“Deep Space Homer” is such an iconic depiction of NASA that it’s now part of the entertainment library available to astronauts aboard the International Space Station. It’s also one of the greatest episodes from the golden age of The Simpsons, combining delightfully witty cultural parody with a dependable emotional center. Needless to say, Family Guy’s space episode is nothing like “Deep Space Homer.” It doesn’t even really involve NASA—it has Chris’ visit to Space Camp instead. “Space Cadet” actually ends up being a particularly appropriate title for a Family Guy episode that devolves into one too many cutaways, completely unfocused and oblivious to the compelling emotional plotline it sets in motion.
This week (as it was with “Ratings Guy” back in October) the episode is front-loaded, with all the best material in the first act. The Monty Python intro, Chris’ stalker-ish personal essay about his teacher, and taking a crack at the animation style of Bob’s Burgers start the episode off at a high clip, and the scene of Peter being hypnotized by Breaking Bad is probably the best and most hilarious moment of the episode. (Side note: A true mark that a show is here to stay in the Fox Sunday animation bloc is taking a shot from one of the network’s other cartoons. Congratulations, Bob’s Burgers!) But after the first commercial break, as Chris struggles at Space Camp, the Griffins take a second trip to Florida to retrieve him, and they end up launching the space shuttle, after which the cutaways stop drawing laughs and the story gets lost.
Cutaways and tangents have always been a part of the show, and their consistency certainly varies from episode to episode—but this week is an onslaught. An unofficial count of 17 cutaways is the most in an episode since I started covering the show, and that total truly kills any chance of momentum at any point in the story. It’s frustrating to watch an episode of Family Guy and ardently believe that beneath all the time wasted by stalling the plot is a story that deserves better. Chris overhears his parents calling him stupid, and after a ridiculous trip to Space Camp and accidentally getting launched into space, he proves to his parents that he’s more than they thought. Right there—that has potential to be both funny and affecting, but it’s squandered by too many distractions.
Even the tangents that land—Chris turning his parents’ heads into those singing bass fish decoration things, Canadian Horror Story, Peter stealing the “#1 Parent” mugs, and the guys whose wives are friends—don’t help to balance out just how putridly bad the failures are. The worst is clearly the Chinese/Japanese cutaway, but then there’s the typical concentration camp joke, a scout-leader bit, an exaggerating Italian guy, and a few others stabs at the line randomly picked out by the manatees.
In the third act, as the Griffins struggle to communicate with NASA and return the shuttle safely to Earth, there are still a few great moments, such as Peter suggesting the Konami code to fix the controls. Disappointingly, Chris’ emotional throughline repeatedly gets pushed to the background. It’s only used to push the plot forward into other scenes that are used as jumping off points for more cutaways. Sure, he saves the family and returns them safely to Earth, but the end of the episode is a callback to yet another unfunny Consuela appearance. There is a lot of sharply funny material in “Space Cadet,” as well as the bare bones of an emotional arc. It’s too bad that all the other cutaways weigh those good bits down.
- There were so many cutaways that I already addressed the unofficial count and my favorite/least favorites in the episode, but that Breaking Bad/The Wire bit deserves another mention. It’s entirely accurate and hysterical, especially when Peter brings it up again in the shuttle during the third act.
- Peter’s spacewalk, and his distracting smart phone, are nice little bits about how modern technology encroaches on even the most uniquely beautiful moments in our lives.
- Brian sticking his head out of the window during the shuttle launch: I don’t think I’ve ever not laughed at the anthropomorphized dog humor on this show. It gets me.
- Nice jab at the University of Florida. It’s not just me taking shots at state schools with abysmal reputations.