“May every person that laughs at your sophomoric effort be a reminder of your eternal mediocrity, and pierce your heart like a knife.” - Stewie Griffin
An episode like “Brian’s Play” is a reminder that 95 percent of the time I am not the target audience for Family Guy. I can enjoy it as simple amusement with roommates and occasionally I find it very funny, but it doesn’t make me laugh as much as the quarter-hour Adult Swim comedies or Parks And Recreation, and it doesn’t hit me in some emotional/comedy sweet spot like Community.
I don’t think this is my fault or the fault of any viewers who share my opinion—as fearless TV Club leader Todd VanDerWerff said back in 2010, Familiy Guy “long ago pretty much decided what kind of show it was and what kind of show it was going to be and stuck unfailingly to that plan.” It doesn’t grow or change, it simply wavers a few times per season into something that depends less on cutaways, and that tends to coincide with a focus on Brian and Stewie. This preamble is taking me in a direction I didn’t really expect, but the point is that “Brian’s Play” is the most refreshingly self-aware episode of Family Guy in years, one that may not reflect the typical structure or quality, but displays the best of what the show has to offer for a viewer like me.
Much of the credit for this particular once-per-season shift in dynamic goes to Gary Janetti, who’s been writing these types of episodes for Brian since Family Guy’s first season—he wrote “Brian: Portrait Of A Dog,” “Road To Rhode Island,” “Brian Does Hollywood,” the 150th bottle episode “Brian & Stewie,” and “Brian Writes A Bestseller.” From what I know of the vagaries of sitcom writing, those scripts could bear little to no resemblance to what Janetti initially turned in, but that track record shows that he’s the go-to writer for the emotional introspection of Brian Griffin, almost always paired with Stewie.
“Brian’s Play” forms the third episode in recent years—“Brian & Stewie” and “Brian Writes a Bestseller” are the others—to explore the tormented, forever entwined friendship/rivalry between the dog and the baby. That alone demonstrates why episodes that focus on them are among the show’s best: they take the most impossible, fantastical element—a talking, hyper-intellectual dog and baby—and build the only mature, complex relationship on the show. It’s audacious and worthy of respect to take that dynamic and turn “Brian’s Play” into the closest Family Guy will ever come to being Amadeus.
Brian is defined as a struggling creative soul, so when one of his plays goes up in Quahog, the rest of the family is already bracing to catch his bruised ego in case of failure. But to everyone’s surprise, A Passing Fancy is a tragicomic hit. Ostensibly the story of a marriage that falls victim to an actor husband’s career success, the few scenes shown depict a rather middle-of-the-road relationship drama with some stilted lines, but it resonates with the Quahog audience. Brian is a hit, but he inspires Stewie to write his own play and ask Brian for friendly, honest criticism. But when Brian reads the script for An American Marriage, he’s not just blown away: he’s Salieri hearing Mozart for the first time, truly realizing his own mediocrity in the face of true realized potential.
What makes Brian/Stewie episodes so fascinating when they work is that they also feature Seth MacFarlane talking to himself from different parts of his comedic psyche—and that aspect is another layer to the best scene in the episode. Stewie confronts Brian after discovering the only copy of his play buried in the backyard, and rips into Brian for trying to stifle his creative promise. Worse still, Stewie sees through Brian’s regional, minor success, and berates his self-importance and how diminished success can feel when “Chris and the fat man could follow the plot.”
And once that pitch-perfect scene is over, Brian rushes out of the house to get away and chases down a squirrel, berates him while crying, proving that he’s just trying to find a scapegoat for his pent-up self-hatred, then kills the squirrel, thus combining my favorite version of the show with anthropomorphized dog jokes, my favorite type of humor Family Guy can offer.
Stewie’s play gets a New York premiere, and Brian tags along with Stewie’s dramatically invented pseudonym persona in order to meet playwrights like David Mamet and Yasmina Reza. As if the knife couldn’t twist enough, the dramatic heavyweights then describe going to Quahog to see a terrible play—Brian’s A Passing Fancy. They tear into it, cementing forever just how solid the ceiling above Brian’s creative efforts really is. Paired with the script confrontation, Stewie and Brian’s conversation in Times Square is as poignant as Family Guy can get (only slightly)—and it's a shame (to me at least) that the show only seems capable of shifting into this gear when these two characters are involved.
Brian has his own small success, but it only needles him while living in the same house as a now-brilliant writer like Stewie who will always overshadow him. More impressively, it finds the show engaging with dog logic outside of jokes, as Brian explains that he’ll be long gone by the time Stewie is 10, when he could then tap into his creative gifts and never have shown Brian the talent he doesn’t possess.
I come back to the idea MacFarlane engaging in self-criticism though multiple characters, yelling and arguing with himself over the merits of the creation that will define his career and his life. That’s surprisingly profound—a word I can say with near certainty has never come up around Family Guy outside of Brian/Stewie episodes—for a show that continues to make its name on recycling racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and other shock-baiting one-liner material. For Brian to hit upon the realization that he just wants a few years to be good, to find his depressing yet honest voice, then for Stewie to transition immediately to a comforting behind-the-ear scratch and a Woody Allen “daughter-wife” one-liner says everything about Seth MacFarlane as a writer and performer that resonates with me.
This is Family Guy at its most self-aware—and more importantly, self aware in the right way, taking stock of its place in the world and remaining honest, something it hasn’t done in years. Business-as-usual cutaways add a little bit here and there, but for the most part the standard building blocks of Family Guy humor gets in the way of the introspective main plot. Only in “Brian & Stewie” has Family Guy ever veered away from the cutaways, and in episodes like this, that stylistic imperative hinders what could be a stunningly impeccable late-series episode. As it stands, this is better than “Back To The Pilot” from last year, and better than the bottle episode and “Brian Writes A Bestseller.” This is a late-series peak for viewers who have seen this kind of show within the constantly shifting extremes of Family Guy. It’s not the kind of material that has defined the show for the majority of its run, but it’s the most consistent offbeat path. Maybe if this was the focus it would wear thin, but once or twice a season, episodes like this are a real treat.
- Unofficial Cutaway Counter: 10, though I did notice this high number less than in other episodes cutting between plots. It almost feels unfair to keep up this usual counting when they chip away at what makes the central plot so good. But alas, tradition wins out.
- Best cutaway: Stewie as the HR Director of The Muppets, firing Beaker for swiping the ingredients to make crystal meth, and selling it to Big Bird.
- Worst: Nothing appalling, though the Little Shop of Horrors sequence did lend itself to easy criticism with the episode’s own line that I’ve included as the epigraph.
- Stewie pays that guy a lot of money to watch him sleep.
- “Not every play is Evita.”
- “I never saw that episode!”