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“Family Guy,” a show built in largely on irreverence and outrageousness, delivered its biggest shocker Sunday, just three weeks after the unconscionable death of beloved boozing dog Brian Griffin. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
We’re not reeling from Brian’s return – anyone who read the promo line for the episode (“Stewie devises a master plan to get the one and only thing he wants for Christmas”) could have figured out that the frustrated intellectual canine’s demise likely was temporary, especially in a cartoon where time travel and alternate realities abound.
"Family Guy," much like Stewie's various time travel machines and devices of world domination, thrives on pushing buttons. The show veers from silly to outrageous to borderline (and sometimes over-the-line) offensive in the space of cut-away gag. Now we’re dealing with a new button: sentiment.
If killing off a main character is a sign of a show running out of ideas, then resurrecting them can be a death knell or, worse, a running joke (see: shower scene, “Dallas”). But that’s nothing compared to introducing mawkishness to a sardonic comedy, even for a holiday episode (the team behind “Seinfeld” had it right with the “no hugging, no lessons” credo that it stuck by until the end).
“Family Guy,” even in its 12th season, shouldn’t have to resort to cheap attention grabbers. We’re been treated to some strong episodes as of late – including the recent Brian-free show featuring Peter and Quagmire’s adventure as a Simon and Garfunkel-like duo who rise on odes to the joys of Pop-Tarts and familiar bathrooms. Vinnie the replacement dog proved equally parts offensive and funny, keeping within the “Family Guy” way.
Which is why on a show that’s provided years of projectile vomiting displays, terrible parenting and human-chicken violence, the most shocking moment came when Brian told Stewie "I love you" on Christmas morning.
Show creator Seth MacFarland tweeted after the Fox program Sunday night: “And thus endeth our warm, fuzzy holiday lesson: Never take those you love for granted, for they can be gone in a flash.” (He later tweeted thanks to fans for caring about Brian and noted: “I mean, you didn't really think we'd kill off Brian, did you? Jesus, we'd have to be f------ high.”
Maybe we’re annoyed because we let Sunday's final scene get to us, the same way we let Brian’s death choke us up. Perhaps all along Stewie’s fiendish plot wasn’t to dominate the world as much as our emotions. It’s enough, as Stewie snarls in the opening theme song, to make us “laugh and cry.”
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.