It’s been nearly a week now that the cartoon series Family Guy elected to kill off it’s Vox Dei Brian Griffin. In all honesty I haven’t watched the show for years now, and yet the news has settled like a cancer upon the internet, with no sign of remission in site. I find it rather amusing myself, say what you like about the series, but it certainly speaks to people. Truth be told, I would have killed Brian off too, whether or not it was the right thing to do for the show’s proliferation. Why? Let me explain.
I was a big fan of the show in it’s original run, before the cancellation. I even downloaded the episode “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein,” originally banned from broadcast, and delighted in sharing this tongue in cheek treasure with my friends. When the series returned some time later, I was in college. At first, I found it easy to rekindle my love for The Griffins. My friends and I used to sit around, and deliberately try to interject lines from various episodes into polite conversation. I’d watch episodes on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim with my then boyfriend, and explain the jokes to him, which always seemed just a bit over his head. I think that may have been the case for one too many viewer, as after a while, the humor of the show seemed to grow more simplistic and pandering.
While one could hardly tote “Family Guy” as an exercise in subtlety, the characters became broader, and less faceted. Chris Griffin had originally been incarnated as a boy, who struggled intellectually but had a great gift for expressing himself artistically. There were the silly, oafish moments, where Chris’s dim wittedness would make for a guffaw, but at his root, he was more than just the bumbling imbecile he would be reduced to. Stewie was a malevolent baby with an inexplicable British accent. He exhibited an arguably Freudian desire to kill his mother, (the reverse of the Oedipus Complex) furthered by subtle hints that he would grow up to be a homosexual man. In later episodes Stewie just seems like a walking gay joke, which grew old for me, quickly.
The saddest casuality of this transformation was undoubtedly Brian Griffin, whom I feel died long before the show acknowledged such. Brian was originally the voice of reason in a family, where the actual father figure , Peter Griffin, was a selfish, oblivious fool. Peter had a beautiful wife, a family and friends, though how he had managed this was not immediately apparent. Brian on the other hand was a dog, who could never aspire to the same heights as his master and yet was his mental superior. This discrepancy was not lost upon Brian, and there were moments where his jealousy, mainly over Peter’s beautiful wife Lois, was evidenced. Still, Brian was a character with some depth. As the show progressed, it seemed that Brian too became one dimensional.
While the old Brian had been thoughtful, cynical and sometimes irreverent the new amalgamation struck me more and more as being condescending and self-righteous. Peter and his idiocy became the obvious straw man, torn apart by Brian’s infallible reason. Fine, so be it. Maybe today’s audience needs a punchier breed of witticism I justified to myself. Yet soon it wasn’t just Peter burnt as the straw-man, indeed it seemed Brian was the only flesh and blood resident in a world entirely constructed from straw. Whole episodes centered on how Brian was admonished by an ignorant society for being a liberal and an atheist.
In the show’s defense, this shift did take place during it’s 5th season, which coincided with the administration of George W. Bush. It was hard not to be infuriated by the cavalier right wing antics used to justify warfare. The rhetoric spouted again and again on newscasts, promising that the peoples of the middle-east would “Welcome us as liberators” and painting Muslims as religious zealots who need to be brought to justice made it feel as though we’d been thrust into a modern day Crusade. Somehow, during these dark days, tooting your atheist horn while riding around on a liberal high-horse did help you feel like you were above the madness. As a writer myself, I am not always able to keep my personal views from muddying my characters attitudes…I am, for all intents and purposes, human, as I presume all the writers for this show to be. Still, when letting your voice be heard comes at the expense of creating a semi-coherent plot-line (Family Guy played it fast and loose with plot to begin with) a show becomes less watchable.
Yet, I think the simplification of characters across the board, transforming Brian into a ranting curmudgeon, is actually when the show hit it’s stride for the majority of the viewing audience. My then boyfriend no longer needed jokes explained to him, as the show had become far more palatable to his taste. While he’d never been one for religion, it seemed that now it was he who deliberately tried to pepper conversations with quotes from Family Guy that helped him espouse his atheism. It quickly became a point of contention for us.
“No, I’m sorry.” I’d say. “I don’t buy it. If you really were an atheist, then you’d feel urged to do something with your life other than playing video games and passing out on the couch.”
“Umm…why?” Would be his retort.
“Because if this life is all you have, you really should make it worth something!”
“Is that a bumper sticker or some shit?” He’d mutter.
“It would have to be shortened up, don’t you think?” I’d snort, then, afraid I might be laughing at him, he’d counter,
“You’re a zealot, whatever!”
We’d argue on the pronunciation of the word zealot for some time and then I’d ask…
“Do you even know what that means? Define it.”
To which he would boldly trumpet back “Fuck you!”
It became apparent to me in that moment that Brian, as a mouthpiece for his creator, had accomplished something horrific and yet miraculous. He had managed to convert people to ideologies that they were not even fully capable of understanding. It’s no more or less than any societal epoch seeks to do, and yet a cartoon dog had managed it expertly.
I became aware of Family Guy quotes flung back and forth about me all day, not just by my boyfriend, but by people all around me. On the internet, there seemed to be a constant onslaught of people preaching from the Griffin gospel. In the grocery store, the checker asked me if I was going to have a “Sexy Party” in his best Stewie, taking notice of the vast amount of alcohol I was purchasing. While discussing what we’d be doing over the weekend, my coworker saw fit to reply “giggida-giggida-giggida” and nothing more. My boyfriend’s outbursts were just as erratic and meaningless, and yet he had been groomed to believe himself erudite for parroting the words of Family Guy’s puppy protagonist.
I don’t think it’s bad that people are exposed to new ideas and thoughts. We all try on different personalities until we discover what fits. Nor do I think that the message is any less profound when delivered by a cartoon dog. I myself became fascinated with studying World War I via Snoopy and his sopwith camel . I do take issue with people wearing ideas as their own without any understanding of the logic and rationale behind them. This is what really began to “grind my gears” about Family Guy’s Brian. The character boils down a whole philosophies into easily repeatable sound bites.
There was a time when the realization that there may not be a God guiding our action was arrived at after a thoughtful deliberation in search for the truth. People used to ask questions of themselves and those around them, scour through books and the internet, trying to gain comprehension of what it all meant. What is it to live? The thought of life ending in non-existance horrified me, as I think it does most beings who enjoy consciousness. It is almost impossible to wrap your mind around the prospect of not-being.
Politically finding yourself is another matter all together. Family Guy wasn’t the first to dilute this into a black an white issue. There’s so much more to being a democrat than wanting to legalize weed. Fewer people than we’ve been lead to believe by the available news sources are hard line liberals or conservatives. That, and the meaning of the word Republican and Democrat have changed radically since their inception. Hasn’t it ever struck you as strange that Republicans, the party which once championed a smaller government with less authority over our personal lives and businesses, now sees fit to put limitations on who can and cannot marry?
Of course we’ve all been advised not to discuss politics and religion in mixed company. People claim that this is because it’s rude, and you might offend someone. The truth is that both politics and religion fall into the realm of non-falsifiability. When something is falsifiable, it means that you can prove one way or another that a question, statement or belief is unequivocally true. Statements such as “Jesus is the true God” or “Democracy is the most just political system” cannot be universally proven. Ergo, people have myriad opinions on these subjects, and since we cannot operationally define the presence of God or justice, we have a debate with no concrete resolution. No one is right or wrong and everyone is entitled to their viewpoint.
The universe of Family Guy has robbed these issues of the discussion they are deservant. There are no characters to challenge Brian’s views, the opposition is never represented beyond a hostile caricature. Brian is smart, everyone else is dumb. Repeat what Brian says and you can be smart too, or trick people into thinking of you that way.
In later episodes I’ve caught the “straw universe” of Family Guy has been tempered down. I’m still not a regular devotee to the show, and doubt that I ever will be again, with or without the offending character. I can’t help but wonder though if the writers of Family Guy had become aware of pull they held over people, and perhaps felt creatively suffocated by it. When people will so readily accept anything you dish out, it becomes difficult to gauge the validity of your work.
Who knows, by the time I actually get this piece up on the web, Brian’s death may be revealed as just a ratings ploy. I myself , will have never been among his mourning party.
UPDATE: I want to call everyone’s attention to an excellent PRO-Brian article by Kevin Wong, who argues that Brian’s flawed character and internal struggles make him a cultural necessity http://www.salon.com/2013/11/27/bring_brian_back_to_family_guy/ It represents a view opposite to my own. Though I have to allow, as I myself am a struggling writer who (formerly) dated a string of himbos, it’s entirely possible that I just see everything in Brian that I dislike about myself.