That much of the best material sitcoms produce is dramatic instead of comedic isn’t that surprising—the expectation of comfortable laughs allows solemnity to catch the viewer unaware and unprepared for “serious” material. Quite a few of the leading comedies do this: Take New Girl, which drives most of its comedy from a single factor—the inability of the 30-something characters to grow up—that’s also the source of some pretty moving stuff. Family Guy, however, is not one of these shows. Give or take a “Life Of Brian” (which it increasingly seems will overshadow the rest of this season), Family Guy usually tries to use tragic subject matter solely as a source for comedy, which might not be your cup of tea but is at least consistent, ensuring that the viewer can spend the entire run of the episode at the same comedic remove. “Mom’s The Word” has a similarly sad premise, but tries to have it both ways, producing some really excellent solitary material and some real trash.
“Mom’s The Word” focuses on the fallout from the death of Peter’s mother, who has suffered a stroke. The better plot spinning off from this is the Brian and Stewie B-plot (surprise, surprise), in which Stewie realizes that someday, he too will die. Everyone has a moment of fully realizing his or her own mortality (mine was the result of watching Titanic, which maybe explains a lot), so it’s easy to identify with Stewie here. And, given the contrast between Stewie’s childishness and his intelligence, he’s a great character with which to tell this kind of story. The execution isn’t quite up to par with the idea, but it’s still pretty good. First, Brian and Stewie go around to different religions, learning about alternate conceptions of the afterlife in an excuse to make a few easy jokes about the most basic tenets of faith. (Having spent way too much time in Hebrew school trying to get a straight answer, I can identify with Stewie’s frustration at a rabbi’s unwillingness to explain the actual contents of the Jewish afterlife.) After spending some brief, not-so quality time with Catholics and Buddhists, Brian gives Stewie the atheist answer, “lights out,” before literally turning out the lights and going to bed. Bummer, huh?
But in the face of total existential despair, Stewie decides to just go out on his own terms by committing suicide, which while maybe not the most believable reaction to deciding life ends in nothingness (I prefer to hold out delusional hope for the Singularity), sure, let’s go with it. And that’s how this becomes an episode of television that features a baby trying to commit suicide by hanging himself and instead discovering the pleasures of autoerotic asphyxiation. Though there’s no real chance Stewie was going to die, there’s still something surprisingly sad about his attempts on his own life, just as there is in Then the best joke in the episode when Stewie tries to commit suicide by cop, except that the cop is Joe and also wants someone to kill him. At least here, the joke is morbid, rather than ignoring the sadness of the subject matter. But this plot ends in the most basic resolution—Stewie decides to “live life to the fullest” by following his dreams, except that his dream of being a singer-songwriter is stupid.
Similarly, in its A-plot, “Mom’s The Word” spends much of its running time dealing with another deeply uncomfortable source of comedy rather than the fallout of Peter’s mother’s death—semi-Oedipal issues (and that old people are gross). Peter meets one of his mother’s friends, Evelyn (voiced by an extremely welcome Lauren Bacall), and they develop a friendship mostly based on Peter’s need to be mothered and have a new mother figure in his life (even though Lois fills this role already) before Evelyn starts hitting on him.
Then, there are a series of jokes about how, gross, Evelyn is old, and why would anyone ever want to sleep with her. Basically, these are all the same sorts of things Family Guy is fond of saying about Meg (who, along with Chris, barely appears in the episode at all), but about old people, because old people gross. Again, there’s a funny way to deal with this issue—Peter fending off unwanted romantic attention is inherently funny because why would anyone ever want to sleep with him—but instead, the entire joke is that Evelyn repulses Peter. Bacall still manages to breathe some life into Evelyn, and her motivation of not having experienced male attention in some years is reasonably effective, but it’s not enough to save this plot from dragging down the whole episode.
The good parts of “Mom’s The Word” are more than outweighed by how tonally inconsistent it is. This episode is even more random than most—besides the cutaways (of which there are several more than average), the script throws in gags from a sinister clown hovering at the funeral home to Joe being able to walk just one time and using it to leave Peter and Evelyn. That sort of non-sequitur humor is par for the course for this show, but past a certain density of unrelated jokes, it’s almost impossible to pay attention to the episode as a whole, especially when the episode attempts to do something a bit weightier than the show’s normal outings. It’s hard to know how to think about this sort of thing on a curve, given how bad Family Guy usually is at doing “serious.” But one way “Mom’s The Word” could learn from “Life Of Brian” is by telling, for the most part, one consistent story. If that’s too much to ask for, then Family Guy might just need to stick to the basics.
- Unofficial cutaway counter: 12.
- The Oscars’ “In Memoriam” cutaway is already outdated, since they stopped playing the audio of applause in the room this year.
- It’s hard to overstate how much Bacall helps this episode. And she pronounces “Walter” with a very similar inflection to Jonathan Banks. Just saying.