if it’s actually a date. Kent is very nice, exactly too nice, and it turns out he’s actually gay and interested in Chris. But Meg is so desperate and obsessed with the guy that she plots to set him up with her brother in order to hear all the details and enjoy the experience secondhand. Her argument with Chris is inconsequential, because in the background of the scene Peter plays around on a Slip N Slide, using Joe to pull him along, and getting tied up by a giant spider. Every time the digs at Meg get too severe, or a scene delves too deeply into sadness, something surreal pulls out of the dive and gets a laugh, and the episode moves on.
Sure, there’s still a ton of Meg bashing that doesn’t land—the self anal bleaching diary entry in particular—and the requisite race jokes that try too hard to be edgy—this week it’s Asian students waiting in line to be the first ones at school the next day—but in small, oblique doses, this doesn’t sour the episode. Meg cuts herself shaving her face and has a hairy back? Every other member of the Griffin family hides from Meg to avoid consoling her after rejection? These are all small jabs at just how sad Meg’s life is, but enough of the material built around the main plot made me laugh to ignore the pile-on until I looked at my running tally of Meg insults.
Family Guy casually ignores its own history, just like most other animated sitcoms, so Meg interacts with both Adam West and Quagmire—with whom she had previous relationships—while pursuing her gay classmate. Adam West’s appearance gets a great laugh, since he’s traded jobs with a bird, so he climbs a tree and sits on a nest, throws an egg on Meg’s head, and leaves his staff in the lurch to deal with a bird at his desk. Quagmire is his usual creepy self, providing a bag full of roofies and congratulating himself on a “rape it forward” good deed. But that plot point helps out a subsequent joke, as Meg pours roofie-laced Kool Aid into a potted plant that droops, setting up a later joke when Stewie finds the bag and thinks it’s candy.
I’m often critical of boundary-pushing material on Family Guy to the point where I wonder if I’m just taking it all too seriously. Maybe it’s that the jokes on this show have rested so long in the same territory that the idea of “edgy” material is so familiar that it no longer registers as such, but tonight I laughed a lot more than normal. There are still issues with how the plot gets resolved, but an abundance of funny jokes can mask even basic structural weaknesses.
The biggest problem is the final scene, when Meg fails to tell Kent not to show up, and has to come clean about her plan to both him and Chris. There’s no way to condone or defend her idea to drug her brother, leave him defenseless for an unwanted gay hookup, and then try to wring details out of Chris late, but that Chris and Kent are so angry and insistent in their reprimand is yet another example of how Family Guy singles Meg out for punishment. If this were Peter’s plan, the show would invariably find a way to shrug the whole thing off, maybe give him a slap on the wrist, and walk away, but since it’s Meg, Chris and Kent get to yell at her for a bit before Brian tacks on the extra jab that the only way she’ll get a man is through the entrapment of a drunken accidental pregnancy.
Still, compared to the other myriad offenses Family Guy has committed against Meg, “Friends Without Benefits” didn’t get greedy when going against its using whipping girl. Every single member of the Griffin family says or does something to belittle Meg in this episode, but everyone also gets a line or a scene that earns a laugh (Peter’s diner speak, Lois clinging to the ceiling lamp, and so on), and I can’t remember the last time I could say that about an episode of Family Guy.
- Unofficial Cutaway Counter: Seven, but I’m pretty sure I missed a couple in the count because I was laughing. That sentence alone merits a B.
- Best cutaway: Personally, I do not like musicals. They combine acting, singing, and dancing, but I’m of the opinion that the whole isn’t equal to the sum of its parts when it comes to musicals. I’d rather see a play for acting, a concert for singing, or a ballet for dancing. So when the musical cutaway came on, it was right in my sweet spot. We laugh more heartily at the jokes we agree with, and even though it’s a broader copycat version of the LEASE sequence from Team America, that’s my pick for the best of the night.
- Worst cutaway: Why would women who feel the need to undercut each other in each successive sentence even want to have lunch together? Men who hate each other would snipe just as badly—flip the genders and change “tie” to “skirt” and that joke would play the same for me.
- There’s also the obligatory Jewish joke, this time a See N Say for the sounds Jewish family members make. Family Guy runs like clockwork insofar that you can just wait to check boxes for race and Jewish humor each week and never miss. If there were Family Guy bingo cards, it would be the free space, that’s how expected these jokes are by now.