I was hoping Sunday night’s Family Guy/The Simpsons crossover would’ve faded from my memory by now, but it’s as vivid as ever, and not for reasons series creator Seth MacFarlane would appreciate. Except for a couple of scenes in the second half — notably Peter and Homer’s version of the “chicken fight,” which was hilarious until it sunk in just how lame this episode was for recycling it, and the intellectual-property trial, an intriguing germ of an idea that didn’t go anywhere — it’s sort of an anti-classic, a peerless example of what not to do. The episode contained many preemptive criticisms of itself as an example of a half-baked “crossover” episode, but even by the lowered standards of crossovers, it was weak.
What it did do, though, is clarify that the creative team on Family Guy is carrying around a pretty major load of self-hatred over the mostly unflattering ways in which it’s been compared to The Simpsons. Admittedly, The Simpsons isn’t the cultural force it was during its first ten, maybe 15 seasons — I bet some Simpsons producers would cop to that if you got a couple drinks in them — but substandard Simpsons installments are still more visually and comically imaginative than all but the best Family Guy episodes. At certain points during the crossover, you could tell that Family Guy knew this and was torn between frankly admitting the truth and issuing halfhearted denials. This tragic self-knowledge might account, among other things, for the way the show’s direction suddenly became ten times more colorful, dynamic, and surprising once the Griffins moved to Springfield, and the way that the dialogue often lapsed into a lame defense of MacFarlane’s cartoon as a breathtakingly edgy bit of pure entertainment that the fainting-couch types can’t handle.
Straw-man-ism abounded. The straw-man-iest touch was the feminist response to Peter’s misogynist “For Pete’s Sake” cartoon, which was likened via news footage to Muslim outrage over the Prophet Muhammad cartoons and that prompted raging mobs to surround the Griffin house and toss bricks through the family’s window. “It’s not like the internet to go crazy about something small and stupid,” Peter grouses, a comment that’s typical of comedians who’ve been called out for a poorly phrased or poorly thought-out joke, then blamed the listeners for being overly sensitive and nailed themselves on the cross of “Free Speech” (or “Freeze Peach”). One of many such miscalculations in the crossover is the moment where Baby Stewie fails to comprehend the concept of a prank call and tells Moe, “Your sister’s being raped.” That Bart seems aghast suggests that Family Guy knows exactly what it’s doing: putting rape into a line of dialogue that surely didn’t need it, for humor or for shock effect, just because it knows it’s the sort of thing that’ll raise hackles online, thereby giving people who make Family Guy another opportunity to act persecuted, because acting persecuted is what the show has often done instead of creating consistently excellent work that’s built to last. Why be genuinely clever when you can just be cloddishly belligerent, and refocus the discussion from the quality of the work to the question of whether artists have the “right” to say something? Posturing is so much easier.
If the stand-alone Simpsons episode that aired earlier in the evening had been brilliant, I’d happily use it as a club with which to bludgeon Family Guy, but it was just all right. The Comedy Channel roast of Krusty the Klown did a better job of exploring the ancient comedy question “How far is too far?” than any of Family Guy’s attempts at self-analysis. Krusty’s admission that he found the roasts hilarious when he wasn’t the target suggests that we tend to cut more slack to comedians when they aren’t hitting our personal sore spots. But the twinned story lines that ensued after that — Krusty’s rabbi father dying, and Lisa worrying that her own father would die prematurely due to constant neglect of his own health — felt too much like retreads, and not just of previous Simpsons episodes; I subsequently rewatched the classic X-Files episode “Beyond the Sea,” in which Scully is haunted by visions of her late dad, and realized that this “Things I never told a now-dead person/things a now-dead person never told me” trope is as old as drama itself, and that you have to work super hard to make it seem like more than just a trope. The Simpsons didn’t really do that; it left us with a version of the usual “the answer was right there all along” ending, plus a lot of jokes about Jew Heaven that would’ve had played as flat-out anti-Semitic if it were possible to tell what, exactly, the episode’s makers were trying to say by including it (and it wasn’t).
The best thing about the Simpsons episode was the couch gag by filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt, a truly dangerous pop artist whose uncompromising strangeness would, in a better world, make everyone who makes a living through animated stories feel ashamed of themselves for not taking greater risks with both form and content. An extended nightmare of ‘zine-looking graphics and outdated computer fonts and unnervingly ominous soundscapes, it predicted what the world of The Simpsons — and perhaps the world, generally — might look like in a few thousand years. Apparently we’ll all be octopods chanting the same handful of sentences over and over and occasionally feeding on processed paste and doing stuff with our flippers.
Anybody who has ever thought of Family Guy as edgy or defending it as a blast from the id should do themselves a favor and watch some of Hertzfeldt’s work. (Start with “Billy’s Balloon.”) That The Simpsons would kick off its 26th season by highlighting the sort of work that could never been done on The Simpsons, or on Fox, or on any commercial network, suggests that, even after a massively successful quarter-century during which the show stopped being a sitcom and became a utility, the people who make it are still humble about what they do, and know truly daring work when they see it.