Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Family Guy: “Christmas Guy”

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So, yeah, Brian was always going to come back, and more likely than not it wasn’t going to last too long—until just around Christmas. Yeah, it was a total sweeps move, and yeah, it’s kind of annoying that Family Guy killed off a regular character and brought him back just like that. But what else was the show going to do, really? This is Family Guy we’re talking about (one reason that the intense, ferocious backlash against the show has kind of freaked me out—I don’t think I’d fully realized how deeply so many people cared about Brian). As nice as it would have been for the show to experiment with what the Griffins, and Stewie in particular, would have done without Brian over the long haul, it was probably definitely never going to happen.

So, taking these past three episodes for what they were—a cheap publicity stunt with a smidgen of heart behind it—they were still pretty well done. In a very highly telegraphed turn of events (that Sean O’Neal predicted pretty much exactly), Stewie encounters himself buying his Christmas presents early (which we saw back in “Life Of Brian”), gets hold of the time-travel return pad, and goes back to save Brian. Thankfully, it still seems like the show took, if not Brian’s death, then at least Stewie’s reaction seriously, exemplified by the fact that there’s only one cutaway in the second half of the episode, tied directly to Vinny and Stewie. Once it’s clear what the show is doing, it proceeds mercifully and directly from point A to point B, without any bigger mystery surrounding the car that kills Brian (a true Christmas miracle). And the extra time and episodes mean that it lands harder when Stewie saves Brian and tells him how much the dog means to him, only to fade from existence. If anything, “Christmas Guy” proves that Family Guy probably doesn’t have a heart except for Stewie and Brian.

So does bringing Brian back make the whole thing pointless? I don’t think so. One of the cool things about animated sitcoms is that they’re basically the most plastic of scripted TV formats—beyond the most basic character information, you can do whatever you want every week and not have to worry about pesky things like set design, the laws of physics, or even your actors getting older or looking different. Usually, that means that these shows have total reset buttons, allowing them to negate even something like the rapture (or, in some cases, the death of a major character). That doesn’t have to be the be-all, end-all of fiddling with the characters, though. Giving Family Guy some time to play around with Brian’s death and its effect on the other characters is only one possibility—imagine, say, a few episodes a bit more seriously examining what would happen if Peter and Lois got divorced. Obviously, some animated sitcoms have done stuff like this before, mostly in the form of slowly accrued details. But if this experiment winds up a success, it’d be cool to see Family Guy (or, say, a smarter, more competent animated sitcom run by the same guy) try something similar, but on a bigger scale and with a bit more thought to the characters.

It’s a nice touch that Stewie is successful, at least in part, because even over the course of three episodes, Vinny gets to know him pretty well—he lures Past Stewie out of his backpack by asking if he’d ever been interested in modeling. Vinny is more of a mob stereotype than he was in “Life Of Brian” (he accidentally gives Stewie a human foot for Christmas), but his attempts to please his friend are still pretty sweet. In an effort to replace Brian, Vinny even reads the newspaper and writes a book riffing on Brian called Wish It, Want It, You Blew It. Sirico isn’t being asked to do that much here, but he’s still great (his Brian impression makes no sense, but is funny nonetheless) and gets to engage in some decent malapropism, reading an “expert” from his book aloud. I get that a lot of the show’s fans hated Vinny for replacing Brian, but he was a fun addition to Quahog for a few weeks, and I’ll miss having Sirico as a weekly presence on my TV.

Admittedly, the sweetness is undercut a bit by all the jokes about how the Griffins didn’t really care about Brian, even at the end. But too much “Christmas special” shoehorned spirit would have been empty and hollow, the way most Family Guy “emotional” resolutions are—even leaning on the show’s most compelling relationship, the whole three-episode story is a bit forced. It worked well enough for me, though. Maybe it’s best to close to the book on this weirdly controversial time in Family Guy history. Maybe this sort of storytelling isn’t sustainable for a fan base that (not without reason, especially for Family Guy) wants similar episodes every week without being too surprised. But it’d be cool to see another show at least give it a shot, and perhaps find an audience willing to follow it to some weird places. And at the very least, I’m glad Family Guy tried something at least a bit different.

Stray observations:

  • It doesn’t hurt that the first half of “Christmas Guy” would have been a decent enough Family Guy Christmas episode on its own. Then again, I’ve been a sucker for Peter-Carter episodes since their Dawson’s Creek parody way back in season four’s “Peterotica.”
  • “What is going on with all these politics, huh?”
  • Yes, American Dad had the arc with Haley and Jeff running away from Langley Falls. I quite enjoyed that, and would like to see more stories like it.
  • Unofficial cutaway counter: 6.
  • A million, billion thanks to Alasdair Wilkins for filling in for me last week. Much as I’d have liked to talk about the only truly Brian-less episode, work called.