Seth MacFarlane's wild and irreverent TV-sitcom subversion bounces back again for thirteen riotous episodes from its anarchic, and Emmy-nominated, fourth season. The animated sensation has seen troubled times from the American TV Network, who don't seem to know a good thing when they're blessed enough to receive one, but fan-power has maintained Family Guy's pole-position as the most consistently entertaining and brilliantly written cartoon show since The Simpsons. Its dangerous sending-up of established celebrities, moral-shattering scenarios and wholesale lampooning of cultural decency have ensured its popularity and seen its following grow considerably on both sides of the Pond. After a clever, but slightly tentative, breakthrough the show has gathered speed and maturity, each new episode finding a little more room to stretch its legs and push the ethical boundaries just that tiny bit further. The characters feel more assured, more rounded with the voice talent behind them gaining in confidence and daring. The scripts have taken on a much edgier tone of no-holds-barred taboo-breakage that sees you wincing for a split-second before the inevitable guffaw overcomes you, the sheer cheek of some of the satire quite alarming at times. Only in animation could so many strict ethical codes be snapped asunder with any resulting offence that may be suffered swiftly forgotten amid the laughter. Of course, if you let someone get away with it for long enough, they're only going to get better at it. And, barring a couple of episodes on Disc 3 that seemed a little more hit and miss to me, MacFarlane and his team of writers have excelled themselves with razor-sharp wit and expert movie-skits that demand instant replay, time and again.
“My dad's smarter than your dad.”
“We both have the same dad, idiot!”
“Yeah, but mine's smarter!”
The Griffin Family from Quahog, Rhode Island, are now a celebration of dysfunctionality, their own unique brand of group dynamic one that is fused by mistrust, anger, alienation and pure insanity. Peter Griffin, the delinquent and delusional father voiced by show-creator Seth MacFarlane, has more previous careers and past life's than Doctor Who, is missing a vital chromosome or two and lives in a giggle-filled fantasyland. His only real talents are the abilities to blow milk through his nose when he laughs and consume more nickels than any other retarded, overweight non-achiever in cartoon-family world. His long-suffering wife, Lois (voiced with whining, nasal excellence by Alex Borstein), is tremendous fun. Outwardly meek and slender, she is nevertheless the focal point of much sexual attention - not least by the neighbourhood pervert, Quagmire (a marvellous concoction of both Beavis and Butthead, if imagined in later years) - and plentiful bizarre character turnarounds. And who can deny the strange sort of elation at seeing her bend over and drop her pants in a quick visual aside? Her brief new career in Episode 10, Model Misbehaviour, when she takes to the catwalk is an anorexic joy, and just check out her turn as X-Men's nude, blue Mystique. Wow. These are the types of confusing thoughts and images that flitted through my young brain when I used to watch the mum next door to George and Mildred chastising Tristan every week. But enough about that ... erm, ahem.
“This sucks worse than the time I did cocaine with Karl Malden.”
Chris Griffin (the brilliant Seth Green) goes through all the usual teenage pitfalls and predicaments with the kind of parental assistance that sees his mom yelling “Freshman!” when she drops the nervous kid off at school before speeding away to leave him to his baseball-bat-shaped fate. His battle of wills with an enormous, megalomaniacal zit, in a pus-filled pastiche of Audrey from The Little Shop Of Horrors, is a grotesquely hilarious saga of almost Cronenberg-ian body horror. His crush on his delectably curvaceous teacher turns into a smart murder plot in the vein of Hitchcock and his Peace Corps mission - just a means to escape the torments from the older students in school - sees him marrying a tribal girl and, at long last, finding true happiness. Until his family turn up and attempt to bring him back to civilisation, that is. What follows is a priceless, practically shot-for-shot take on the jungle introduction to Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Utterly brilliant.
“You're like a dog with a bone.”
“Tell me about it.”
But, of course, the show is literally anchored by the fabulous double-act of baby Stewie, a foppish deviant, and articulate family dog, Brian (both voiced by MacFarlane, again). Stewie is a creation of pure genius - a highly erudite, upper-class demigod in a diaper. His ultimate threat of producing a “fudgie” down below is matched only his incisively cruel and caustic character-assassinations - “What does it smell like, dog? Does it smell like servitude?” His put-downs are peerless and pinched with acerbic wit, his own little adventures running the gamut of blind dates, putting talcum powder containers in his nappy to impress the girls, nights at the opera and building illicit business empires, and plotting to kill his cute sitter's boyfriend in a pique of jealousy. But, my favourite has to be his sweet revenge on Will Ferrell for unleashing the remake of Bewitched upon us. Brian, on the other hand, is the jazz-loving voice of calm in the household and definitely the brains of the family. Educated, well-intentioned and about the only hope for normality that the Griffins have, he nevertheless falls in love far too easily, in Brian The Bachelor, marries Lois when Peter becomes shipwrecked on a desert island in Perfect Castaway, and becomes usurped by James Woods in the utterly awesome Peter's Got Woods. But check out the bizarrely inspirational “Captain, my Captain” vote of appreciation he receives from his students for his stint as a high school teacher.
Oh, and then there's the always-ignored daughter Meg, voiced by Mila Kumis. Well, I won't break the Griffin Family tradition and waste any time on her, so ... moving along ...
“Now, let's compare breasts.”
The supporting cast are all superb, as well. The afore-mentioned Quagmire is an absolute hoot. The most dangerously ribald writing revolves around his jaw-droppingly amoral antics. Have a look at the long sequence when Meg has a few friends round for a sleepover date. The playfully innocent chatter from the girls as they sit on the floor gossiping is contrasted perfectly with Quagmire's slowly rising grin from his hiding place behind the sofa. But the pure prize-winning perversion must be when he clings to the ceiling above the ladies' toilets, Spider-Man style, to catch a glimpse of Lois answering the call of nature. Slowly-voiced Cleveland goes through some marital trouble in this season, too, almost sparking him out of his lethargy. The Rocky III-style denouement to all this is terrific. And paraplegic cop, Joe, suffers more handicapped gags than you can shake a crutch at ... but the strange thing is that no matter how far the writers take such dodgy material, they never seem to sour the joke. It is in bad taste but it is dealt with in such an effortlessly infectious manner that even a parson would find it difficult to keep a straight face throughout. Again, this is the wicked beauty of animation. You can get away with so much more when the characters are just cell-drawn in two-dimensions.
“I'm not going to change you.”
“You can't be serious. What ... what if I make a fudgie?”
Clever, but simple, animation and direct impulse-hitting set-ups surround the hugely entertaining and rapid-fire gags. The writing is sublime and consistently funny, with more laughs-per-minute than any other show that I can think of. The alarming amount of digs at celebrities is refreshingly unapologetic and decisively cutting in the extreme, often leaving you open-mouthed that they even thought they could actually get away it. And the sheer lack of any attempt to make the guest stars, and victims, look anything even remotely like their real-life counterparts carries with it an air of nonplussed indifference. You know who you are, buddy, but you ain't worth the extra detail, ok? Class.
One last thing I have to mention. The episode entitled 8 Simple Rules Of Buying My Teenage Daughter contains a vomit-marathon scene that had me double-upped in such laughter-agony that I'm convinced it has done me some permanent damage. Oh hell, just writing about it now has got me giggling. Bang goes another rib, folks.
Disc 1 contains North By North Quahog, Fast Times At Buddy Cianci Jr. High, Blind Ambition and Don't Make Me Over. All are excellent. North By North Quahog contains a marvellous swipe at Mel Gibson and a great Blues Brothers-inspired chase sequence.
Disc 2 contains The Cleveland-Loretta Quagmire, Petarded, Brian The Bachelor and 8 Simple Rules For Buying My Daughter.
Disc 3 contains Breaking Out Is Hard To Do, Model Misbehaviour, Peter's Got Woods, Perfect Castaway and Jungle Love.
Disc 3 contains the Special Features, too. And thankfully, the discs have a Play All option for the episodes.Although still a brilliant selection, I found Lois's kleptomania and prison-breakout episode and the Perfect Castaway tale lesser instalments. But Peter's Got Woods offers a standout turn from James Woods and is sheer genius from start to finish. Top class all round. I warned you all about that vomit-scene, didn't I?
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