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

Family Guy: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”

Illustration for article titled Family Guy: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”

The Star Wars specials are among my favorite episodes of post-revival Family Guy. Those three episodes are so full of genuine interest and devotion to the source material that no amount of cynicism can overpower just how much admiration the show has for the films. The power outage used as a framing device got less screentime in each successive episode, hurtling into more Star Wars jokes and commentary. Though your mileage may vary between those and the Robot Chicken specials, the episodes have been some of the best Family Guy has to offer in its victory lap seasons, especially for episodes that feature the entire Griffin family.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” is a thrifty attempt at that same kind of episode structure—one that dates back to “The Griffin Family History” in the first post-renewal season finale from 2006, when the family members locked themselves in their panic room. This time, Peter tells his version of Jesus’ birth, focusing mostly on Joseph courting Mary while mixing in plenty of jokes about how archaic and barbaric ancient civilization was at the time. Peter is Joseph, while Lois is Mary, and Joe, Quagmire, and Cleveland (I like when he comes back for these kinds of episodes) are the three wise men. Carter is Herod, Stewie is the baby Jesus, and a few notable recurring characters show up in minor roles.

There is so much potential for a fun episode, since Family Guy has used this type of episode so well in the past. But the whole plot is so stripped down to bare bones because of other distractions—at one point in the second act, there are back-to-back endurance humor scenes, neither of which elicit laughs—that it doesn’t even properly go through the motions. The wise men set off, and Herod freaks out at the prophecy of Jesus’ birth, but there are also references to A Christmas Carol and crappy airlines that are never on time. The strongest jokes are the ones that point out how cruel and unfair the world was toward women, but all of the archaic humor wears thin quickly, turning into something like Year Zero instead of finding more material in the Christmas origin story.

Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez’s The Book of Mormon recently opened in Chicago for what is sure to be a lengthy and successful run. I saw the show last Thanksgiving on Broadway, and now after seeing it again in Chicago, I think I know why I loved it so much, while I detest just about every other musical. It’s uproariously funny, especially when poking holes in the logic of Mormon beliefs and practices, but those jokes don’t come from a place of cruelty or hatred—instead, it’s because Parker and Stone are so damn intrigued that another human could actually believe in those things. As a complete nonbeliever who often times lets my idea of logic and common sense bleed into anger when talking to religious friends, I most admire The Book of Mormon’s restraint when grappling complicated issues of faith.

And whether or not Paul Thomas Anderson continues to dodge questions about the inspiration for The Master, a large portion of the audience will read it as a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of a cultish leader without damning the whole practice out of hand. These are two extremes, comedic and dramatic, and they have roots in a similar curiosity about religion. Neither outright denies the benefits, and though Mormon clearly has a ton of fun pointing out the ridiculousness of actual Mormon beliefs, it also goes out of its way to say that everyone believes in silly things.

Family Guy never has that feeling of curiosity. It’s far too often bitter, malicious, and condescending to anyone it deems foolish enough to believe in something bigger. But other times—and “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” unfortunately falls into this category—it’s so toothless and scattered that it can barely muster the old venomous attitude toward religion.


Stray observations:

  • While I rolled my eyes when I saw Meg as the donkey Lois rides on the way to Bethlehem, the sight gag where Lois rolls up the dividing glass like a limousine was great.
  • Playing that wise men scene as a CBS sitcom with theme music like Two And A Half Men worked surprisingly well.
  • “And that’s why you’re allowed to eat as much mozzarella as you want in any church.”
  • “I’m getting the baseball bat.”