In its 10th season, The Simpsons was still churning out some memorably great episodes; “Lisa Gets an ‘A’” and “Simpsons Bible Stories” come to mind in particular. There was an expectation that the show could still touch greatness, a sentiment that has abated in the show’s second decade and beyond. It’s a struggle to think that Family Guy has a shot at being anything close to that now that it hits the 10th season milestone tonight.
In a tried-and-true premise that anyone can predict, the Rhode Island lottery jackpot is set at $150 million dollars, and Peter spends an insane amount of money on tickets. The Griffins are justifiably upset, but after one of the show’s trademark drawn out sequences for only one laugh, the family sifts through thousands of lottery tickets in a training montage set to music, only for Peter to reveal that he printed fake ones as an exercise, before Brian discovers the winning ticket, and the Griffins are suddenly super rich. Chris can now have a butler serving him vintage glue for sniffing, Lois gets a blood diamond ring, and Peter decides he can basically do what he wants whenever he wants to, which doesn’t really change the dynamics from any other episode.
For the most part, “Lottery Fever” cuts out most of the other characters in favor of showing how Peter treats his family and friends horribly in the wake of the lottery win. We get Trisha Takanawa, Adam West, and Bruce the Performance Artist in guest appearances, the last one only in a tiny cutaway to make a comment that the premiere is “weird,” which is neither accurate nor funny. Peter is characteristically rude, insulting, and manipulative, but worst of all, the situation doesn’t lead to good jokes or funny scenes. We get a requisite moment where Quagmire hits up Peter for money to invest in a friend’s penis enlargement pill, and then Peter gets the idea that he can make his friends do anything he wants now that he’s given them money. What started as an already underwhelming romp with wealth for the Griffins turns into a weak morality play on the perils of being rich, which has the gall to try and incite sympathy for Peter in the end.
The episodic nature of Family Guy plots requires the reset back to status quo, so we know that Peter will lose the money quickly, which he does, and then he has to go crawling back to Quagmire and Joe, emotionally hurt and missing an eye, respectively. The lesson seems to be that if you get rich at the expense of becoming morally bankrupt, your friends will still care about you when you are financially bankrupt as well. Even if this gets played for irony or to mock that idea, it never really comes across effectively. Peter is horrible to his friends, but since he gave them some startup cash before the downslide, they still take him back.
I would have less of a problem with the typically shallow excuse for a plot if there was more funny material, but even by Family Guy standards, there wasn’t a whole lot in this episode. The lottery money led to some clunkers about Persian guys and white BMWs, a now-expected joke about Jews that toed the inappropriate line, and a gag featuring Stewie emerging from Brian’s un-groomed fur that barely elicited a laugh. There were also a handful of par-for-the-course sex jokes. The penis enlargement sight gag that closed out the episode was pretty bad.
The cutaways weren’t running on all cylinders either. The only one that deservedly got a big laugh was a clever Duck Tales reference to diving into a vault of gold coins, but most of the others landed completely flat. Yes, that’s another reference to the Duck Tales joke. Aside from that, the True Blood and Michael McDonald tangents didn’t do much. Family Guy plays a risky game with its narrative structure, banking on the cutaways to do a lot of the comedic work to help enliven a tired plot, but when it doesn’t work, it doubles down on unsatisfying comedy.
Family Guy has been running on creative fumes for a while now, but with viewership holding steady over the years since its resurrection, it doesn’t look like it’ll stop anytime soon. When the jokes land and the zaniness has some kind of rhythm that leads to laughs, it works, and some of the more offensive bits can be brushed under the rug. But the larger problem with the show is that it feels lazy, only popping back to relevancy when it has a particularly funny half hour, which it definitely didn’t tonight.
- Welcome to the new coverage of Family Guy at the A.V. Club! Now that everything in the FOX animation block has been split up, I’ll be following the show each week. I watched most of the show before its original cancellation, and re-watched those volumes on DVD when it was off the air but growing in popularity. Since the show came back, I’ve only popped in occasionally, watching all of the Star Wars episodes and various others. I know the first 100 episodes pretty well, but the remaining 60+ I’m not as well-versed with, so we’ll see how I react to the new rhythm of the show in the coming weeks.
- Unofficial Cutaway/Tangent Count: 10. Each week I’m going to try and keep track of just how many times Family Guy cuts away and highlight a favorite or a particularly bad waste of time. This week, Duck Tales was clearly the best.