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 Simpsons‘ Poochie. 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.