In Defense Of: Family Guy
I know how you feel. Really, I do. A TV show comes along that seems so obvious in its mediocrity you can't fathom why so many people enjoy it. You list myriad examples of how the show is sub-par, or a blatant rip-off of another show, or too reliant on "easy" jokes, but no one will listen to you. They just keep watching and touting the show as if it's some work of genius. It's enough to make you go insane and eat your own face.
Family Guy may be popular, but there's still a lot of people who don't like it. My feelings on this subject are paradoxical. I like Family Guy, but I still have to agree with people who say the writing isn't always up to snuff, and that the show relies too heavily on pop culture references as a substitute for humor. Brian has a line in one episode that always makes me cringe: describing New York City, he claims it's "like Prague, sans the whimsy." Maybe it's just me, but it sounds like some college freshman trying to sound smarter than he is.
Oh wait, I'm supposed to be defending Family Guy. Except, that's not really what I'm trying to do. As far as I'm concerned, the haters have every right to hate, and those who love the show can keep on lovin'. You're both welcome at my house for tea and biscuits anytime. Rather than write up some bromide where I shoot down all the arguments against Family Guy, I wanted to examine exactly what I think the show is trying to accomplish. Changing minds ain't a big concern of mine.
To me, the "Road to Rhode Island" episode, in which Brian seeks out his mother, is a perfect example of what Seth McFarlane wanted to accomplish with Family Guy. First of all, a large part of the episode is an homage to the "road movies" starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. In fact, the song "Road to Rhode Island," sung by Stewie and Brian, is a parody of the song "Road to Morocco" from the movie of the same name. McFarlane, despite only being three years older than me, has a passion for "old timey" stuff. This goes deeper, however, than just the occasional reference. Family Guy's approach to humor is steeped in the old tradition of huge, broad jokes that smack you upside the head like a sledgehammer. For those of us who grew up with The Simpsons, this can't hold a candle to the clever and cerebral writing of a show to which Family Guy will always be compared.
However, Family Guy has never been interested in subtlety. If you watch any of the aforementioned "road movies" with Hope and Crosby, you know those movies, besides being hysterical, consist of a series of quick gags and one-liners, not to mention big musical numbers. There's some semblance of a plot, but it hardly matters. People went to those movies to laugh and enjoy themselves. People who actually want to think about what they're laughing at rent Woody Allen movies. Using Road to Morocco as a kind of guiding ethos for this episode was not only an excuse for an extended pop culture reference, it was McFarlane's way of showing the kind of humor Family Guy is all about. Matt Groening has said before that The Simpsons awards repeated viewings, and he's absolutely right. The writing on that show is some of the best, and tightest, in the industry. You can delve into an episode of The Simpsons time and again and always catch something new. This is never the case with Family Guy, which is more like a vaudeville stage act where the gags are huge, the jokes are obvious, and sometimes you wind up laughing your ass off even though deep down you can't believe something so dumb was able to bypass your brain's humor filter (it's located near the hypothalamus, I believe).
The "Road to Rhode Island" episode also focuses on what I think is an often overlooked aspect of the show, which is the relationship between Stewie and Brian. There is an odd kind of respect between these two characters, and I think it has naturally grown from them being the only two characters on the show who shouldn't speak but do. While they have disdain for one another, they also realize they're both at the bottom of the family hierarchy. Among all the gags, references, and political incorrectness, it's the relationship between these characters that feels the most "real" to me, and I think it was due to the characters' natural evolution, not some kind of forced convention. Also, it should be noted that Stewie is a direct homage to Rex Harrison, another actor from the days of movie musicals. This proves, to me anyway, that all McFarlane ever wanted to do was mix the pop culture of his youth with the kind of "straight to the funny bone" humor of old time movies and musicals. One could argue that it still doesn't make for a good show, but I think it explains why so many people enjoy it. For some, it doesn't matter why you're laughing, it's enough to just be laughing in the first place.