Fox // 1999 // 632 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // April 21st, 2003
A cult favorite, abused by Fox, finds DVD nirvana.
When it aired, Family Guy experienced a series of misfortunes, including a pathetic super bowl, a flooded animation market, and a musical-chair schedule. The show gets a second lease on life via DVD.
The facts speak for themselves: a smart but insecure sister, a dumb brother, a little baby for comic relief, a fretting mother...all led by a fat, dumb oaf of a father. The animation is crisp and pop-culture references are woven throughout the story. Is it any wonder that Family Guy invites comparison to the wildly successful animated show The Simpsons? The question before the court is obvious: does Family Guy adequately distinguish itself from The Simpsons? Or shall we lock up Seth MacFarlane for copyright infringement, plagiarism, and other white collar misdemeanors?
Peter Griffin is a clumsy (presumably lovable) dufus who continually gets in trouble by failing to consider the consequences of his words and actions. For example, when Peter goes on welfare and the government accidentally sends him $150,000 a week, he doesn't notify his local agency. Instead, he builds a moat around his house, buys a yacht, and does doughnuts in the water.
This behavior annoys his lovely wife, Lois. She constantly berates Peter for his decisions, but shucks...she can't help but love the guy. Fortunately, Lois finds ways to relieve her pent-up frustrations, such as performing sultry dances in the bar at night (the bar, incidentally, is in the basement; Peter built it while on house arrest for punching a pregnant woman in the face at a soccer game).
Rounding out the household are the kids and the dog. The dog, Brian, is wry and his martinis are dry. Meg is smart but insecure, trying to find her identity while fighting the travails of high school life. Her younger brother Chris dwarfs her in bulk but falls short in ambition and intellect.
Which brings us to Stewie, the baby. Stewie is the antithesis of the cute, mute Maggie Simpson. Stewie emerged from the womb with a dizzying intellect, megalomaniacal domination instinct, and a map of Europe (bombing targets already marked). He will take over the world, as soon as his immature nervous system develops enough to grant steady aim. He strives to kill his mother and be free the fetters of matriarchy.
I missed the Family Guy bus. We'd turned off the 1999 super bowl in disgust, and I had no desire to sit through another animated Johnny-come-lately. Thus, I lack the rabid devotion shared by throngs of Family Guy fans. After having witnessed the DVD boxed set, I can say the devotion is well-founded. Family Guy has loads of truly funny gags; I laughed out loud in every episode. However, Family Guy never quite escapes the pall of unoriginality. There are simply too many parallels: a roux de Simpsons, a cup of Married with Children...throw in liberal helpings of Pinky and the Brain, Dilbert, and Mike Judge. Half bake it and throw it on the table. Violà! Without further ado, I present the case.
Half-baked is an apt descriptor. When Family Guy works, it really works. The shock of outrageous animated barbs gives way to gut-busting laughter. But inevitably, the episode stalls due to some lame, predictable, unfunny gag. The episode then struggles to regain momentum (which it often does).
Honestly, for the first few episodes I couldn't get over how similar Family Guy was to the aforementioned shows. The similarities are so striking that it became annoying. Eventually, I became accustomed to the similarities and was able to focus on the episodes. The annoyance became like a splinter that worked its way under the skin and healed over. I was usually able to ignore it, but every so often a gag would hit that spot and remind me of the splinter.
The characters were able to assert themselves quickly: in that sense, the characterization was well-handled. They follow the tried and true formula established by The Simpsons and Married with Children: wacky antics, edgy barbs salved with an undercurrent of love, smart/dumb sibling tension, and an overweight American anti-hero at the center.
Stewie -- When he is onscreen, it's hard not to laugh. On the surface, Stewie's character is as derivative as the rest, yet he succeeds through flawless implementation of the "frustrated dictator" paradigm. It is surrealistically absurd to hear a one year old speak with such a world-weary, bitingly sharp British accent. He is the prototypical Bond villain emasculated by the vagaries of childhood. No one comprehends his cold-blooded ultimatums. He cannot reach "toys" such as his mind control device. It is obvious that Stewie is cunning and deadly, if only he can escape his high chair. If not for Stewie, Family Guy would implode.
Brian -- Brian is a hard-drinking intellectual. His comments are invariably pointed. He is Peter's moral center and voice of reason. Many people cite Brian as their favorite character, but I found him too one-dimensional to be hilarious.
Meg and Chris -- She gets points for being more real than most TV kids. Meg lacks Daria's arch detachment and Lisa Simpson's intellectual autonomy. She wants to be accepted but still has a unique personality. Chris doesn't really do much. I never got a sense of who he was supposed to be.
Lois -- This woman has character. She loves Peter, which is her Achilles heel. Lois is pretty and smart, and tries to hold the family together. Though she has the stern disapproval shtick down pat, Lois occasionally contributes to the mayhem. For example, she gambles away the family car at an Indian reservation. This vulnerability gives Lois a heart and distinct voice.
Peter -- For so much screen time, Peter is surprisingly nondescript. He plays like a stand-up comedian, never really connecting with his words or actions. When he shows remorse, I don't feel remorse -- I wait for the laugh track. Many gags involving Peter work in spite of him, not because of him. Peter needs more definition than "lovable oaf who gets into trouble all the time."
The humor is frequently hilarious and often sophisticated. In every episode, there was at least one bit that made me laugh out loud. Most of the successful gags are because of Stewie, but everyone gets a share of good lines.
On the other hand, much of the humor is uninspired retreads of other
Seth MacFarlane's influences are always close to the surface. Sometimes that works, but much of the time it aborts the punch line. The comedic cut scenes are as regular as clockwork and often as predictable. I spent much of the episodes shifting in my seat waiting for the obvious gag to finish up.
I was dismayed by how many cheap shots were taken. There are racial stereotypes, Jesus playing golf, Hitler as a talk show host, and other too-cheap-to-be-funny stuff. The purple squid was just lame.
Series Progression: C-
The end of the second season does not differ appreciably from the beginning. The characters didn't seem to grow, nor did the style of the episodes or the level of humor. That isn't all bad: the plots and humor are consistent. If you love some episodes of Family Guy, you're bound to like them all. I found the lack of growth disappointing.
Fans of the series have much to be happy about. The colors are vibrant with no discernable bleeding or edge enhancement. There are pervasive combing artifacts that mar the pristine video quality. If someone moved too suddenly, the image would often vaporize into clouds of scan lines. But in general, the picture looks sharper than ever.
The audio is clean as well. I rarely had trouble following dialogue. The musical numbers are surprisingly sophisticated, which may explain the Emmy nomination for "This House is Freakin' Sweet."
The extras are nothing to write home about, but at least there are some. The eight episode commentaries are periodically amusing, but mostly consist of obvious comments punctuated by introspective silence. Considering the brevity of the episodes, it is inexplicable why the cast couldn't have watched them first then given the commentary. The other extras are a behind the scenes featurette (essentially a long commercial) and Fox promos (a series of brief commercials). The promos are hilarious and the featurette is informative (in a self-congratulatory way).
The voice acting is superb, particularly the many characters voiced by Seth MacFarlane. He gives Peter a blustery New England accent, a Stewie a menacingly edgy British one.
The DVDs come in a sexy little boxed set with a solid cardboard sleeve and four slim DVD cases. These slim cases will become more prevalent, and so far I'm impressed. The DVD pops in and out easily, and the case feels solid.
When you put all the parts together, Family Guy is flawed but enjoyable. Humor is tricky. For every lame squid gag, there is a moment of sublime irony. On the whole, Family Guy deserved its cult following even if it owes much to shows that came before.
In his honor's esteemed opinion, Family Guy lives in the shadow of The Simpsons. However, the production values are high and enough jokes find the mark to recommend it. Considering you get two seasons in one set and a handful of extras, this is a worthwhile package for fans of the show. Others are encouraged to check out Family Guy before purchase.
For crossing the line of plagiaristic negligence, we find Seth MacFarlane guilty. For summoning up absurdly funny moments of surrealism, we find that Seth deserves leniency. The court will be keeping an eye on this young man as he continues to explore his craft.
Review content copyright © 2003 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 632 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary on Selected Episodes
* Behind the Scenes Featurette
* Fox Promotions