TV Review: “Family Guy” and the Death of Brian

Written by Television, TV Reviews

Brian and Stewie

“I have a message. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. It spun in. There were no survivors.”

So said Radar O’Reilly in one of the most shocking moments in TV history. The brain trust behind M*A*S*H always wanted their show to be more than a goofy little war comedy, and McLean Stevenson’s departure gave them the opportunity. They kept Henry’s death a secret, not even telling the cast until after the rest of the episode had been filmed. No foreshadowing — just a shock that kept up the Korean War show’s allegorical commentary on the ongoing horror in Vietnam, which ended six weeks later.

Family Guy already did a shoutout to Henry Blake’s death, substituting Meg Griffin for the departed commanding officer. The character that delivered the line: Brian Griffin.

Now Family Guy has gone several steps farther. Brian Griffin is dead.

Well, probably. In the elastic world of cartoon comedies, anything is possible. The Simpsons has brought back Maude Flanders as a ghost and a few other things. They won’t replace dearly departed actors Phil Hartman (Troy McClure) or Marcia Wallace (Edna Krabappel), but Family Guy doesn’t have that problem — creator Seth MacFarlane did Brian’s voice along with Peter’s, Stewie’s, Quagmire’s, etc. Some upcoming episode titles include Brian’s name, though they could be decoys.

So is Brian’s death a mere cry for attention from a declining show? Or is it artistic inspiration?

Fans and critics are going in opposite directions. The fans are angry, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli. (Hey, tangentially related pop culture references are fun!) The critics are busy telling you why it’s brilliant.

That’s not surprising. The world is full of people who think they’re deep because they like death. They’re the ones who insist the happy ending ruined the film version of Little Shop of Horrors.

To their credit, the Family Guy crew handled this shocking moment relatively well. It could have been a disaster, given Family Guy‘s track record of ham-fisted “dramatic” moments. (No, Seth, it’s neither funny nor edgy to restage a drama with your characters in place of the originals — even the occasionally wonderful Star Wars saga had a few “Hey, isn’t it cool that Peter is Han Solo?!” moments.) We can’t expect Family Guy to handle a character’s death with the same light touch The Simpsons would use.

The death itself was more gruesome than it needed to be. Lois’ comments throughout the show were hackneyed. But the show managed some comic relief at the funeral scene — with everyone nodding in agreement about how much they’ll miss Brian, the camera panned to Brian’s biggest hater, Quagmire: “Damn it, Ortiz, why are you swinging at junk!” (Ironic timing — Ortiz and the Red Sox just won the World Series.)

Then came one of the better scenes in Family Guy history — funny and legitimately moving. Vinny, the new dog, checked on a crying Stewie and explained that he also experienced loss recently. His aging owner attempted yoga and ripped his ballsack, leading to a surely painful death. “Yeah, it was on Dateline, it was a whole thing,” Vinny said in passing before the conversation veered back to Stewie. After Vinny and Stewie hugged, we got a nice meta moment, with Vinny asking why it smells like puke in the living room.

Ah, the legendary ipecac scene from a few years ago …

[youtube width=”602″ height=”350″ video_id=”4eYSpIz2FjU”]

So the episode itself wasn’t bad. Maybe one of the better ones in recent years, though the show has had some bright moments along the way. I’m not one of those hipsters who claims Family Guy or The Simpsons or The Office or Saturday Night Live was better in the old days and isn’t worth seeing today.

The question: Is Brian’s death worth it in the long run?

It’s a tricky question because Brian had more or less split into two characters. The old Brian — an acerbic, sharp-witted Greek chorus who happened to act like a dog on occasion — still appeared in the wonderful “Road” episodes and the time-travel exercises. They had so much time travel fun, I figured they were bound to do a Doctor Who crossover at some point. But in other episodes, Brian was just a douchebag. They actually needed Quagmire to put him in his place.

The best part of that epic rant:

And what really bothers me is you pretend you’re this deep guy who loves women for their souls, when all you do is date bimbos. Yeah, I date women for their bodies, but at least I’m honest about it. I don’t buy them a copy of Catcher in the Rye, then lecture them with some seventh-grade interpretation of how Holden Caulfield is some profound intellectual. He wasn’t! He was a spoiled brat! And that’s why you like him so much. He’s you! God, you’re pretentious!

Sadly, the Family Guy folks didn’t use this for a nice come-to-Jesus moment to shake Brian out of his douchebag tendencies. His dating life, always a little icky due to the bestiality aspect, went downhill after he broke up with Drew Barrymore, who was terrific in a goofy role.

Douchebag Brian is no great loss for the show. But what about Road Brian?

Brian and Stewie had a unique chemistry, as strange as that sounds for two cartoon characters played by the same guy. Brian was initially the only character who seemed to realize Stewie was talking. Even as they’ve bent that rule time and time again, Brian is the only one who saw all the way into Stewie’s crazy world of world domination, time travel and so forth.

And he was perfect for it. He was the straight man/dog to Stewie’s lunacy.

Road Brian was also still, on occasion, a dog. Family Guy wore out so many ideas with Brian, but not the idea of a dog talking about being a dog. Road Brian could explain why he barked at his reflection. He could yell, “Hey, you’re a dog? I’m a dog, too!” His tail wagged when he was happy.

Douchebag Brian had those moments as well. When he was humiliated on Bill Maher’s show (a classic scene), he peed on the floor, prompting Maher to chase him out. But those moments were too rare.

In the early days, Brian was the show’s oasis of sanity, like the Jim Halpert of Quahog. Road Brian could do that. Douchebag Brian was never easy to reconcile with the initial character.

Family Guy had so many options for killing Douchebag Brian without killing Road Brian. Maybe Brian could have seen the error of his ways after Quagmire’s dressing-down. Maybe they could have had the death scenes of this episode and had him remain in Stewie’s life as a ghost.

Instead, they opted for something that seems shocking but is really the easy way out. This isn’t Henry Blake reminding us of the horrors of war. It’s not The Simpsons exploring new things they can do with Ned Flanders after his wife’s death. They got people talking about the show, sure. But we’ll see how it plays out down the road.

And please forget the notion of bringing back Brian permanently. An occasional appearance as a ghost or in a weird time-machine episode, sure. But if Brian comes back for good, it’ll play out as a shallow plea for attention. The show deserves better.

For now, we’ll move on to the important tasks. Like what I’m going to tell my kids when they see a clip and ask about the new dog.