The most obvious sign that tonight’s episode represents a new era for Family Guy comes in the opening credits, as the Griffins’ new dog Vinny takes Brian’s familiar place in the opening song-and-dance number. There’s no further acknowledgement that a change has occurred; someone returning to the show after a lengthy break might well not even notice that the dog has been switched. It’s anybody’s guess just when the show will inevitably bring Brian back from the dead—and one leading guess suggests that that could happen as soon as next week—but, for tonight, the show treats Vinny as just one of the regular characters, and not even a featured one at that. The permanent (for now) death of a major character is a multi-episode meta-joke tailor made for Family Guy, but so far the show has played the death of Brian and the arrival of Vinny entirely straight. And really, that disinterest in the meta possibilities of Vinny is right for a show that is so proudly unbound by any normal rules of comedy or narrative. A more tightly structured animated show like, to pick an example entirely at random, classic-era Simpsons would not be able to resist commenting on the interloper’s presence, as with Roy in “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show.” The handling of Vinny’s story thus far is an area where Family Guy’s shagginess becomes an asset.
Instead of, say, introducing a dog that is an obvious knockoff of Brian or perhaps having Vinny comment on Brian’s role in the Griffin household, “Into Harmony’s Way” is just a typical episode, albeit one where Tony Sirico occasionally drops by to share Vinny’s very un-Brian perspective on the world. Indeed, Brian himself isn’t mentioned at any point tonight, and there’s zero hint of any larger arc for Vinny. The new dog does get to be the focus of two lengthy joke sequences, although that’s just about what one would expect Brian’s role to be in an episode where he doesn’t get his own subplot. Admittedly, the content of the jokes are different, as Family Guy continues to make the most of Tony Sirico’s particular talents. His initial interaction with Quagmire plays upon some fairly standard Italian-American stereotypes, but Sirico’s lived-in gravitas elevates the gag. His insistence that ladies’ man Quagmire should wear a necklace indicates a perspective that has no natural place on the show; the presence of a canine Paulie Walnuts opens up comedic and storytelling possibilities that are different from those that Brian provided.
His subsequent conversation with Stewie, in which Vinny details what he and his neighbors did to the aptly named Johnny Chick Stuff, can only be described as vile. I don’t mean that as a criticism of the episode; indeed, “Into Harmony’s Way” leaves little doubt of its dim opinion of Vinny’s senseless brutality when he observes, “He wasn’t exactly like us, so we had to almost kill him.” What’s uncertain here is just what purpose this conversation is meant to serve. Vinny’s violence against Johnny Chick Stuff—not to mention his possibly murderous opposition to interracial marriage—is shocking to hear from a de facto main character, but it’s not as though the episode’s featured players Peter and Quagmire haven’t committed acts of equivalent awfulness in their time.
If I judge Family Guy as I would any other show—which I realize is an insane thing to do, but bear with me—I’d swear that what Vinny says to Stewie is intended to foreshadow his eventual exit from the show, a rather unsubtle hint at the hatred and sociopathic tendencies that will make his continued presence untenable once Brian is resurrected. But it’s just as likely that the episode is sketching out Vinny’s own niche of shock comedy, with no larger purpose than adding to the sorts of outrageous jokes that Family Guy can tell while it has Sirico. There’s nothing wrong with either possibility; really, this is just the nigh unprecedented instance where it’s difficult to judge Family Guy’s approach without knowing its long-term intentions.
All this leaves to one side the main plot of “Into Harmony’s Way,” which tells a familiar story of Peter embarking on a new career, becoming successful enough to be a complete ass to his family, and then letting his gargantuan arrogance and selfishness get the better of him. This time, Peter’s surprisingly marketable talent takes the form of close-harmony singing with Quagmire, which means the episode has a readymade excuse to cram in a bunch of songs. The only coherent through line here is Peter’s jerky obliviousness; the hint of a story built around Mort Goldman’s offer to manage the duo is abandoned early. Family Guy isn’t given to the sort of narrative discipline given to explore the ideas in the subplot, particularly when an episode’s central character is a creature of pure id like Peter Griffin. Besides, Mort is really only there so that the show can flash back to his moderately amusing exploits as a ’70s-era Motown band manager.
Since Peter’s story only provides a framework for the songs, the success of the episode depends on the quality of the music. Here, I’ll admit a weakness for close-harmony folk music, and it’s hard to argue with Seth MacFarlane’s ability to sing with himself. The lyrics about pooping in strange places offer a suitably extreme counterpoint to the dignified guitar music, although it goes on just a bit too long without finding a new twist on the gag. More effective is the song about putting butter on Pop Tarts, which is deeply, deeply stupid in a way that Peter and Family Guy in general can make oddly endearing. That’s certainly the case with the later song about trains crossing the Atlantic and boats coming off the tracks, with Peter offering the wonderfully lame disclaimer that he only just learned the difference between these two modes of transport yesterday. Again, none of this a revelation, but it makes for a solidly amusing half-hour, with Peter’s obnoxiousness pitched at just the right level so that he remains vaguely redeemable by episode’s end. Hell, his overlong search for his guitar pick while performing on Conan is one of the less egregious things he does, and whatever demons he might have are apparently nothing compared to those of Conan O’Brien.
The end of the episode offers a timely reminder of just how insanely elastic Family Guy’s reality can be. The show has long since passed the point where the sudden reveal of a pseudo-stepfather like Larry could be considered surprising—although that doesn’t detract from its funniness as a throwaway gag—but this episode does end with Peter mulling over what it means to return to his normal, post-fame life, then promptly shooting himself. There’s only the most infinitesimal of chances that his apparent suicide will have any impact beyond its place here as a final dark punchline, but it’s still remarkable to think this is the same show that dealt with Brian’s death so seriously just two weeks prior. Family Guy is very far from perfect, but it’s still weirdly impressive that its format can stretch to include such diametrically opposite character deaths in the space of just two episodes.
- “A singer, eh? You as good as the guys who sing ‘Happy Birthday’ at Macaroni Grill?” “Oh, don’t compare me... look, they’ve been doing it for years!”
- The Unofficial Cutaway Counter is on break this week, but I will say that I really liked the sliced bread gag. Family Guy’s language gags tend to work for me.
- I still want to know whether Peter’s dream came true. That man deserves a giraffe!
- Thanks for letting me sub in for Eric; he should be back next week!