Friday, 28 November 2014

28/11/14 - Dichotomies of Family Guy, or something

The problem with analysing TV shows is that you pick them apart in far more detail than anyone involved in their creation ever intended. Stephen Fry once told the tale on QI of how he was yelled at in the street by someone who was repeatedly and inexplicably calling him a ‘bastard pigging murderer’; shuffling off with some concern, he was pursued by the shouting man who, it turned out, was actually saying ‘Flanders pigeon murderer’, in reference to a line from Blackadder Goes Forth. He barely remembered the line until it was shouted at him all those years later. The difference is that while we watch these things over and over again, those involved only go through the creative process once.
But sod it, that’s our right as a viewer, isn’t it? Being overly critical and combing over things in far too much detail? All part of the fun. So, for no real reason and apropos of nothing, here are the three principal dichotomies of Family Guy:

Can they understand Stewie?
Ah, that age-old question, much chewed-over for the past fifteen years. Stewie is the baby of the Griffin family, who reached his first birthday in the first series and hasn’t aged since (as Family Guy, like many TV shows, exists within a time bubble where people stay the same age regardless of how long the show runs [like The Simpsons, for example] – it’s called a floating timeline); he’s hyper-intelligent, articulate and verbose, homicidal and matricidal, and generally a bit of a bastard. But in spite of his ability to speak clearly, can the family actually understand what he’s saying?
Well, the short answer is yes, sometimes, a bit, but usually no.
Stewie has an ongoing love-hate relationship with Brian, the family dog, and it appears that he and his sometime girlfriend Jillian are the only characters who can actually understand everything that Stewie says. However, by necessity of plot, other characters occasionally converse with him and can understand him – the main problem is Lois, his mother: in the early days of Family Guy, it was very clear that no-one could understand Stewie, and he was constantly trying to kill Lois in elaborate sci-fi ways. His threats always went unacknowledged. In later years, this turned into general dismissiveness of most of the things he said and did. When quizzed about this, creator Seth MacFarlane suggested that ‘the family just ignore him in the way people generally ignore things said by very small children’.
It’s become a running joke through the show, with occasional aesthetically self-conscious references to who’s speaking, what might have been said and, in one episode, a scene where an audience from the future are watching the show and one person says ‘I don't get it. So.... like... can the family understand the baby or... what's the deal with that?’ Sums it up neatly, really.
We don’t really know, but it doesn’t really matter.

Good characters are also bad
This is a theme that we find in a lot of TV shows, but it’s thrown into sharp focus with Family Guy. To take the example of The Simpsons again, we find that almost all characters therein have a strong moral compass, and those who are bad (Mr Burns, Snake, Fat Tony) are capable of compassion but are generally bad all the time. There’s a distinct good/bad divide. In Family Guy, no-one’s moral outlook is that clearly defined.
Look at Lois: she’s a fine, upstanding member of the community; a loving wife and mother, philanthropist, campaigner for civil rights, humble despite her upper class upbringing. But she’s also a serial adulterer, kleptomaniac, ex-prostitute and recovering meth addict, who once starred in a porn film to pay for her cocaine addiction, and seems to utterly detest her only daughter.
It’s a headscratcher.

Brian is a dog that does human stuff
Brian Griffin is the family dog. His tail wags when he’s happy, he barks at people when he’s angry or insecure, he eats vomit, he’s colourblind – he’s a dog.
Aha, but he’s anthropomorphised – he walks on his hind legs, he has opposable thumbs, he can speak (and, unlike Stewie, we know that everyone can understand him), he can drive. He’s a (terrible) writer, he plays guitar, he smokes, he’s fond of a dry martini.
The dichotomy is that some of the human stuff he does goes completely unquestioned. He almost exclusively pursues human females rather than canine ones, with some considerable degree of success. He’s had sex with a lot of women. Yet he is a dog.

Well, this is sucking the fun out of the show, isn’t it? IT’S A CARTOON. It’s not supposed to be realistic. Stop over-thinking it and have another beer. Honestly.

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