Family Guy has a narrowly specific kind of self-awareness. It’s hyper-aware of all strains of pop-culture, and breaks the fourth wall frequently either to comment on a reference or just to use a direct-address. However, aside from this season’s best episode “Back To The Pilot,” Family Guy has never been self-aware about its own decline, to the point where it comes off as extremely self-conscious of how it is currently perceived by the fans that once adored it.
In the middle of the first half of tonight’s finale, Peter bemoans a roast of Robin Williams, and gains the surreal power to turn anyone into Williams by touching them, which predictably gets out of hand as Peter begins to despise that brand of comedy. The show has taken more than its fair share of potshots at random celebrities over the years while championing strange choices like James Woods and Adam West—who is still consistently brilliant just as Patrick Stewart is over on American Dad. But for the show to go after Robin Williams, a legendary joke thief who, while not universally reviled, certainly isn’t much-beloved, and not recognize the similarities between popular sentiment of this show and that comedian’s career, without even a hint or trace of irony, epitomizes just how far this show has fallen since its glory days of populist revival.
But let’s backtrack a bit from that colossal misstep, since as a two-part season finale, I actually had a lot of fun with these episodes. They aren’t on the level of the film parodies over the last two years but they are moderately successful. Family Guy no longer has Star Wars movies to summarize with glib (but loving) commentary, and didn’t see fit to take on another touchstone film series, but the show wasn’t content to merely come up with a new idea. “Viewer Mail #1” was the last new episode of the show before its first cancellation, and now it’s been revived to help close out this season. Like the “Treehouse Of Horror” episodes of The Simpsons or the “Anthology Of Interest” episodes of Futurama, “Viewer Mail” is comprised of three shorter stories, an opportunity to completely alter the structure of the show and tell a different kind of story. As far as the repetitive nature of Family Guy goes, at least this technique has a reasonable track record of success, so it’s not all that surprising that the first segment in this anthology is one of the best moments for the show all year.
After first acknowledging that Family Guy is essentially a direct rip-off of The Simpsons, Brian and Stewie mention that the show is based on British series Chap Of The Manor. In the British version, the family still watches a ton of television and Peter is still crazy and gets away with everything, but everyone has the stereotypical bad teeth, names are different, Brian is a horse, Trisha Takinawa is Indian, Joe is a Buckingham Palace guard, and Stewie speaks with a generic backcountry American accent.
The plot is a rushed version of a typical episode, involving Peter trying to prove he’s related to the royal family by stealing some of the Queen’s hair. That’s not as important as the throwaway jokes and cutaways, which are some of the best of the season. Wheel Of Politeness, no one understanding how cricket works, and yelling at Prince Charles are just a few of the little things that made Chap Of The Manor a really nice twist on the core elements of Family Guy. The other two segments—the aforementioned Robin Williams magic-trick-from-hell, and POV day-in-the-life of Stewie with a few bright spots—pale in comparison to the first, but at least going back to the well this time didn’t yield vastly diminished returns.
In the second episode, Family Guy actually manages to string together some kind of emotional poignancy, but only because it’s about the Swansons instead of the Griffins. Joe and Bonnie are growing apart, and after he helps make a huge drug bust, she won’t go to the celebratory party. Nora, a new officer, comes on to Joe and kisses him at the party. After initial misgivings, Quagmire and Peter convince Joe that in order to equalize his marriage after Bonnie had an affair with a Frenchman, Joe sleeps with Nora in a surprisingly well-designed handicapped bathroom stall. The news comes out at their son’s birthday party and blows up into a huge public fight that ends in Joe asking for a divorce.
In typical Family Guy fashion, the way to bring the two back together is outlandishly ridiculous, involving recreating the moment Joe and Bonnie met at a strip club while “Africa” by Toto was playing. That song has been used better by Community, and even Scrubs during a Wizard Of Oz-inspired episode, but here it managed to come off as a light and silly resolution to a surprisingly effective emotional plot. Since we don’t see as much of Joe and Bonnie and haven’t seen how horrible they can be to each other as often as the Griffins, perhaps it’s more believable and more satisfying. But for some reason, the awkwardness of Joe giving Bonnie a lapdance to repay the one she gave him while handcuffed on the night they met felt endearingly funny.
I can't go this entire review without mentioning the Peter/Chicken fight, which ramps up to its logical Michael Bay-esque conclusion of epic proportions, while leaving the sequence open-ended for a potential return. Action scenes on this show are normally pretty exciting to watch, and this was no exception, jumping through space and time with a requisite amount of explosions.
Covering Family Guy this season has taken a big toll on my reviewing stamina. There are only so many ways to catalog just how much of a shade this show is in comparison to its first three (possibly four) seasons. But it has made the slim bright spots more enjoyable, for that little bit of hope that somewhere, some of the writers still have a bit of fire left, and can turn out a consistently funny episode without resorting to lazy shock tactics and disheartening repetition.
“Family Guy Viewer Mail #2”: A-/C/B-
“Internal Affairs”: B
Season Grade: C