I get nervous when Family Guy takes on religion. It didn’t used to be that way. The one-off tangential jokes about Jesus performing lame magic tricks or taunting Vishnu from the early seasons generally cracked me up, but those have a different attitude than an episode that takes Seth MacFarlane’s personal views and puts them directly into the mouth of Brian, his surrogate character on the show. I don’t find the soapbox preaching compelling, whether it’s coming from a believer or an atheist like Seth MacFarlane. Most of the time it’s excruciating to watch, and as an agnostic, I feel very uncomfortable when religious criticism in entertainment gets so potent that it pushes me towards defending faith I don’t believe in out of pity. Thankfully, tonight’s episode didn’t run train on Christian Scientists and other strains of Christianity that deny themselves medical care; instead, it used that plot point to jump off into a myriad of tangential jokes and filler action sequences. It didn’t make for a great episode, but since Family Guy often makes ham-fisted and sloppy statement episodes about religion, “Livin’ On A Prayer” mercifully avoided becoming one of those ill-fated half-hours, maintaining some level of decorum amid a high amount of hit or miss tangents.
Peter and Lois take Stewie to watch Bruce perform children’s songs at the library. Stewie makes friends with Scotty, and after Lois makes friends with Scotty’s mom, the two have a playdate. Stewie’s generic hipster-mocking comments about liking Bruce’s concerts when there were only a handful of kids at the shows were pretty funny. Even the playdate, with the requisite drawn-out sequence with no real joke where Stewie and Scotty play with Transformers and Brian interrupts them, drawing Stewie’s ire when he tries to include He-Man in the Transformers universe, made me laugh more than many of the extended jokes from previous weeks. Scotty eventually passes out during the playdate, and when Lois takes the kid to the hospital, the Griffins find out Scotty has Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but that he’s not receiving treatment since his parents are Christian Scientists and believe in the power of prayer.
Of course, this leads Family Guy into dangerous territory, but for once Brian doesn’t get much of a chance to parrot MacFarlane’s atheist views, since the episode is much more focused on Lois’ concern for the child and confusion that anyone would want to deny children access to lifesaving medical care. Chris even gets in a punch at Brian, saying that if Brian were to die and the Griffins got another dog, maybe that one wouldn’t be talking so much and laying out religious comparisons all the time and fetching a stick instead. When Lois, Peter, and Brian confront Scotty’s parents at their home, it could have devolved into the same kind of gutter-dwelling pontification that “Thanksgiving” did over the ethics of war, but it inexplicably backed away. In the end, Lois does make some logical, salient points about religions that choose prayer over modern medicine as a response to grave illness. Her monologue to Scotty’s parents hits the logical highlight: Perhaps praying for a cure to cancer or other diseases doesn’t necessarily have to come in the form of miraculous recovery, but could in fact exist in the form of modern medicine.
Still, glossing over the issue and making a few key points skates by with a very low degree of difficulty. For most of the episode, that religious impetus just leads to extended action sequences of Lois and Peter kidnapping Scotty so he can get medical attention, and a bevy of time-filling tangents. Some work, like when Adam West calls himself John Mayer in an interview with Trisha Takanawa, or the cutaway about the most recognizable guest star on crime shows always being the killer (a point I’ve had to make too many times about Grimm). Others, like another dumb Peter-related gag vehicle—Peter on Jeopardy—and the montage of action movie clichés, fell flat for me, but that’s the nature of scattershot cutaway humor. Even the usual title sequence gets replaced by a shot-for-shot homage to the opening of Little House On The Prairie, a show that has absolutely nothing to do with a Christian Scientist plot. It’s simply a “Why the hell not?” kind of Family Guy joke that could have opened literally any episode this season. Perhaps it came here in part because of the late 19th century origins of Christian Science, but that feels like giving too much credit to the kind of random scatterbrained humor of the bit.
There’s a way to have the religious discussion without coming off too heavy-handed or didactic. I remember last season when Community and Glee both did faith-centric episodes within a few weeks of each other and came out relatively unscathed, but those shows don’t often delve into such subject matter. Family Guy prods at the ridiculousness of many aspects of modern religion constantly, so when it’s a major plot point in an episode, maybe the series has just run out of material the way they have on so many other topics. Using a premise that focused on religion only to run in the other direction any time an actual conversation on the topic could develop was expectedly weak, but I prefer the action diversions and mixed-bag cutaways to groan-inducing debates in episodes like “Thanksgiving”. It’s a low ceiling to be sure, but after so much unwanted atheist preaching, some logical points, a handful of laughs, and no fury after an episode of Family Guy that promises religious commentary feels like a Herculean accomplishment.
- Unofficial Cutaway Counter: 13
- My favorite cutaway of the night is a tie between the Adam West interview and the cop show clichés. I found those both really funny.
- Worst cutaway to me was Dracula in San Francisco, but that’s because I’m from the Bay Area and it seemed a bit much.
- The Griffins are more of a Fireman’s Ball family than a Policeman’s Ball one.
- Peter using a Harry Potter costume for kidnapping is a pretty inspired choice.
- “You better not only have church toys.”
- It was my birthday today. Spending a little time at the end of the night watching Family Guy and writing about it didn’t manage to sour a pretty great day, and for that I will unnecessarily thank the writers.