Family Guy's place within the Animation Domination lineup is a strange one. It's obviously a cult show. It has the soul of a cult show, and its audience is as devoted to it as the audience of a cult show would usually be. And yet it's the single biggest half-hour comedy on the Fox lineup, and it's the one thing holding the Sunday night bloc together, many weeks. This means that Fox has gotten more and more used to just letting Seth MacFarlane do whatever he wants, be that a take on an All In The Family episode that runs over the half-hour timeslot or an hour-long murder mystery. In most media but particularly in television, letting someone have carte blanche is rarely a terribly good thing, since it eliminates the push and pull at the center of good artistic collaboration, but Family Guy is having a fairly successful season, almost against all odds.
At this point, it's pretty clear that Family Guy isn't going to alter its format to please the handful of people who complain about it (including me). It's always going to have more of an emphasis on gags and cutaway jokes than it has on story and character, and it's always going to assume that if we're not fine with that, we'll change the channel. And yet over the past year or so, the show has gotten more and more story-conscious for some reason. Back in the early months of the year, I went to this panel where MacFarlane shared his philosophy for creating television, and he was talking about how if an episode didn't have a strong story or a good character backbone, it usually didn't work, and I wanted to scoff. Right. He cared about that. But over the past year, weirdly, it seems as though he HAS started to care about that sort of thing again. He's a millionaire many times over, but he's either been tweaking the Family Guy formula to focus more on strong stories or he's brought in writers to do just that. It's an interesting blend of the show being a cult one that doesn't want to lose its audience and trying to spread its wings.
This brings us to "The Road To The North Pole," which is my favorite Family Guy episode in several seasons. This may be due to my Christmas bias, but I don't think so. Outside of a strange segment where Stewie and Brian, filling in for Santa in true sitcom Christmas plot fashion, kill an entire family, the episode is a good blend of solid gags, a fun story, and the kinds of envelope-pushing stuff Family Guy rarely does this well. The musical numbers, which have often been annoying in the past, are all nicely staged and performed (particularly the opening one, which closes with all of the characters being revealed in a big Advent calendar), and the episode's moral, while a little simplistic, is genuinely sweet. What's more, I liked the chance the episode took in making the North Pole a grim hellhole, at least initially. This was the sort of thing that could have gotten uncomfortable for the sake of making something cringe-y, but the way the episode kept piling more and more ridiculous horrors on top of each other kept the whole thing funny (unlike the killing the family segment). I'd quibble with the use of what appear to be the 2D Family Guy models over 3D CG backgrounds, but that's quibbling, particularly in an episode narrated by MacFarlane's own father and featuring a disembodied David Boreanaz head as the "Aurora Boreanaz." "The Road To The North Pole" is a satisfying episode of Family Guy all around, filled with funny gags and nice moments, and I can see it becoming a syndication package holiday staple. Grade: A-
Meanwhile, in the other shows …
The Simpsons: The Simpsons doesn't bother having two Christmas episodes in one season (though it, too, opens with an Advent calendar gag), instead choosing to open as a New Year's Day episode. There's not exactly a rich television tradition of such a thing, but as there are so few New Year's Day traditions anymore, The Simpsons mostly ditches this to tell a fairly staid and standard Mafia storyline. This is basically the same storyline that the series tells every time Fat Tony drops by, and though it seems as if the series will let go of this particular plot device/crutch when Fat Tony dies around the episode's midpoint, it sidesteps this whole thing by coming up with a new Fat Tony, as though mobsters are as malleable as Snowball II. There were things I laughed at here (particularly the gag of the cat and the dog having made a horrible mistake and ended up together after New Year's Even night), but the storyline was too much of a mob movie pastiche, taken as it was from equal parts Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco. A fairly lazy episode of what's been a pretty hit-and-miss season. Though I guess this is what happens when you say, "Oh, hey, let's do a New Year's Day episode." Grade: C
American Dad: American Dad has the opposite problem of Family Guy in that it's pretty consistently the best show in the bloc, but no one pays any attention to it, no matter how often it's rerun on Adult Swim. And now, the show is headed off for the 7:30 death slot after this airing, unless Bob's Burgers collapses (which it very well might). More immediately, the show has to figure out how to top last season's Christmas episode, "Rapture's Delight," which is one of the very best things the show has ever done. Instead of heading in an opposite direction and not even bothering to try to top "Rapture's Delight," American Dad tries to take it on, head-on, and it mostly doesn't live up to the task. The ending assault on the Smiths by Santa and the elves takes forever and relies too much on making us fear that Jeff will betray the family for one reason or another. Before the third act, though, there are funny jokes aplenty. American Dad always thrives at this time of year, since it plays perfectly into Stan's idea of patriotism and Americana as a kind of religion, but the too-lengthy action sequence killed any humorous momentum the episode had built up. Grade: B
- "You will be known as Nicky 'Bluepants' Altosaxophoni." "Can I keep the name after I'm done?" "No. It belongs to the government."
- "Just get the ladle down there deep. That's where the beaks are."
- "If Jews control the media, why can't I get on Jimmy Kimmel, eh?"
- "I hope Heaven's outer room is painted that eggshell blue you could never achieve on Earth."
- "And the only one who ever shot anyone is the baby."
- "Kenny Rogers was supposed to be here, but I think he's dead."
- "Yellowcake uranium, never mind the reason. Also Chutes and Ladders and a ball."
- "We're gonna see Santa, and he's gonna bring you a new brain."
- "HOW'M I DOIN' TODAY, GARY BUSEY?!"
- "Hi there! Things are kinda beautiful up north, huh?"
- "Oh, boy. Get ready for the letters."
- "… Which has turned the reindeer into wild feral creatres with a blood thirst for elf flesh."
- "This is in none of the songs or poetry!"
- "Lemme just clean his father's blood and hair off of it."
- "I got eight mediocre things."
- "Local officials are going with the theory that everyone was bad this year."
- "I'm asking for an authentic polar bear helmet from the movie Golden Compass."
- "The only thing I have to accept is that socially, I can't wear mascara, even though it makes my eyes pop like firecrackers."
- "Merry Wednesday, son!"
- "You did it! You kissed the raccoon!"
- "My name is Klaus Heisler."