Family Guy: S12E06: "Life of Brian"

By Dom Sinacola · Dec 04, 2013

In the most recent episode of Family Guy, Brian the dog (Seth MacFarlane) dies. Despite 11+ seasons of anthropomorphic quandaries, foremost his frequent copulation with human women even though the show regularly points out the very lipstick-like canine weiner he’s working with, the family dog meets his demise in the way many family dogs have—because that just sometimes happens to family dogs. They run away and are found later chewed apart by raccoons; they get bone cancer; if they’re small enough they jump out of open windows on the freeway; and their fragile bone structures are no match for cars going 25 miles per hour. In other words, for a show that often scraps logic for cheap gags and an unerring adherence to animated tropes, the most logical thing that it could’ve done to Brian it did. And if this helps us accept the death of a main character, then all the better.

But Family Guy has never been concerned with continuity, minus a few broader plot points that are brought back to reinforce new jokes, like Quagmire’s (Seth MacFarlane) dad getting a sex change (i.e., in order to make for an especially stomach-turning sequence in which Glen’s new ultra-kinky girlfriend cajoles him into having a threesome with Quagmire’s now-mother, because if there’s nothing grosser than incest with your mom it’s incest with your post-op dad), or Cleveland (Mike Henry) moving away, or Joe’s (Patrick Warburton) estranged oldest son, or that Meg (Mila Kunis), a 16-year-old girl who exhibits the most terrifyingly sad maladies of any American teenager, has had sex with almost every male character on the show to whom she’s not related, and even then she’s made out with her brother more than once. Like serious heavy petting. Continuity doesn’t work on Family Guy—it shouldn’t really—because retconning is their bread and butter. It’s like getting a new Darren or slipping in a totally different Aunt Viv half-way through a young Fresh Prince’s formative years: sitcom characters aren’t developed so much as imprinted into the sitcom’s language. They’re simply standards that guide the otherwise restless sweat shop of a universe around them.

These aren’t revelations, I know. But there’s something about “Life of Brian” that impresses me, and I think it has to do with the meaningless of its murder. It was an obviously unpopular decision on the part of the writers, especially when Brian’s typically represented the only remotely legitimate voice of reason on the show—even though he’s got the apparent vices of a rat pack member deep within the hairy bowels of a decade-long Las Vegas bender—but I find it hard to accept that his removal was tantamount to a symbolic smushing of his liberal ideals, because Family Guy low-brow “take no prisoners” mentality has the same kind of ignorantly conservative smuttiness that Judd Apatow peddles, which means that as long as the show thinks it’s liberal, then it functionally is.

Instead, this could go one of two ways: Brian’s replacement with new family dog and assumed regular character Vinny (Tony Sirico) is an episode-long conceptual gag that, like so much of Family Guy’s cultural acumen, begins and ends at imitation, glancing momentarily at a real message about the ephemerality of sitcoms—or something; or the show’s writers just figured it was time to take a risk and see what happens, just because they fucking could. The former’s not uncalled for, but the latter’s more up my alley, because the implied message behind a writer’s room that gives exactly zero fucks is that Family Guy may be reaching the end of the line, and if it’s going out, it’s probably going to have real fucked up meltdown.

In that sense, “Life of Brian” is an odd episode, even for the sometimes surprisingly patient Family Guy, stepping precariously through its usual stock of racist jokes and sociopathic whatever to settle into quiet, kind of touching moments. It never really finds a consistent tone, which makes its dumb jokes just seem even more misplaced, but when it slows down to take a second or two to watch its characters sincerely mourning, it’s a weirdly refreshing episode of Family Guy we’re watching. For once it’s not mean-spirited, aiming at the frightened, squirming dick-shaped fish at the bottom of an otherwise empty barrel.

I actually think this would be a wonderful way to end the show. There’s a sense of finality to “Life of Brian” that speaks like an act of contrition, and that’d be cool if Family Guy went out with a little bit of shame after years of so much shamelessness. But were the world of Family Guy to end with not a bang but the whimper of a family dog, that’d seem too good to be true. And it definitely would be. Because as much as Family Guy makes jumping the shark a matter of fact, and as much as it’s almost definitely overstayed its welcome, it’s an American institution that just somehow cannot lose money. The mere existence of Dads, MacFarlane’s latest stain on the good name of poop jokes, is evidence enough that Family Guy is too big to fail, and, like anything Adam Sandler attaches himself to, too easy to give up. There will be a Grown Ups 3.

So: Brian will come back. Not because the fans will have willed him back from the dead. Stewie won’t rebuild the time machine he ominously destroyed, making it unable for him to go back in time to save Brian from the car that ran him over and broke him into bits. And despite conspiracy theories, it doesn’t matter if Quagmire was driving the car. Brian’s death means nothing. He’ll just materialize again, show up unfazed, and that’ll be that. That’s what I think will happen, the punchline of Brian’s death being that the punchline will go humorlessly unmentioned. Though “Life of Brian” carefully gets to know Vinny and charm him to the griffin clan, Vinny’s warmth is really only a way to inspect another facet of Stewie’s (Seth MacFarlane) relationship to Brian, which is inarguably the best part of Family Guy. The show’s finest hour is still “Brian & Stewie,” an episode which trapped the two together in a bank vault and managed to deftly handle issues like suicide and unconditional friendship—ahead only slightly of the Bitch Stewie and Bitch Brian subplot from “Quagmire’s Baby”—the result being that Brian and Stewie had together become the most compelling parts of a show running on fumes. That episodes centering around their increasingly complex, sci-fi adventures began to take up more and more of the show’s emotional bandwidth—and really, I can’t help but love how willing Family Guy is to use the two as vessels for all kinds of popular speculative genres—should make it pretty obvious that the writers can’t really believe they could do the same with a Stewie and Vinny. It’s telling that they chose Tony Sirico to voice the new dog: he’s mostly another of Family Guy’s ever-lamer Italian stereotypes, an ethnic joke they’ve pretty much hammered into the ground by now. I mean, I like making fun of Italians just as much as any Italian, but episode five of this season (“Boopa-dee Boppa-dee,” wherein the Griffins move to Italy and Peter (MacFarlane, natch) learns how to love like a real Mediterranean) irrefutably proved the well’s dry with all that.

Granted, there may be a few more episodes left for Vinny, but to beginning from the ground up with Stewie’s bond to the family dog would be a challenge that I don’t think Family Guy is ready to face. Imagine if they chose to kill off a character with more stakes, like Meg, and had the fallout be the swarm of her former lovers dealing with the bottomless shame of having taken advantage or her, verbally and even physically abusing her, for so long. And that’s not even considering how she’d go, which could mean the show could have a chance to reach unfathomably dark places, the kind of TV that you have to beieve some of the writers there in that writing room have in them. I suppose it’s enough that they’d explore some sense of loss when they typically can’t help but ruin any sentimentality it ever earns, but keeping Brian dead would mean that keeping Family Guy alive would be an insurmountable task.

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