4th December 2013

Family Guy kills Brian Griffin: publicity stunt or cry for help?

By Helen Gradwell on Wednesday December 4, 2013

Last week, Family Guy shocked viewers by unceremoniously killing off the Griffin’s family dog, Brian, and replacing him with a wisecracking pooch voiced by the Sopranos’ Tony Sirico.

Since, there has been much speculation about why the writers chose to do this. Executive producer of the show, Steve Callaghan, said the move was simply a “fun way to shake things up.”

If it was just a publicity stunt, it has had some success. The move has generated a ton of media coverage and stimulated conversation among viewers where it may have been going stale.

However, it’s not clear whether this decision will buoy the show’s ratings or profile in the long-term, and there is clearly more to it than meets the eye.

That’s why I’m going to take a look at this decision by comparing it to the 1997 Simpsons episode ‘The Itchy & Scratcy & Poochie Show’, and maybe it’ll all become clear…

If you’ve not seen it, the basic premise of the episode is that Bart and Lisa’s favourite TV show, ‘The Itchy & Scratchy Show’ introduces a new character, the “edgy, in-your-face” rapping surfer dog, Poochie, who brings some great lines like “Hey kids, always recycle – TO THE EXTREME!”

This is a clear move by the producers of the Itchy & Scratchy Show to ‘shake things up’ in, as Lisa describes it, “A desperate attempt to boost low ratings.”

So, it’s natural to suspect that this was Family Guy’s motivation for their controversial move.

It can be very difficult to guess what viewers want, or how they will react to changes in their favourite TV shows. As the leader of the Itchy & Scratchy focus group in the Simpsons found, simply asking viewers what they want can seriously backfire, as the session concluded that kids are looking for “A realistic, down-to-earth-show… that’s completely off the wall and swarming with magic robots”.

Poochie’s appearance disrupted the relationship between Itchy and Scratchy. As such, Poochie’s premiering episode was dubbed “Worst. Episode. Ever” by Comic Book Guy.

After the episode showing Brian’s death was aired, the internet filled with confused and angry fans tweeting #BringBackBrian – and a petition to this end now has over 120,000 signatures. This is similar to how Comic Book Guy was on the internet within minutes after Poochie’s first appearance “Registering my disgust throughout the world”, and rating for the show plummeted.

As a result, Poochie was quickly killed off the Itchy & Scratchy Show, and the status quo was restored. Poochie was sent back to his home planet, but unfortunately perished on the journey.

Krusty was quick to emphasise that although “Sometimes, when cartoon characters die, they’re back again the very next week” he has signed a “sworn affidavit that Poochie will never, ever, ever return!”

This seems to be the case with Family Guy too, with Stewie dismantling his time machine – thus ensuring that Brian cannot return. Vinnie has allegedly been commissioned for at least six more episodes, so it looks like Brian won’t be back any time soon.

The similarities between the Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie show and MacFarlane’s decision to kill Brian are hard to miss – and it’s impossible to believe that Seth himself will have missed the irony, especially as Brian’s death follows the Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie model almost to the letter.

That’s why I believe that this move is a bit more complex than simply raising Family Guy’s profile or ratings.

No, I think that killing Brian, who was the only voice of reason in the Griffin household (and incidentally the only character that used Seth MacFarlane’s ‘real voice’) is self-sabotage, pure and simple. In recent interviews the Family Guy creator admitted “Part of me thinks that Family Guy should have already ended” and that he’s secretly “Hoping for fans to say ‘we’re done with this’.”

If this is the reasoning behind Brian’s death, it’s actually a very smart move. Brian Griffin provided some of the only depth and emotion in a show that is otherwise shallow and infantile (and proudly so). A recent episode where Brian gets trapped in a bank vault with Stewie and admits he’s thought about ending his life is a truly emotional watch.

It remains to be seen whether Brian will magically pop up on our screens again in the future. However, at the moment, my theory is that MacFarlane used the Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show as a manual on ‘How to Kill Your Cartoon’. Removing Brian, and introducing such a stereotypically rubbish replacement, may be MacFarlane’s way of encouraging fans to give up and stop watching.

Well, in my case, it’s worked.