The Problems of Crossing Over
By: Connor Lenahan
I knew that this would happen. I could see it coming from a long ways away. I could see it coming from the minute I heard the episode was going to air. I knew I was not going to be happy with how it went. I knew I would most likely be disappointed. What I didn’t know is that I would be genuinely angry over what happened in last night’s crossover episode of Family Guy and The Simpsons. I didn’t realize that it would lead me to give a twenty-minute rant in my room to my roommate Pat McKay last night. I didn’t realize that it would actually make it hard for me to fall asleep last night. This episode was on my mind more than the Spanish test I had at 9AM.
There’s a conversation that needs to be had after last night’s episode. I thought I would be able to watch the show and move on. I was wrong. This opened up a bunch of problems that I have with both shows and a lot of television in general. This consumed my mind from the minute it started airing at 9PM last night to every second more that I sit and dwell on it. In the moment I was disappointed with the crossover – it wasn’t all that funny, even at its best – but the more I sat upon it, the angrier I got.
I want to stress one thing before I dive deep into both shows: I am a huge fan of The Simpsons. This is obvious by the fact I spent nine days on a bracket to pick the best episode the series ever had back in August. But here’s what’s really important, I’m also a huge fan of Family Guy. I have seen all but maybe four episodes of the series, and I’ve seen many of them an absurd number of times. I know both shows incredibly well. If I had to take an academic test on either with my life on the line I wouldn’t drop a bead of sweat. I’ve grown up with them. I know them.
Let’s start with last night’s episode. This was a Family Guy episode not just in terms of ownership but authorship. The team responsible for last night’s hour was entirely on the Family Guy side. In terms of a crossover it was relegated entirely to the on-screen characters. The crossover did not extend to writers, which most likely would have been a good idea.
It wasn’t the crossover itself that was the catalyst for my anger. It was what happened in Springfield. Family Guy and The Simpsons are not nearly as compatible as the fact that they are animated comedy shows on a Sunday night on FOX may suggest. Back in 2005, maybe this would have worked better. But now it was simply uncomfortable. Genuinely uncomfortable. There’s a sequence in which Peter Griffin and Homer Simpson seductively wash a car together to the wails of Def Leppard. For Family Guy this is par for the course – frankly it’s more shocking when Peter doesn’t do something like this every week. For The Simpsons, however, it was unsettling. There have been 553 episodes to build up to this in Simpsons history. Never once has anything in Springfield come close to this sequence. That’s never been the M.O. for the show. Frankly, it shouldn’t be now.
Further, one of the more iconic parts of Family Guy have been the ever growing in terms of intensity fights with the Giant Chicken that began with the episode “Das Boom” in 2001. When Family Guy breaks one of these out it is almost assuredly hilarious. When it’s Homer and Peter beating one another senseless and breaking the reality of Springfield it feels, for lack of a better word, wrong.
The largest pet peeve I have with any show ever is when they throw out the rules of the universe they live in. When a show is constructed, so is the world it exists in. For example, House of Cards takes place in 2014 Washington DC. This is presented entirely as our world that we live in, save for quickened governmental process for the sake of story. This makes sense. What wouldn’t is if, suddenly, in Season 3, Frank Underwood could start to communicate with the supernatural. That would be breaking from the reality set forth by the show. That would be betraying the audience’s trust.
St. Elsewhere was a medical drama in the 1980s that launched the career of a young Denzel Washington. The show was a success, as TV Guide named it the 20th best show ever in a 2002 list. The ending of the show is famous for breaking the idea above. Whereas the show took place in a normal reality the ending did not. It was revealed in the closing moments of the series finale that the entire show had taken place in a snow globe. No, I’m dead serious, that’s how St. Elsewhere ends. This meant all of the stories that were given emotional commitment over the six years of the show were not real. That’s a lot of time to waste on the stakes of fictional humans only to have the ending wipe it all out.
Now, there’s the question of how this applies to Family Guy and The Simpsons. Well, it’s simple – last night manipulated the universes in which each show exists. In Springfield the world is for the most part real. There are elements of cartoon for the sake of story and or joke on many occasions. In “Burns, Baby Burns” there is suddenly an abundance of music and beer for a party out of nowhere. This is unexplained on purpose.
On Family Guy they have a set of rules for the show. Peter has a seemingly never-ending quantity of money to purchase things like the PeterCopter. He can get in a fistfight with a giant chicken and no one bats an eyelash because that’s what Family Guy is. Stewie can travel through time. Brian can speak. All of this is more than okay – these are the qualities that make Family Guy what it is and have in large part led to some of the best moments of the series as a whole. It’s just a bad mix when this reality is combined with The Simpsons’s own. They don’t compare. Santa’s Little Helper doesn’t speak, nor does Maggie. No one asks why Bart is able to communicate with Stewie or why the latter is super intelligent. Not a single person asks why Brian can talk. With the episode taking place in Springfield these are questions that must have come to mind. By having the crossover go to Springfield they are agreeing to adopt The Simpsons rules or it becomes uncomfortable. Family Guy kept their own rules and moved them abroad. That created issues for the episode last night. That led to Bart prank calling Moe’s and asking for “Lee Keybum” and Stewie informing Moe that “your sister is being raped.” This is not a compatible mix. These shows are vastly different, especially recently.
The past few seasons of Family Guy did not help my opinions on this episode. From the moment it was announced that they were indeed the ones running the episode I knew things would go wrong. It was only a matter of time before the episode came out and Homer, Bart, Lisa, Marge, and Maggie, were forced to conform to the same offensive humor that Peter, Stewie, Brian, Chris, Meg, and Lois do.
Offensive humor is not the issue whatsoever. The Simpsons has had their own brand of humor since they premiered in 1989. They are hilarious but they maintain the ability to keep heart and love in each of their characters. This is how the show can have an episode like “Marge vs. the Monorail,” which is widely considered one of the funniest half hours in television history, while also having episodes like “And Maggie Makes Three,” which in its own right is laugh out loud hilarious while keeping the emotional gravity of the Homer and Maggie relationship in its tear-enducing end. The comedy intertwined with the heart is the defining feature of The Simpsons.
Family Guy goes in a different direction. The entirety of Family Guy is based around pushing the envelope and touching subjects that The Simpsons never would. This has created some of the funniest moments the show has ever had. They take a sharper knife to pop culture and the world around them than The Simpsons ever did. And for a while it made for incredible TV. While never as critically lauded as their yellow counterparts, the middle of the 2000s era Family Guy, with episodes like “Brian Goes Back to College,” “North by North Quahog,” “PTV,” and “Patriot Games” are genuinely great television. The problem is how they’ve strayed away from that. At its best Family Guy had heart – never at the level of The Simpsons, but it was there – while also pushing the boundaries of what the show could do. For years this was amazing. Later in the 2000s the show got more experimental and produced heavy episodes like “Brian and Stewie” (which may be the best the series has ever had) and experimental, high concept ones like “Road to the Multiverse.” These are terrific episodes of Family Guy and, again, genuinely great TV. But then something happened.
A few years ago the show seemed to get comfortable with taking sharper and sharper takes on the world around them. Suddenly they were throwing shots at everyone. It started to blur the line between satire and just plain mean. Whereas in previous episodes Family Guy would address taboo subjects, they now were choosing to see how many people they could piss off at a given time. This is where Family Guy started to lose me.
Before long the characters that were previously layered became more or less caricatures. Peter was at one time a father looking out for his family who happened to be crazy and overall dumb. That’s what made literally millions love him and what made him hilarious. Now he’s just an asshole, spouting as many hateful things as Seth MacFarlane can come up with. Mean jokes are funny when they’re funny but just being offensive for the sake of being offensive is annoying. Brian used to be an aspiring writer who was plagued by his mediocrity and the largest part of his comedy was drawn from that. Now he comes off as a wannabe intellectual prick and fairly unlikable. In days past I found myself caring about Brian’s repeated rise and fall in his quest to make it as a writer. But ever since he got successful in “Brian Writes a Best Seller” I have been rooting for his failure. Why do I want to see him succeed anymore? Why does he deserve it? That’s a failure on the writing staff.
There’s a real question to be asked now of Family Guy. In years past it was easy to have emotional connections to the characters. They gave you reasons to care about what happened to them. They drew you in. This is what good shows/movies/books/anything does. Now, however, I find myself watching the episodes and thinking that everyone is an asshole. Why do I care if something bad happens to Peter? He probably deserved it. Brian can fail again and again and I don’t care. I don’t want him to be successful. Meg has been made into such a pathetic punching bag that I can’t even feel bad for her anymore. She doesn’t get sympathy anymore because she’s no longer a human in the eyes of the writers; she’s a human lightening rod for the rest of the family. They even brought up this idea in the episode “Seahorse Seashell Party.” The characters have gone from being fun to watch on screen to a group of unlikable people. The real question is why care? Why should I keep watching these terrible people try and enrage as many people as possible? What am I gaining through this?
And make no mistake I actively want Family Guy to be good. At its best it is still a funny show. I like watching it. But that feeling has been falling rapidly over the past few seasons. I no longer find myself with the ability to like the Griffin family or their friends. I probably won’t quit the show, but I’ll say this – in 2006 that thought would never have entered my mind, whereas now it’s a talking point for my brain.
Not to be critical only of Family Guy, as they have some points with regards to The Simpsons as well. The Simpsons have not been as funny as they once were for a considerable part of their history now. Last night they premiered their 26th season. Even I think The Simpsons have gone on too long. They could have wrapped things up in any of the last few seasons and I would have been okay with it. After 553 episodes now they have given us more entertainment than we as a society could ever have asked for. Now with the invention of SimpsonsWorld, the app that allows users to stream every episode of the show ever, the need for new shows is at an all time low. In no way am I arguing with more Simpsons, as it makes me happy that there are new stories to be told, but I also could see the show ride off into the night, look back at all it has given that still exists, and be entirely fine.
The great part for The Simpsons is that while they are not going to approach the genius of their heights again, they can still hit some home runs with these episodes. Last spring The Simpsons did the episode “Brick Like Me” which had the show styled in Lego. It was one of the best episodes the series has had in years and a great show on its own in 2014 television. That is the magic of The Simpsons. There is still the heart and the comedy to the show all these years later. In their peak they’d release three classics in a row like “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet,” “Cape Feare,” and “Treehouse of Horror V.” Now we’d be luck to get one or two great episodes a season, but that’s because of fatigue. Family Guy has morphed their dynamic for the worse and they are 232 episodes into their run. The Simpsons has produced double that and is still not done. After that long you tend to fall on the same ideas again and again. This happens with every show in history.
While The Simpsons is not what it once was, it has flashes of brilliance. The last few years have given episodes like “Holidays of Future Passed” and “Brick Like Me” that are really great episodes of television. There’s an honest question to be asked with regards to The Simpsons in comparison to other current shows. Not much of anything on network TV (Note: This means no FX, HBO, etc.) can matchup to “classic era” Simpsons, but current Simpsons is higher quality than a lot of what else is out. If I was forced to choose between what is funnier: Season 26 Simpsons or Big Bang Theory, I’d take the former every time. Current Simpsons is still better than a lot else of what is on now.
That said, it has fallen off. That’s clear. But the fact that there are still fun episodes coming out gives us reason to come back. Meanwhile later on FOX Sundays Family Guy is again making it hard to care anymore.
There was a point that was made on the AV Club last night where a few of their writers were live commenting on the crossover that cannot be ignored. It’s a key point to what makes me so upset about how the crossover went last night. The idea was that the thought that these shows are on equal footing is unbelievable. They aren’t and it isn’t close. Family Guy at its best is not in the same galaxy that The Simpsons at its best was. This is just a fact with these two shows. Peak Family Guy, from 2001-2008, is really good. Peak Simpsons, their Season 2 through Season 10, is possibly the best stretch of comedic television in history. Family Guy has always been a popular cult hit show. The Simpsons was a cultural phenomenon in the 1990s and has had global impact on the world for three decades now. There is no one making the argument that Family Guy at its best approaches The Simpsons at its best. This is because those that have seen both (myself included) know this argument cannot exist.
But that in no way does not mean that the show is bad. In fact, Peak Family Guy is still some of the best comedy I have ever watched. That’s not to be taken lightly. This show really is quality. It has every right to exist. It has every right to keep making new stories. It just needs to be viewed the correct way. The attitude of the world covering the crossover was treating Family Guy and The Simpsons on equal playing fields. They are not. The former has been cancelled on more than one occasion in the past decade and a half whereas the latter released a feature film after their 18th season and grossed over $500 million with heavy critical praise. Family Guy will never be The Simpsons. That’s okay, because it doesn’t need to be. It need to go back to being Family Guy, the clever, envelope pushing show it was just a few years ago.
So where does that leave us now. There’s a lot coming out of last night. There’s a lot of different ways to take this all.
First, the crossover can fade into the back of my mind. It happened. Move on. No need to give it more attention than it needs. It is a Family Guy episode, so I can knowingly ignore it like other television miscues (the How I Met Your Mother Finale, the final season of Scrubs) to make myself happier.
Second, I can put hope in Family Guy that they can right the ship and get back to being as great as they once were. They openly admit that The Simpsons are a huge influence on them. They can look to their elders for the model on how to return to previous glory if only briefly. That alone would be progress. I want this show to be good again. I really do.
Third, The Simpsons can continue chugging along until they see time fit to end. They’ve given so much that it’s entirely to them on when they want to step away. They haven’t completely fallen off yet, but they’re not on as solid as footing as they were the year before. I hope they prove me wrong, but they may not. The sunset for The Simpsons could be on the horizon. And you know what, after this long, that’s totally okay.
And finally, the world can return to normal once again. We can appreciate these two great shows the way they are best appreciated: on their own. Back to Quahog and back to Springfield we go.