From the moment the curtain in Peter’s hospital room pulls back to reveal another guy in the room named Mahmoud, “Turban Cowboy” is a decent if unspectacular episode of Family Guy. Peter’s skydiving hobby leads to some humorous Point Break-esque twirling through the sky, a crash landing montage that includes a nice jab at Angry Birds, and Jeopardy Presents: The Best Of Contestant Banter, one of the best cutaways of the season.
But once Mahmoud enters the picture, I got nervous. Family Guy doesn’t handle this kind of supporting character well, and though the episode held out as long as it could, it takes two moronic and entirely expected turns. First, Peter sees how subservient Mahmoud’s wife behaves, and that convinces him to convert to Islam. If that were the only bad choice, then this would just be another unfortunately misogynistic episode of Family Guy. But then the show doubles down on obvious plots involving Muslim characters, and Peter accidentally becomes a member of a terrorist cell panning to bomb the Quahog Bridge. So, to recap: Peter befriends a Muslim man, converts to Islam because of the “hats” and obedient wives, and then that Muslim man turns out to be recruiting Peter into a terrorist cell. It’s the complete opposite of a progressive depiction.
Peter acts nonchalant about his involvement with the terrorist cell, mostly because he has no idea what he’s gotten into. But Joe sees it as an opportunity to take down terrorists, giving the episode a bit of a Sleeper Cell vibe. And then Quagmire and Joe have a brief exchange that aims to absolve Family Guy of stereotyping: one minute of acknowledging that every group has its crazies attempting to cover the show’s ass.
When a white guy—say, a Unabomber or the man responsible for the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting—commits a heinous crime, they’re singled out as crazy, insane isolated examples. They are made into individuals. But crimes committed by members of minority groups are far more often indicated as representative of that group, their identity associated with their race or ethnicity. It’s just an unfortunate tendency. Family Guy clumsily attempting to show it understands the complexity of the issue does not undo the severely reductive stereotyping.
I didn’t write anything about Seth MacFarlane’s hosting gig at the Oscars, partly because Fox wasn’t airing new episodes for a few weeks, but also because none of the episodes since that awards show offered a way to talk about it. But “Turban Cowboy” reminded me of exactly what I didn’t like about MacFarlane’s performance as host, and what I find so bothersome about the vast majority of the racial and ethnic humor on Family Guy.
So many of the “edgy” and deliberately controversy-baiting jokes on the show appeal to lowbrow sensibilities, but also try to rope in a higher-minded audience with a thin layer of knowing irony. At the Oscars, this was the knowing attitude that “We Saw Your Boobs” was sexist, but it’s okay, go ahead and laugh because Seth MacFarlane knows it’s sexist and got a bunch of actresses to shoot cutaways and be in on the joke, which only halfheartedly undercut the already baffling and unfunny musical sequence.
It’s the difference between someone incredibly skilled at satire and layered humor like Stephen Colbert—who projects a vile and detestable worldview, but with such comedic conviction that it’s undeniably a joke—and Seth MacFarlane, who tries to hide his vile and detestable worldview with the thin defense that he knows those opinions are deplorable. That shouldn’t fool anyone.
There are some bright spots in the second and third act of the episode. Brian’s congratulatory speech to Peter for making a Muslim friend reeks of self-importance, and whenever the show portrays Brian as so transparently desperate to be seen as morally superior, I laugh. And a few of the cutaways—Peter’s “everywhere is a racquetball court” phase and the chameleon gag—offer a brief respite from the main plot. But for the most part, “Turban Cowboy” feels like an episode made in 2002 and left on the shelf for a decade, completely unaware of just how uniformly Middle Eastern characters are depicted as terrorists. If only Joe and Quagmire had chosen Peter’s suggestion that they rob a mafia poker game, then maybe this would’ve been a Family Guy send-up of Killing Them Softly instead.
- Unofficial cutaway counter: 11
- Best cutaway: That Jeopardy cutaway kicked off the episode nicely, though the racquetball gag is a close second.
- Worst cutaway: I didn’t care for peter watching soccer in an empty café on a black and white television. It’s yet another example of something Family Guy tries to ascribe to a certain minority group that isn’t exclusive to that group.
- Peter’s final speech fell flat, but I did like one line: “We’re the proud nation where someone can shoot up their entire workplace with a thing, and then the next day nobody talks about banning that thing.”
- More evidence this episode could have been made in 2002: the Air Force One and Calista Flockhart jokes stacked together in the span of 30 seconds.
- Peter in a hookah bar: “It’s like smoking my grandfather’s jacket.” As opposed to cigarettes, which always smell wonderful?