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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Family Guy: “Life Of Brian”

Illustration for article titled Family Guy: “Life Of Brian”
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When the news broke that Family Guy was going to kill off one of the Griffins during this newest season, Brian would not have been my first guess. Besides the fact that if any one character would have to endure being killed it would totally be Meg, Brian is pretty much the best character on the show, an easy straight man for the rest of the Griffins, and his friendship with Stewie is the best dynamic. Brian might be the most versatile character in the ensemble—he can be a voice of reason, an obnoxious caricature of a certain sort of politically correct, hypocritical liberal, a failed writer, and a few other things without veering into one dimensionality. He’s the character I (and probably a sizeable chunk of the show’s viewership) identify with most, and the one who most often tethers the show before it veers off into total insanity. So it was, to put it mildly, a bit of a surprise when Brian gets run over by a car and sustains fatal injuries a third of the way into the episode.

The show’s handling of Brian’s death is commendable. Brian’s death scene and subsequent funeral are actually pretty poignant, coming as close as Family Guy can to genuinely moving. Considering the plasticity of Family Guy’s situations (Meg died at the end of an episode just a couple of weeks ago), it should be difficult to get us really invested in Brian’s death and the Griffin’s pain, since he’ll probably just back next week, right? It certainly seems like Brian will return after a couple of episodes at least, but for now, it really does look like he’s dead, or, at the very least, that he’s dead for the entire running time of “Life Of Brian,” and that’s something that both the Griffins and longtime viewers of the show need to deal with. I grew up with Family Guy, and while the death might not be as affecting as it would have been in, say, the first Bush term, it still lands pretty hard.

With that in mind, the Griffins’ decision to get another dog after a month without Brian, seems a little insensitive, but “Life Of Brian” effectively sells the family’s sadness and their impulsive decision to find another pet to fill the hole in their lives. And who better to replace Brian than Paulie Walnuts himself, TV’s Tony Sirico? I had to pause the episode for a while to freak out when I realized Vinny the new dog was also everyone’s favorite mama’s boy sociopath (must have missed the casting news when it was announced in August). Regardless, Sirico is delightful as Vinny, taking character who’s both a grab bag of Italian jokes and the interloping dog replacing Brian and making him both hilarious and a potential new member of the Griffin family. He bonds effectively with Peter and even manages to console Stewie a bit with a story of his own experience with grief. This is sort of similar to what the show did back in “The Man With Two Brians,” but where New Brian was a secret dick who assaulted Rupert and forced the Griffins to bring Brian back,Vinny is already a more fully-drawn new dog. I don’t know if Brian will be back next week, or if Sirico would stick around, but I wouldn’t mind a few episodes of Vinny giving the Griffins life lessons and getting drunk with Peter.

Sirico manages the balancing act between humor and pathos for most of his screen time, but the biggest issue with “Life Of Brian” is that in every other way it tries to have its cake and eat it too. The point of Family Guy is to be funny, and it’d probably be difficult to do an episode at the level of seriousness in, say, Brian’s death scene, but it’s hard to get laughter or genuine feeling out of an audience when the show keeps changing what it wants. The funeral and subsequent scenes of the Griffins grieving are filled with jokes—some of those work in context (Joe getting beaten with a purse), some of them don’t (Chris trying to fit through the doggie door), and some of them are just weird enough to be funny (Mayor West the indignant ghost), but their presence introduces an element of whiplash to small details like Lois continuing to serve Brian breakfast. Though annoying, that inconsistency isn’t quite jarring enough to ruin how surprisingly effective the rest of the episode is at dealing with the sudden death of a main character.

For the most part, I’m on board with what Family Guy is trying to do here. It’s nice that Brian’s death (and most of the things the character meant) is taken seriously. Even knowing he’ll probably be back (and that next week’s episode is apparently totally “run-of-the-mill”), this is the first time in a long time the show has played with something over multiple wees, which gives everything Brian-related a bit more heft. Given how much his absence is felt, it’s fitting that the episode is called “Life Of Brian” even though Brian isn’t in two thirds of its run time. And considering that other thing called Life Of A Brian, being happy with the title of the episode is a compliment.

Stray observations:

  • Brian plot aside, this was a very funny episode. The Grimace and Albino Children special cutaways, in particular, had me laughing out loud in a way this show almost never gets out of me.
  • Having Stewie unable to get a part for his time machine is a smart way to make Brian’s death “permanent” but reversible, and the joke about the guy accidentally doodling a picture of Muhammad is pretty good.
  • Quagmire being on his phone at the funeral is reasonably subtle. Well played, show.
  • The Native American stuff started out strong and got progressively less funny. The white people reservation sounds like a place I could get into, though.
  • Unofficial cutaway counter: 11.
  • So, how many episodes do we think it’ll be before Brian comes back? One? Two? And will we have Tony Sirico for all of them? God, I hope so.