Warning: spoilers you already know about!
Before you read this, I have to admit something. I have never enjoyed Family Guy. Sure, I’ve giggled at a couple of Seth McFarlane’s cartoon gags, but the show has never hooked me. But the most recent development in the show’s long running narrative had me interested for once. As you all know, the wisecracking, alcoholic, womanizing, anthropomorphic dog Brian died via being hit by a car in last week’s episode, Life of Brian. Beyond being a surprisingly poignant moment, it was kinda strange, considering this is a filthy, at times nonsensical, cartoon we’re talking about here.
I’ve maintained for quite some time that killing off a character on a show should only be done if it actually helps the narrative, but not if it’s the only option. Shows like Dexter rely (relied) on character death to keep the story alive, and every time it felt cheap (sure, it was about a serial killer, but death erases any fun narrative problems and is an easy out). When a character dies, it should be dealt with well, and not be an obvious writer move (“What can we do with this guy?” “I know, kill ‘em!”). I was impressed with the emotion Family Guy put into Brian’s demise, but I have no idea why they did it.
I can imagine the writers wanted to try something different, wanted to surprise the audience of a show that values the creaks of fat people and chicken fights with something heartfelt. But that’s just it; it seemed an intentional move for an audience reaction, and on top of that a loss of the most relatable character on the show. The mobster dog they’ve got now is a massive Sopranos cliché, and probably doesn’t have the same range as Brian. Brian was what made the show not just a cartoon, but something slightly more human. Family Guy has always suffered from being a sitcom stuck in animation, the talking dog the only thing that gave a reason for it being a cartoon (besides the insufferable talking baby).
According to the Internet, fans have already started petitioning for Brian’s revival, a move I think the Family Guy gang hoped for from the start. What better advertising than getting the fans caring for a cartoon dog? Brian’s doom was the news of the week, a weird but par for the course reaction from the world’s viewing audience. So, finally, it felt like a stunt, and one that can easily be erased because we’re talking about a show that has time machines, talking babies, child-eating trees, and, well, talking animals. Killing a character in a cartoon, especially if there is a way to bring them back with literally no effort, is ridiculous, and people being up in arms about it demonstrates Family Guy’s influence, which is a teensy bit scary to me.
And actually, this very stunt has already been done, in a much better way, in Futurama. Remember the episode with the fossilized dog? We cared so much about that dog and it couldn’t even vocalize a thing. Here’s a cartoon that could balance emotion and nonsensical future technology, and could rationalize through its own science why Seymour (Fry’s dog) couldn’t be revived. Death was used in that episode in an organic, brilliant way. Family Guy always feels like it’s forced and trying to push people’s buttons, and this recent narrative trick felt the same. I’m not saying it wasn’t ballsy; it’s just I feel it’s rather clutching at straws to keep the show from getting stale, which in my opinion it already is.