Last night’s Family Guy episode, “Back to the Pilot,” took us (duh) back to the show’s pilot episode, allowing for what was basically audio commentary on the pilot by the characters themselves. Go back in time right now and watch it. You can finish reading this when you’re done.
The first half of the episode mostly consists of Stewie and Brian using a time machine to visit different scenes from the pilot and poking fun at them. They’re in the same position as us, having grown accustomed to the modern look and feel of a ten-year-old Family Guy, so re-watching the pilot is a little jarring. But the device of having the characters themselves visit the pilot allows them to call out what seems strange. Right as we notice that Meg’s voice sounds different (she was voiced by Lacey Chabert in the pilot), Stewie remarks to Brian, “Oh my God, what’s with Meg’s voice? She sounds like someone who’s about to give up a huge opportunity.”
Forgetting the fact that they’re going back in time, seeing characters from a given show watching that show is just plain fun. They’re able to point out the differences between their experience as characters living in this world and our experience as viewers watching its events unfold on TV. For instance, how ridiculous does the Griffin gang look waiting calmly in the kitchen while the show is doing a cutaway? “What are they doing? They’re just standing there like zombies,” says Stewie.
We also get to see a Family Guy of the future, with creepy three-dimensional character art, hi-tech camera movements, and lazy storytelling (there’s a cutaway to Peter in a white void saying “Matthew McConaughey is terrible”). Cleveland’s back (“I guess things didn’t work out in Virginia”), Joe Swanson is a robot and Quagmire is Frogmire. Oh, yeah, because the world is a post-nuclear wasteland.
That bring us to the second half of the episode, which is about the fallout after present-day-Brian tells his pilot-episode self to stop 9/11. Amid lots of back and forth time travel, he concludes that the world would actually be a better place by letting 9/11 happen, which some people are probably offended by. Some of the 9-11 jokes work (like the realization that in a 9/11-less world, no one knows how to pronounce Al Qaeda), and others are a little harsh (“Coming up next in sports: Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman tackled by his own team?”). But the episode isn’t at its core a “9-11 episode” - that’s just the excuse to have some fun with time travel, which of course winds up spiralling out of control into a backyard full of Stewies and Brians all telling each other how to save the future world.
Ultimately, the episode should be remembered for the fun a show can have by embracing self-awareness and celebrating itself. It’s an example of how to revisit the show’s early days without making viewers sit through a boring clip-compilation. And that alone deserves praise.