Family Guy, Maturity, and Conscience

03/15/2009 By Shawn Burns

Something has changed.

I was a happy Adult Swim viewer a few years ago, discovering Family Guy for the first time during the stoner hour on Cartoon Network every night, when Fox Television rejects were resurrected like Lazarus by a geeky Jesus. And I was a happy Fox Television viewer when Family Guy was resurrected like Jesus, seemingly out of its own being, because of the good it had contributed to the world, the sacrifice it had made for the cultural benefit of us all: the satirical lens focused on everyone, and actions or trends were ridiculed with the fierceness Christ displayed in the Temple when he discovered the unconscionable practices going on behind those doors.

The show has appeared to lose something in its new incarnation, as though instead of being happy with the time it was given to do more good works it is desperate to prove that it deserves more than a short coda. The new jokes are concentrated stoner-joy, but at an hour the stoners aren’t paying attention to. And I think desperation has sunk in. Like South Park, which decided that it wasn’t enough to push arbitrary cultural and political boundaries and instead began trying to trigger America’s gag reflex with a Paris Hilton-Mister Slave gross off, Family Guy has become too hard to watch.

I’m not talking about the extended Conway Twitty performance on tonight’s episode (either a desperate time-fill for a show whose writers are dry, or a genuine joke for a show whose writers are boring). I didn’t even see that part of tonight’s episode, because I had already turned the show off.

Tonight Seth McFarlane decided that it would be great (hilarious? controversial? thought-provoking? satirical?) to joke about Peter shaking his first son, Peter Jr., to death because he wanted the baby to be quiet.

I couldn’t watch any more of it after that.

Although I’ve been writing this as though what’s changed is the show, really it’s me. I doubt that three years ago I’d have seen that segment and reacted at all severely. But it’s clear that I am no longer Family Guy’s audience. Because Seth McFarlane and his writers don’t have respect for the same things that I do. Maybe we agree about a wide range of cultural practices that can be mocked or satirized. Maybe we agree about politicians and entertainers being fair game for ridicule. But I can’t hear a shaken-baby joke and think “hilarious!” or “yeah, stick it to those parents, taking infant mortality so seriously! Lighten up.” It’s clear that I don’t have the same sense of humour anymore.

This isn’t a “come boycott Family Guy” with me message. It’s not a “Family Guy needs to change!” message. I don’t care, at all, what Seth McFarlane has to say on his show anymore; I’m not starting a crusade to get it off the air. I’m not even sure that the joke itself is unconscionable or anything so dramatic. It just occurs to me, now, that I am a different person and this is part of what it means to have a child of my own.

It means I laugh when my daughter says “ribbit!” for no reason whatsoever.