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What Family Guy revealed (then immediately took back) by sending Stewie to therapy

The show insists every so often that its characters are richly complex, fully realized human beings. Sure.

Family Guy
Stewie goes to therapy. The therapist is voiced by Ian McKellen. Now you know it all!
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for March 18 through 25 is “Send in Stewie, Please,” the 12th episode of the 16th season of Fox’s Family Guy.

Way back in 2004, before Family Guy was uncanceled by Fox, when it was still the late-night Adult Swim viewing of choice for many mostly young, mostly male Americans (including your mostly young, mostly male correspondent), my friend Jaime Weinman made a 10-point list of why he hated Family Guy.

Sometimes I return to Weinman’s list, now that dunking on Family Guy has become relatively uncontroversial, and I wonder how Weinman could have accurately pegged essentially every single criticism people would come to have of Family Guy from episodes that, at the time he was writing, were seen as mostly enjoyable at worst.

A lot of that stems from how succinctly Weinman dissected the main source of humor in Family Guy — an abundance of references to ’70s and ’80s pop culture meant to masquerade as jokes — at a time when the references seemed new enough to provoke laughter in those who recognized them. But Weinman noticed, accurately, that there weren’t jokes there, just winks and nods designed to make the show seem knowing to a mostly young, mostly male viewership cohort.

Yet part of that article gets at why Family Guy has proved so surprisingly durable all the same, and it’s not the one you’d think, but it’s one I thought of instantly while watching “Send in Stewie, Please,” which sends the famous malevolent baby to a therapist voiced by Ian McKellen.

Here, I’ll quote Weinman directly:

Good comedy writing gets laughs from the characters; the writers on this show write around the characters. By the last few episodes [of the series’ original run], Stewie was so tapped-out as a character that he was written out of character in almost every episode (that is, almost every gag featured him taking on a personality other than his own), a sign that the character had nothing to him in the first place except the stuff that was taken from superior characters.

Family Guy’s characters are thin enough that they can be just about anything

Family Guy
Stewie has traveled through seemingly all of time and space.

Family Guy has always been bedeviled by comparisons to The Simpsons, an older series with which it has shared every single one of its 16 seasons. And to be sure, the two shows feature very, very similar setups, right down to the makeup of the family at the center. (The only major difference is that the baby and dog on Family Guy can talk.)

But on a purely structural level, the two shows are pretty different. The Simpsons is rooted in the well-made sitcoms of the ’70s and ’80s. Its comedic rhythms might be very different, but even now, as it approaches its fourth decade on the air, The Simpsons tries to tell involved, character-based stories. It doesn’t always succeed, mind, but that’s what it’s trying to do, at least.

Family Guy isn’t particularly interested in its characters as characters, as Weinman accurately noted. It’s interested in them as broad archetypes, as ways to avoid story as much as possible. In many ways, Family Guy is most similar to sketch comedy, where beloved running gags (like, say, Peter Griffin getting in a fistfight with a chicken) have similar functions to recurring characters on Saturday Night Live.

This isn’t really an impediment to great TV comedy. Something like 30 Rock was structured similarly, but comparing that series and Family Guy shows why Family Guy has never quite hit the same level of quality. The characters on 30 Rock are mostly excuses to tell jokes, but they all have more personality than the gang on Family Guy. And even when the characters on 30 Rock were thin, the jokes were really good, as opposed to Family Guy’s parade of references.

Yet the thinness of Family Guy’s characters has ended up being a weird benefit to the series this deep in its run. Where a series like The Simpsons was forced to spend most of its teens trying to find new characters in its seemingly infinite ensemble to tell stories about, Family Guy just takes its existing ones and tosses them into different comedic sketches. What would it look like if Brian and Stewie traveled the multiverse? How about if Peter really wanted to win an Emmy? Oh, hey, it looks like Brian and Stewie are cosplaying as Holmes and Watson next week!

More and more episodes of every season of Family Guy are taken over by these kinds of format-shifting — if not format-shattering — gimmicks. And there’s nothing wrong with this! For most long-running shows, a good gimmick episode is the one time all involved get to cut loose and have a little fun, and that fun often translates to the audience.

But what happens when the gimmick on a character-light show is specifically designed to highlight the depth of one of your characters?

“Send in Stewie, Please” wants to be profound. It ends up being unpleasant.

Family Guy
Ian McKellen is really good, but what else would you expect?

The Family Guy episode “Send in Stewie, Please” most resembles is “Brian & Stewie,” a 2010 episode loosely inspired by a very similar All in the Family episode, in which Brian the dog and Stewie the baby get locked in a room together and have a long, heartfelt conversation. (Fittingly, “Send in Stewie” is a riff on sitcom episodes where characters go to therapy for one week — and the most famous example of such an episode is from AITF spinoff Maude.)

When reviewing the episode at the time (yes, I used to review Family Guy regularly), I found the whole thing largely unconvincing. But my mild pan of the episode ended up proving more controversial with the show’s fans than my pans usually did. Where I found the episode’s attempts to dig into the characters’ psyches a little hollow, the show’s fans were fascinated by this glimpse into the cores of two characters who largely existed to power comedy sketches.

A similarly dynamic befalls “Send in Stewie,” which, like “Brian & Stewie,” was written by Gary Janetti, a veteran comedy writer who’s also written for Will & Grace and created the British sitcom Vicious (which aired on PBS in the States and starred McKellen, so there’s that connection for you). What I find fascinating, if ultimately flawed, about these two episodes is how far Janetti tries to push the show into outright drama in the name of grappling with who the characters “really” are, before hastily trying to reassemble the status quo at the end.

In the middle of “Send in Stewie,” for instance, Stewie begins performing the opening song from Hamilton, as snot descends from his nose and he occasionally hiccups. It’s simultaneously meant to be a performance showcase for creator Seth MacFarlane (whose voice is about the only thing you hear in the episode, outside of McKellen’s occasional entreaties), a deeply emotional moment, and a gross-out gag. There isn’t a lot of pop culture living at that Venn diagram intersection, and it’s not hard to grudgingly respect Family Guy for trying.

And, weirdly, “Send in Stewie” is even better at digging into who Stewie really is than “Brian & Stewie” (which is probably a better episode overall) simply because it turns its examination of Stewie into a weird, metatextual examination of Family Guy itself. Stewie admits, at one point, that everything he’s doing is a performance, an affect, designed to distract from the things he fears people won’t like about him. He even uses his “real voice,” which is much closer to MacFarlane’s natural speaking voice.

Combine this with the sequence where Stewie suddenly starts using the voices of all of the other characters MacFarlane performs on the show, and you have a surprisingly succinct self-critique of the series itself: It’s so concerned with putting on a very particular kind of performance that it forgets to be real. But if it ever is real, the effect is so disorienting as to polarize the audience.

At every turn, “Send in Stewie” wants to be a sincere examination of a complicated character, but it also needs to be an episode of Family Guy, which means gross-out gags and humor that’s “politically incorrect” in a very late-’90s way, and weird, showy stunts. Early in the episode, for example, Stewie picks up a photo of the therapist with another man and talks for nearly five minutes about what he imagines of the therapist’s life from this one photo.

Another show might have turned this into a push-and-pull between the two characters, but on Family Guy, Stewie is just right, because Stewie gets to be right. (Also, despite much hype about how Stewie would discuss his sexuality in this episode, it mostly amounts to a one-off line about how he’s “comfortable” with his heterosexuality. Family Guy’s producers say in this Deadline piece that they didn’t want to make too much of the sexuality of a baby, which makes sense.)

Then there’s the ending, in which Stewie allows the therapist to suffer a fatal heart attack rather than let anyone who knows the truth about his real voice live. I wouldn’t say “Send in Stewie” ever brushes up against anything truly profound, but I found it mostly intriguing until it finally, brutally undercut itself with that unpleasant ending. But maybe that’s just the cost of being this show. Sooner or later, you need to get back to the place where a chicken could burst through the door and start beating everybody up.

Family Guy airs Sundays on Fox at 9 pm Eastern. Previous episodes are available on Hulu or, really, just turn on your TV and flip around until you find it.

Correction: The original version of this piece said the end of the episode implied Stewie’s visit to the therapist was all a dream. While I maintain you can read it that way (and would prefer to do so), the fact that Stewie says he “did something awful” when Brian comes to talk with him after Stewie wakes with a start suggests he really did keep medical attention from reaching the therapist and essentially murdered him via inaction. Yay?

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