I vaguely remember Kevin Swanson from the initial run of Family Guy about ten years ago. Seth MacFarlane was the original voice for the character, then Jon Cryer in the Big Fat Paulie episode from season two, but tonight Scott Grimes from American Dad stepped up to the mic for a third run at the rarely-recurring character. Meg had a crush on him back in season one, when Lacey Chabert still provided her voice, but never developed into a supporting role like the one that Joe took on as Peter’s friend. He was used as a rather somber bit of dark comedy when Joe’s daughter Susie was born in season seven, with Joe explaining Kevin died in Iraq. Tonight, he came back from the dead for “Thanksgiving” to be the impetus for a way-too-late discussion of the Iraq War, which sucked nearly all the comedy out of a tired, but normally reliable premise of a big Thanksgiving dinner.
Kevin Swanson shows up Thanksgiving at the Griffins’ house, where the Swansons, Pewterschmidts, Adam West, and Quagmire have all assembled for the meal, with Lois reminding Peter to help cheer the Swansons up because it’s the anniversary of their son’s death. Even before Kevin shows up at the door and the episode takes a left turn into being about the current war, there are only sparse moments of decent comedy. The line about Thanksgiving dinner being in midafternoon is spot-on, but the Thanksgiving Dump Trophy, Quagmire positing that “sometimes chicks just die and it’s not anyone’s fault,” and Peter’s insistence at making at least one “dead kid joke” are all perfect examples of how lazy the show is, and in the case of Quagmire, how quickly it ignores character shifts.
As I said after “The Story of Brenda Q” a few weeks ago, Family Guy doesn’t have a very good track record with serious topics. The show botched its attempt to deal with domestic abuse, and the war in Iraq just sidesteps to another misguided attempt to grapple with hot-button subjects. There have been a handful of episodes this season that try to reverse long-standing positions within the show. Meg got to have her say, Quagmire suddenly started caring about the safety of women, and now Kevin Swanson returns, but in every case the show missed the mark. It undercut Meg’s revelations by making them integral in Meg deciding she needed to let her family use her as a punching bag, building the writers’ creative crutch into the fabric of the show. Quagmire only drops his hound dog mentality and perversely hypersexual behavior when his own sister is threatened. And it turned Kevin Swanson into a loudspeaker for political views that took over “Thanksgiving” and again put far too much pressure on already tepid jokes to land and balance the tone.
I had a hard time listening to the characters spout out opinions, since none of them really made sense as character views and felt distinctly like the writers just wanted a place to dump their liberalisms – I don’t want to only call out Seth MacFarlane because he didn’t write this episode, but considering the little bit I know about the show’s writer’s room, it’s pretty safe to assume he has final say on this sort of thing, especially given his 9/11 experience. Comparisons to Nazi soldiers blindly following orders felt polemic, with no new insight added to the anti-war argument, only repetition and regurgitation.
This is one of the reasons I find the production order/airing order of animated shows so interesting. It’s very clear that South Park benefits from the short turnaround time between production and air, because it allows that show to comment very quickly on current events, and stay timely. Family Guy seems to do the exact opposite, waiting an extraordinarily long time to weigh in on a serious issue it doesn’t satirize for comedy. “Thanksgiving” comes from the most current production season, but it feels years too late for war commentary. I still think it’s necessary conversation, and a topic that makes sense in the potential powder keg of a large Thanksgiving, but the poor execution of the entire A-plot kept that from ever being a possibility.
Jokes landed here and there. Brian predicting a line from Kevin’s postwar poetry was nicely in line with his character and good for a laugh, as well as Joe’s slow realization that Kevin’s story isn’t adding up due to references to The Hurt Locker and the timeline of the “Ed Hardy douchebag”. Those little moments aren’t enough to save a broken center. The cutaway to a fake editor’s room in Peter’s head that doesn’t have a clip he throws to and instead puts on the Cowardly Lion gynecologist comes out of nowhere for self-referential lunacy and only seems misplaced. But even as Kevin spins his story, the conversation gets intercut with Peter talking about a homeless guy who showed him his dick, a spectacularly unfunny sequence that misplays the combination of a heavy topic with levity. After last week’s bright spot, I knew we were headed back down for another helping of the usual misery, but this week offered neither a surprise nor an all-out failure, just expected, bland mediocrity.
- Unofficial cutaway counter: 7
- Best tangent: Adam West’s cutaway, that ends with “Future old people are wizards.”
- The episode title doesn’t actually have a period at the end, but we needed it there so our system wouldn’t get confused with all the other shows that have episodes with the same title.
- Yes, I fully appreciate the coincidence that tonight dealt with a character named Kevin, on top of my last name sounding like Seth MacFarlane’s.
- Pat Tillman jokes in consecutive episodes don’t help Family Guy out if it’s trying to avoid appearing extremely lazy.