I cried watching Family Guy.
Those words feel a tad surreal even after I’ve typed them. Family Guy, since its premiere nearly 20 years ago, has been called many things over the course of its legacy: hilarious, demented, politically incorrect, unfunny, underrated, overrated and, of course, controversial. But a word that’s rarely been used to describe it–with a few notable exceptions–is poignant. Now at its 300th episode, Family Guy is by far the most successful cancelled-and-then-resurrected TV series of all time, and one of the longest running cartoon shows in history. Because of its popularity–or maybe in spite of it–the show hasn’t stepped outside of its comfort zone much, though whenever it does so, the focus has always been on its most important relationship: the friendship between Brian and Stewie.
Of course, that hasn’t always been the case with the series. During its earlier seasons, Stewie was a baby hellbent on committing matricide, while Brian was a chain smoker who made wisecracks about the family. The key to bringing the two characters together was that Brian was the only member of the household who could understand Stewie (well, except for that one time Stewie could talk to Chris, but that’s a discussion for another review), and from there their relationship evolved, most prominently during the Hope/Crosby “Road to…” tribute episodes. Due to the comedic strength between the two–with Stewie’s flamboyant personality playing well against Brian’s sometimes self-important yet insecure straight man–Family Guy has taken the most “risks” with stories centered around them, whether it was Brian & Stewie (which had no cutaway gags), Brian’s Play (which had Brian’s thirst for greatness contrasted against Stewie’s natural talent) or, most infamously, the episode in which Brian was hit by a car and killed, only to later be brought back to life through the magic of time travel.
All of the aforementioned escapades went against the show’s format, emphasizing character development over laughs while still providing a good number of those. Yet it’s Dog Bites Bear–the landmark 300th episode–which feels like the first time there have been actual stakes on an emotional level, taking a concept that could’ve been played for the usual level of crass comedy which Family Guy is normally accustomed to and taking it to an unexpectedly bittersweet level.
Things start out on a somewhat average level, with Stewie getting ready to watch a marathon of the Fast and the Furious movies with his beloved teddy bear Rupert (but starting with Fast and Furious 6, since he’s doing them “from best to worst,” while noting he’s aware that his ranking of Tokyo Drift over the first two films is a controversial opinion). Brian decides to join in as he’s never seen any of the movies, which Stewie says is fine so long as he doesn’t mention that Paul Walker is “d-e-a-d,” because Rupert doesn’t know yet about the Furious star’s tragic fate. But Brian soon leaves in a huff, getting increasingly frustrated by his companion’s extended “conversations” with his toy, especially since many of them involve insults directed towards him.
Things get ugly the next morning, however, when Stewie wakes up to find Brian passed out on the couch and Rupert torn to shreds underneath him. In a regular episode of the series, something like this would normally be milked for giggles, but here Stewie’s reaction is one of genuine horror, and though we’ve seen him beat up Brian numerous times in the past, this time there is a level of emotional pain that comes with each punch. Brian has legitimately hurt Stewie, and his gut reaction is to hurt him back, despite the fact that Brian insists he thought Rupert was “his chew toy” when he destroyed him…at first. As the conflict between the two characters intensifies as the story progresses, Brian admits he killed Rupurt on purpose because he was being driven crazy by how “stupidly” Stewie behaved whenever he was around him.
I must take a moment to discuss the script here, because it’s brilliant. Cherry Chevapravadumrong has been with the series for a long time, and she delivers some of the show’s best writing to date, fueled first and foremost by her understanding of what makes the dynamic between the episode’s two leads work. For one thing, she completely empathizes to the audience the importance of what Rupert has always meant to Stewie. Even during his early days as an evil genius, Rupert always exemplified Stewie’s “baby” side, which was one of the reasons the character quickly became a fan favorite. But there’s something even deeper at play here: as Brian notes to Stewie, he is much more “grown-up” than anyone else in the family, which makes his attachment to a plushie both perplexing and ultimately frustrating to him.
What Brian doesn’t get—but Chevapravadumrong absolutely does–is the significance of a childhood toy, or, on a broader level, even the love one can have for a fictional character which can often on a surreal level feel like an actual friendship. Rupert shouldn’t be allowed to die. He’s the one thing that Stewie loves that he knows he should be able to hold onto, and the trauma over losing Rupert is on some layer connected to the fact that he at one point in his life had to deal with Brian’s violent end. Sure, he was able to bring him back, but he knows that within a few years, Brian will be back in the ground, and Stewie will have no one left in the world who understands him, without even his teddy bear around to comfort him anymore. There’s a reason Stewie allows Rupert to remain in the dark about Paul Walker’s death; he exists in a safe space inside of his mind where things like mortality are not an issue.
And, yes, that is what Dog Bites Bear is about: death in its many forms, and how it can not only bring out the worst in people, but also their best as well. Brian, sincerely apologetic over what he did, delivers a eulogy for Rupert which is fully heartfelt. Seth MacFarlane, who probably doesn’t get enough credit for his immense skills as a voice actor, gives the sequence exactly what it needs, allowing for both Stewie and Brian to sing a little badly for a change, making their goodbye to Stewie’s pal awkward yet comforting.
Then there’s the final scene, which some might claim is pushing the reset button, but I think couldn’t be more perfect as Brian drives a sleeping Stewie home and buys him a new teddy bear while he’s dreaming. His jovial exclaimation of “Rupert, you came back!” once he awakens is probably the most euphoric we’ve ever heard the character be, but Rupert has indeed gone to that great toy box in the sky, as we go up to heaven to see him in a drag race with Paul Walker, forever at peace with one of his owner’s favorite movie stars.
There are, of course, many episodes of Family Guy which are funnier than this one. But I can’t think of any other time the series has nailed an emotional story in the way Dog Bites Bear does, as it’s not taken down any notches by the “gotcha!” aspect of Brian’s death or the sudden reveal that he has strongly considered taking his own life in Brian and Stewie. If you go into this expecting for your funny-bone to be tickled non-stop, you might be a little disappointed. But that still doesn’t stop Dog Eats Dog for being a perfect entry of a show that many have felt is long past its prime, and that, for me, is worth celebrating.
* I didn’t even mention the Peter Griffin subplot, which is appropriately goofy and adds some levity to the episode as he refuses to wash his hand after shaking hands with his all-time favorite cereal mascot. “Booberry! Oh, my God! I just got that! Did…did you know that, or was that not on purpose?”
* Also delightful was the resolution to the Peter craziness, as Joe and Quagmire get Cleveland to disguise himself as Count Chocula in order to get Peter to finally clean his palm. “You know, there are three of us, so we could’ve been Snap, Crackle and Pop.” “We should’ve done that! We did this wrong!!!”
* Stewie’s full ranking of the Fast and Furious movies: 6, 5, 7, 4, 3, 1, 2. I’m not being sarcastic when I say that 2 Fast 2 Furious is underrated, and gave Paul Walker a chance to have a movie of his own without being upstaged by Vin Diesel.
* Speaking of Vin Diesel, his narration of the DVD menu is something that had me laughing out loud as I took a late-night trip to the bathroom after viewing this episode. “Hello. This is Vin Diesel. Welcome to the DVD menu. Grab a Corona, push ‘play,’ and enjoy the ride!”
* In preparation for both the episode and this review, I watched some recent episodes of the show, which I have fallen behind on in recent years. Am I right when I say that the series is more narrative-driven now? In the three episodes I saw, there was never a “seven minutes of Peter being silly” before the main plot got going, but there’s still the random humor that the series has become known for (I very much enjoyed the extended parody of Kingman’s most violent fight scene).
* Also, has the series finally toned down on the “Meg sucks” jokes? Because I saw an episode in which Peter was fairly decent to her (well, by his standards, at least) that felt much more like a pre-cancellation Meg episode than a post cancellation one.
* For those wondering, some of my favorite episodes are Back to the Pilot, Road to North Pole, McStroke and the first half of I Dream of Jesus. By the way, have you heard? THE BIRD IS THE WORD!