Why Family Guy was smart to kill a beloved character - Macleans.ca

Why Family Guy was smart to kill a beloved character

And the humiliating slap in the face to The Simpsons



What are the ethics surrounding the killing of a television character? Is it expected that producers give audiences a moment to grieve, that writers craft an entire episode around a fictional post-mortem? Or should a TV series treat death the way it is so often handled in real life, with a passing reference and a nod that the rest of the world goes on unaffected, spinning as carelessly as it always has?

Certain series prefer the latter. Game of Thrones, for instance, dispatches characters willy nilly, with only those closest to the deceased getting a few minutes to grieve before moving on to the next miserable scenario that is a day in the life of Westeros. Sitcoms and family-friendly network dramas often go the former route, with “very special episodes” dedicated to remembering the life and times of beloved characters who were written out due to either real-life passings (farewell, Newsradio‘s Bill McNeil) or contract disputes (so long, Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens).

So what to make of Family Guy‘s decision on Sunday night to kill Brian, the smooth-talking, martini-downing dog who was as much a part of the cartoon’s image as its other breakout character, the villainous baby Stewie? There are several factors at play.

First, we can see showrunner Seth MacFarlane’s cold, cruel heart in action, as Brian is not only killed, but done so in a brutal fashion: While setting up a game of street hockey with Stewie, Brian is rammed by a speeding car, which drags him underneath its tires and spews him back on to the road, a bruised and bloody mess. Even for Family Guy‘s oft-morbid MO, the moment was shocking, and cruel.

Yet there’s more at play here than MacFarlane’s sometimes juvenile penchant for the macabre. As the episode shows, MacFarlane still retains a soft spot for sitcom tropes, with the rest of Sunday night’s half-hour dedicated to the Griffin family’s mourning. Brian even gets to offer a deathbed one-liner, before flat-lining in front of his cartoon comrades. The tropes all perfectly aped those sticky-sweet “very special episodes” that MacFarlane himself grew up watching, and which he’s used as the backbone of his animation career.

The real kicker, though, is when the Griffin family reveals at the end of the episode that they’ve brought another dog into the family fold: Vinnie, an Italian gangster stereotype voiced by The Sopranos‘ Paulie Walnuts himself, Tony Sirico. This final twist of the knife reveals that Brian’s death is really part of a long-game con to humiliate The Simpsons, the Fox network’s other long-running primetime cartoon.

First, there’s the presence of Vinnie himself, an obvious reference to The SimpsonsPoochie. Poochie, as any Simpsons fan of a certain age will remember, was a meta stunt by the show’s writers: a commentary both on the tendency of traditional sitcoms to introduce pointless “cool, outside-the-box” characters for the sake of demographics and a sly bit of inside baseball referencing The Simpsons‘ own creative decline. It’s at this point that, to avoid jumping down a rabbit hole of television industry in-jokes, it’s best to just say that having a “cool” new talking dog join the cast of Family Guy—another cartoon well past its golden years—is both genius and intolerable chutzpah on MacFarlane’s part.

But the real kicker? It’s the fact that Simpsons producers announced earlier this fall, with much hoopla, that they were planning to kill off one of their own characters in 2014. The move kicked off a media-wide guessing game of which yellow-hued Springfield resident would kick the bucket. It was the most press The Simpsons got in years, and producers knew it. For MacFarlane to actually go ahead and murder not just a random or supporting character on his show but one of the central members of the Griffin family, all before The Simpsons could even set an air date for its much-hyped “death” episode? That is taking humiliation to a whole new level.

While MacFarlane could very well pull Brian back from the dead next week, à la South Park‘s earlier experimentations with Kenny, it’s likely Family Guy will keep Brian six feet under for the conceivable future. Fans may not be happy about it now, but when historians write about the great animated sitcom wars of the 21st century (trust me, it will happen), there will be at least one chapter dedicated to how MacFarlane outsmarted what was once the smartest show on television.


Why Family Guy was smart to kill a beloved character

  1. when historians write about the great animated sitcom wars of the 21st century

    Regardless of what one thinks of the waxing and waning of the quality of the Simpsons over the years, do you suppose there will also be a chapter about how the Simpsons were the undisputed victors of said wars?

    Even if the Simpsons gets cancelled at the end of next season, wouldn’t Family Guy need to stay on the air until 2027 to equal the Simpsons’ longevity? I mean, it could happen, but I’d be at least a little surprised if Peter and his dog Vinnie are still on T.V. 14 years from now.

    • Cartoons seem to be following the path of comic strips in surviving long past their prime, and often surviving their creators. I will recall “Bloom County” and “Calvin and Hobbes” fondly for their creativity even though they didn’t last nearly as long as “Peanuts.” “Family Guy” is no “Calvin and Hobbes”, but “The Simpsons” today wouldn’t last for a season if it didn’t benefit from the legacy of its peak in the early ’90s.

      • Your point about the current Simpsons is no doubt true.

        That said, I think my point vis a vis Family Guy is nonetheless worth noting for comparison. In order for Family Guy to equal the Simpsons it arguably needs to stay on the air for 14 years after the Simpsons gets cancelled, and also spawn a feature film that makes half a billion dollars worldwide at the box office.

        • You are very much on target with your observation(Good post)
          Sad to say …everything GOOD or BAD has it`s time..and passes into History. Those (fans) who live on ,can enjoy pleasant memories of it..until they are “terminated’

  2. I hadn’t seen that episode, thanks MacLeans.

    • I suppose a “spoiler alert” was arguably called for here, but still, you’ve got to take some responsibility for getting spoiled, don’t you?

      The title of the article is “Why Family Guy was smart to kill a beloved character“, after all. If you don’t want to know which beloved character Family Guy killed off, or how, then you probably shouldn’t have read an article with that headline.

  3. I would suggest that the last few seasons of The Simpsons have been excellent. Maybe not as good as they were Seasons 4-12, but significantly better than it was for the years at the end of the last decade. It is one of the strongest cable/network shows on creatively. For an example watch this season’s opener “HomerLand”.

  4. The Simpsons already killed off a character – Maude Flanders (and possible Dr. Marvin Monroe). The show was never the same again…

    • Don’t forget the first character that died… Good ol Bleeding Gums Murphy

    • Yes . you are right. Although ….It is one thing to knock off MINOR characters in a comedy series,but when you knock off one of the main characters. That destroys the main premise.
      Murder/crime series… that is a different situation .

  5. When ANY entertainment that is supposedly “comedy escape” starts to upset it`s viewers/ readers by KILLING off MAIN characters to increase their supporters ..they LOSE ME
    Why the hell do they think we are fans in the first place??..There is enough suffering and grief..IN THE REAL WORLD

  6. Stewie has a time machine.
    Brian will be back,

    • I’m guessing you haven’t seen the episode lol

      • …. yep, see how that turned out.

  7. When said sitcom wars are discussed, the conversation will effortlessly transition between the game-changing, beloved Simpsons in the Nineties to the remorseless satirical wit of South Park in the Aughts. Let’s be honest, Family Guy will be a footnote. MacFarlane’s show(s) does the same things as The Simpsons and S.P. but on a much lesser scale. His whole brand is about quantity not quality.