One of Family Guy’s most frustrating weaknesses its inexplicable ability to go into a commercial break on a roll, only to take a nosedive in the next act. Typically, the show is so scattershot with cutaways and one-off jokes that it doesn’t bother to build momentum from scene to scene, but “Ratings Guy” had one of the best opening acts in a Family Guy episode I’ve seen in years, at least as good as “Back to the Pilot,” undoubtedly the best episode of last season. With a plot centered on Peter’s increasing obsession with how his Nielsen ratings influence can affect television production, there was, for a brief eight minutes, hope that a Family Guy episode would build goodwill on solid jokes and also make reflexive commentary on the television medium. Alas, that was not to be, as the wheels came off right after the first commercial break and headed steadily downhill to a disappointing finish.
Like many episodes of Family Guy (or The Simpsons, American Dad, or any of these animated sitcoms), the plot begins in a seemingly random location, then pivots into the main plot. This time, it’s a fire-station tour, and as the Griffins survey the local station, the show reels off a string of gags that landed with near-perfection—except the leaving Meg at the station door cutaway—that vitriol is aggressively overplayed at this point. An extended cutaway on “lonely” NBA players that highlighted one of my favorite sports jokes, Peter’s attempt to drink from a fire hose and disappointment at getting his shirt wet, Stewie pretending to be Peter, and the firefighter’s escalating brawl with an anthropomorphized flame all worked, and for the first time in months, I was anticipating better material, even when the episode abruptly shifted to being about Nielsen ratings as the Griffins received a box to keep track of their viewing habits.
But the tone changed considerably right after the break with the worst cutaway of the episode, ostensibly about how Peter never gets picked for anything, depicting a sniper shooting up a public place, but moving the crosshairs away from Peter as he waves, excited to be a target. That killed the mood immediately, and as Tom Tucker’s attempts to ingratiate Peter into watching his news program made him realize his influence as a Nielsen household, the jokes started to go south.
The one joke that worked in the midst of Peter toying with national television broadcasting was the jab at Mad Men and Breaking Bad, as Peter gets a lightsaber battle with a KISS guitar solo into the former, and puts the latter on roller skates under the guise of making it more palatable to the masses. But his tinkering upsets everyone in Quahog and incites an angry mob, at which point Mort swallows his valuables, grabs a large Menorah that doubles as a jetpack, and flies to the nearest bank branch because…yes, he’s Jewish. Last week’s première also had a disappointingly off-color Jewish joke, and they occur so frequently that it seems like there’s a per-episode quota of Jewish/black jokes that deliberately try to push the envelope regardless of quality.
The final act doesn’t rescue the shambles of the middle section. Before Peter goes to the Producer’s Guild in Los Angeles, there’s a moment where Brian gets on his soapbox to posit that Peter could wield positive influence by watching quality programming, but then Adam West destroys all the Nielsen boxes because Peter added another tree to One Tree Hill. I laughed, because Adam West is great, but it sends the plot in a much worse direction.
Peter’s attempt to “fix” television after his meddling isn’t really to do anything different. He just stands at the head of a writer’s room and restores the television landscape to its tenuous current position: a difficult to parse J.J. Abrams show, 15 workplace comedies in mockumentary style with talking heads, reality shows where people do unforgivable things for money, six Law & Order clones, and talent shows to fill out the rest of the lineup. If Peter, as Brian states in that soapbox moment, is the lowest common denominator of the television viewer, and he had the power to alter programming, “Ratings Guy” argues that that hypothetical influencer would change television to the detriment of the masses. That message seems contradictory, and that flimsy conclusion is at odds with Family Guy’s own status as the cornerstone of the Fox animated lineup. The show is no longer intelligently edgy or reliable at pushing comedic boundaries, but it’s still the highest-rated part of Animation Domination.
“Ratings Guy” didn’t insult Nielsen viewers for championing shows that are at odds with critical consensus or ignoring the “best shows” like AMC’s cable darlings or HBO/Showtime material, which I’ll take as a small saving grace. It focused more on the production end, how the industry grovels and panders to the masses in hopes that they can mechanically churn out desirable programming at the lowest possible cost, instead of striving to produce something of quality and finding a way to make it work. There’s a deeper point somewhere in this episode. But after a first act that easily punctuated beats with a lot of laughs, whatever it is Seth MacFarlane and the writers wanted to say about television in general, and how Nielsen ratings disproportionately affect what the industry produces, got muffled by a mood-killing second act and a sloppy conclusion.
- I've wavered back and forth on the grade for a while, but I'm sticking with my B- for now because I really did love the first act and think that its deserving of a slightly positive rating. I do, however, reserve the right to change my mind the next few days.
- Unofficial Cutaway Counter: 10. I’ll pick the NBA cutaway as my favorite, and that sniper one that led off the second act as the worst, but several others bombed: the Sandra Bernhard show, Hungry Hungry Alec Baldwins, Peter’s excruciating radio show, and the Superman/Lois Lane cutaway whose only purpose was a joke about how men don’t want to use condoms.
- After viewing with a screener last week, I finally saw that Stan/Brian voter registration commercial, which was surprisingly funny and restrained instead of didactic.
- Nice title cards in memory of Phyllis Diller and Michael Clarke Duncan, but I wonder why that wasn’t attached to the season première.
- While I appreciate what Stewie is trying to say about Aziz Ansari shouting all the time in his standup, his performance on Parks And Recreation is about a million times funnier than anything Family Guy has produced for the last five years. I do not understand this whole practice of cutting down other comedians, from those who came up through the ranks decades ago (Bernhard) to the newer generation, especially when this show has been coasting on fumes and common-denominator popularity.
- Under Tom Tucker’s mustache is a swastika birthmark, and he used to work for a St. Louis affiliate.
- The bit about Family Guy beating The Simpsons to a plotline didn’t land for me, but the animation accuracy suggested that maybe it was an attempt to bury the plagiarism-accusation hatchet.