Saturday, November 6, 2010

Commentaries Save A Middling Season of One of the Best Comedies Out There: Family Guy Volume 4!

The Good: Funny, Some Interesting Stories, Commentary Track and other bonuses
The Bad: Somewhat less zany, Some moments that are disturbing, Does not live up to DVD potential
The Basics: When Family Guy returns with an awkward combination of less-zany humor and some truly disturbing images, the set hinges on the great commentary to close the sale.

Family Guy is one of the few shows I still make a point to watch each week (the last few years, I've missed The Simpsons frequently and felt like I haven't missed it) and I was among the legions of fans who were thrilled when it was brought back on Fox. And I dutifully bought Family Guy Presents Stewie Griffin The Untold Story and all the prior boxed set DVDs of the series. So, when Family Guy Volume Four was released, it was a no brainer that I would be getting it.

Before I continue, I'll note that "Volume Four" includes only fourteen episodes of Family Guy and that's a disappointment. Is 24 the only show on television that still has 24 episodes in a season?! Network shows used to have twenty-six episodes per season, now most are down to 22. With Family Guy, buyers have gone from 28 episodes (comprising seasons 1 and 2) to 21 episodes (season 3) to 13 episodes (they don't even bother to call it a "season" anymore) per boxed set for roughly the same price. This is like the law of diminishing returns for Family Guy fans, though the current set includes one episode more than the prior set. It does beg the question; why didn't they call it "Season 4" and release it as a 27 episode set? Hmmm . . .

Over the fourteen episodes of Family Guy presented in volume four, Peter starts his own television network, a Fat Pride organization, a religion based around Fonzie, a football career, and an erotica writer. The other characters have stories as well, mostly Stewie, who accompanies Brian to college, pals around with Peter to torment Lois, pals around with Brian and Frank Sinatra Jr. as part of a new rat pack, fights Bertram (last seen as a sperm in a prior season) and gets sucked into an alternate dimension which he may only escape from by passing through Meg's butt.

The character who draws the short straw this season, er, volume, is Chris. Chris does not have an episode devoted to him, the strongest being a Herbert (creepy old-guy neighbor) story that Chris features prominently in, which is the b-story to Stewie and Peter tormenting Lois and going to Disneyworld. Even Meg ends up with more to do, as she comes out of the closet (sort of) and becomes an intern for Adam West. Even Quagmire gets a story this volume! Chris, however, does not. Even the Evil Monkey does not appear here. Bummer.

What the volume lacks in episodes it makes up for (almost) in features. All fourteen episodes have commentary and some of it is so funny that it warrants the purchase of the DVD set. Even after the episodes are watched and rewatched, the commentaries are funny. All fourteen feature Seth MacFarlane and he is accompanied by actors, producers, writers and directors of the episodes making for a diverse listening experience. And the commentaries are funny.

Sometimes, that humor overshadows the actual episode. So, for example, in "Patriot Games," Peter breaks into a big dance number to the song "Shipoopi" and while it's amusing, it does not hold up well over multiple viewings. Similarly, the episode has some of the most brutal scenes of the series as Stewie tortures Brian for money the dog owes him. Those scenes are just plain disturbing and at the very least not funny. The commentary track discusses the violence and what it was going for and it explores the making of the "Shipoopi" scene in a way that is entertaining. And the commentary - ironically - holds up over multiple viewings.

The thing about Family Guy that is accented on Volume Four is that it is an ambitious show and the fans have been remarkably supportive of it. The ambition of Family Guy is revealed in this set in the form of 40 deleted scenes. The show works so hard to create decent gags and humor that they had to cut so much from the episodes to make them fit into the 22 minute airtime. The support from the fans continues to encourage the DVD sets to be made and here, I find the DVD sets could be more ambitious.

In many of the commentaries, the producers will be talking and they will approach a joke that was cut for time, which the final disc in the set has in the deleted scenes. The producers talk at length over many of the missing jokes about how well they worked and how they were simply cut because the show ran long on television. This buggers the question; why don't they give the fans the full episodes on the DVDs? Why make 40 deleted scenes that could easily fit the episodes when there is no limit to the time of each episode on DVD? The episodes are altered from their broadcast release in that they are uncensored (yea!), so why not extend the episodes to give the pieces as they were supposed to be?

As a fan, I have serious doubts that there are purists in the base who would object to getting more out of the DVD experience by having "complete" episodes. And the commentaries could be more useful and fun if those involved weren't constantly stopping to say, "where is (x) joke?" "It was cut for time, it's in the deleted scenes." And not all of the scenes that we are told are in the bonus footage ended up there.

Family Guy has not jumped the shark, but volume four contains more episodes that are less funny over multiple viewings and some that lack initial humor ("Brian Sings and Swings" while musically enjoyable was not terribly funny). Were it not for the often-hilarious commentary tracks, this would be a recommendation by rote.

As a final note, the producers of Family Guy reward the fans with several of the episodes in this set in that some of the funniest jokes are callbacks to prior episodes. I laughed the hardest from a gag in "The Fat Guy Strangler" that hinges entirely on having seen "To Love and Die In Dixie" (which remains my favorite episode of the series). And for that level of caring for the fans, I am grateful.

For other animated works by Seth MacFarlane, please check out my reviews of:
Family Guy Volume 5
Family Guy Presents Blue Harvest
Family Guy Volume 6
Family Guy Volume 7
Family Guy Presents Something, Something, Something Dark Side
Seth MacFarlane's Cavalcade Of Cartoon Comedy
Family Guy Volume 8
Family Guy Presents Partial Terms Of Endearment


For other television reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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