In a moment, I'll examine the decision by the creative staff of Family Guy to get rid of one of their central characters. First let me get something else out of the way...
Realizing there are some who probably think the show a dinosaur, I'd nonetheless like to mention the way Saturday Night Live totally mailed-in their latest installment Saturday night, both live and on tape. A lackluster guest cast in lackluster sketches and (let's all admit it) multiplied by zero cameos equals a great big dud. Surprise, surprise. Even "Weekend Update" --for years the one segment a viewer could consistently rely on as at least an honest effort-- failed to bring home the bacon. For just the second time in my memory, the musical guest actually outshined the comedy. (The other time it was Tom Petty.) When comedy is what you're known for, that's bad. It's like a highly reputed steakhouse suddenly serving rancid meat, but dishing out a really kick-ass salad the same night.
Perhaps it's appropriate the episode was such a turkey, since there's little doubt the Saturday Night bathtub was full of cold water because the producers, cast and crew have an upcoming Thanksgiving special on Wednesday during prime time. I'm sure there's a cadre of jug-eared suits creeping around 30 Rockefeller who could justify not only a sketch troupe that's barely able to scrape together ninety minutes of above-average funny every two weeks being given three-and-a-half hours of airtime in just five days, but also their being given the directive, "Hey, but, you know, save da really funny stuff for T'anksgiven, huh?" Oh, yes, I'm sure the justifications would come were they asked-for, but something tells me they'd be sleep-inducing and full of stuffing. Suits such as these probably wouldn't be where they are if they'd even once been caught without their trusty trove of b-grade s.
So that was bad enough. In the grand scheme, though, it was but one terrible (truly, truly terrible) episode in what has been, overall, a pretty good run in recent years. In military terms, it was a tactical setback: injurious, but hardly debilitating. It paled in comparison with the strategic clunker the, ug, "showrunners" of Family Guy decided to go to air with (or, if you prefer, err with) the following night. ("Showrunners," of course, is the catch-all term that has come into vogue in recent years, owing its origins to the many, many, many commentators on this here internet thingy who are too lazy to look up a subject's actual job title, wouldn't know what it really meant if they did, lack the verbal dexterity to come up with an alternative outside of "grand poobah," but possess just enough wit to realize "grand poobah" is both a bit over-the-top and slightly more difficult to keystroke-- assuming they know how to spell it in the first place. The reason I use it here is so I can make such comments.)
What the writers and producers of Family Guy did in the episode that aired (erred) Sunday night was kill off the family dog, Brian Griffin. Yes, I, like your veterinarian, have attached the surname to the animal. Your vet does it for two reasons. One, he or she knows you regard your pet as a family member. Two, it's easier to keep records that way. I have done it here because the character deserves a better tag than "Brian-the-dog."
Now don't get me wrong: I'm fully aware that the next several paragraphs are about a talking cartoon dog. I am equally aware that when viewed in that light much of what I'm about to say will seem, to some, exceedingly silly. However, the character and the show he inhabits --er, um, I mean "inhabited"-- are a form of artistic expression which, whether you realize it or not, does have a certain structure and, whether you are conscious of it or not, that's why you watch.
Family Guy has, from the very beginning, started its theme song with a shot of the mother and father, Lois and Peter Griffin, singing the opening lines while seated at the family piano. This is an homage to what is considered one of (some consider it the) best situation comedies in history: All in the Family. The open secret to All in the Family being so good in its halcyon days was the dynamic between Carroll O'Conner's Archie Bunker and Rob Reiner's Michael Stivic. When Reiner and his on-screen wife (played by Sally Struthers) departed, the show began to develop an ever more-noticeable limp.
The creative team behind Family Guy has inflicted upon their product a similar injury. First, consider the void Brian's exit has left in the dynamics of the cast. Some of the most intriguing relationships in the series' run have been Brian's relationship with Lois; his relationship with Stewie; his relationship with Peter; and even his simmering, adversarial relationship with Quagmire. Excepting that last one, while adding Chris and Meg, it can easily be argued that he was nearly every character's best friend.
*whooshing sound* Gone.
Moreover, Brian was the anchor around which the rest of the cast swirled. In being the only truly well-grounded central character, he allowed the others to be crazy and irreverent without completely losing direction. He played the dual role of being both their conscience --snapping them back in line when they went too far-- and our subconscious measuring stick: the sane sentience by which we evaluated the others' nuttery.
I've heard it postulated* that Family Guy's creator, Seth MacFarlane, is tired of doing the show and is seeking a sneaky way to force Fox to cancel it. If so, then taking a knife to its soul is a phenomenal first step. Offing one of the human characters would have been seen as a murder most foul. Of all the key components, Brian seemed the most expendable. Once again, in his final act, Brian is the on-screen element that keeps the train from going completely off the rails-- at least for now.
If the show is to continue for any length of time, however, someone must step into Brian's shoes. It won't be as easy as it looks. Few members of the cast have his dogged gravitas (or, if you prefer, his doggy style). Peter, quite frankly, doesn't respect Lois as much as he did Brian. Chris is little more than a far less imaginative version of his father. Meg suddenly shifting from runt of the litter to valued sage seems wholly unlikely. Stewie would be far less funny and far more like Yoda. The new dog, whatever his name, is at this point Danielle Brisebois with uncrossed eyes.
My dark horse? Joe Swanson.
* Personally, my first theory was that they just wanted to show the producers of Game of Thrones what it felt like.
P.S.... Dan "I Know There Are Yard Lines Painted On The Field But I Don't Know What Any Of The Numbers Mean" Hicks must go.