I had a vague fear tonight that Family Guy would finally hit its “Simpsons” moment this season. It’s commonly perceived that The Simpsons began to get stale around its eighth season and lose whatever formula that made it work up until that point. The good news is that Family Guy is not there yet, as Season 14’s premiere hit all the right notes that make a Family Guy episode work. The bad news is that we’ve heard these notes so frequently that tonight’s episode wasn’t so familiar as it was routine.
Granted, last year’s premiere went overboard in the panned “Simpsons Guy” crossover episode, trying too hard in giving us a Family Guy/Simpsons mashup that only succeeded in putting together some of the worst aspects of both shows. So perhaps Seth McFarlane wanted to play it safe tonight by doing a very standard episode. And so that’s what it ended up being. “Pilling Them Softly” followed the typical routine of dueling plot threads. The first concerned occasional-rapist Quagmire revealing his skills as an expert chef who becomes good enough to spontaneously get his own television show. (This guy is normally an airline pilot, but whatever, cartoon writing.) The second concerns Stewie and Brian accidentally becoming prescription drug addicts. Neither plot really intersects with the other, so let’s just take them in turn as two short episodes that have been Frankensteined into one.
The Quagmire plot is really at its heart another Peter plot, one in which his stupidity manifests so frequently that you really have to wonder why anyone keeps him around. As mentioned, Quagmire gets his cooking show, but against all reasons that should be obvious to anyone who’s ever watched this show, he takes Peter on as a distracting sidekick. This gives us a few chuckle-worthy moments as Quagmire gives straight-faced cooking advice while Peter acts the fool in the foreground, advising viewers to do things like “Google ‘Jodi Arias bikini.'” This goes on until Peter is fired, at which point he goes off to start his own show, “Butter Sluts.” (It’s pretty much what it sounds like.) Their friendship is put to the test leading up to an Iron Chef-style cookoff, Quagmire’s substance being pitted against Peter’s buttery flash-in-a-frying-pan. There’s no surprises here–anyone who thinks the Peter-Quagmire friendship won’t survive this competition after this many seasons hasn’t been watching. But anyway, we do get one of Family Guy’s typical 80s-style training montages to pump us up for the resolution.
The Brian-Stewie plot is the “B” story of this episode, which is highly disappointing given that the episode was billed as “Brian solicits a story to George R.R. Martin after taking a bunch of drugs.” That’s essentially what happens, but that part of the plot is brief and a long time coming in the episode. What it really concerns is the phenomenon of over-diagnosis ADHD in kids (specifically Stewie) who even remotely show signs of distraction. This problem is real, but it’s also one that’s been done on The Simpsons and South Park years ago. It’s mildly amusing seeing the normally stoic Stewie reduced to such a state of mellowness that he’s almost lifeless…but it unfortunately when you take away everything that’s interesting about Stewie, he’s no longer interesting and this didn’t really work.
What could have been a great part of an otherwise milquetoast episode really didn’t live up to his potential. Brian learns that what’s slowing Stewie down could speed him up, and easily becomes addicted to Stewie’s pills in an effort to boost his writing talent. Family Guy is often at its best when it portrays Brian as the pretentious writer whose talent is the complete inverse of his ego and he’s forced to confront that fact. “Pilling Them Softly” chooses not to go in that direction. We still get the result of Brian being terrible (his end product being a clear theft of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and any other fantasy epic you can think of), but it’s very obviously grounded in the drugs instead of his ego. Without Brian’s typical self-defeat, this plot isn’t what it could have been.
So, this is a weak start to this season of Family Guy. The lead plot should have been the secondary plot, and it played it safe with jokes that worked, but weren’t anything that we haven’t seen before on this show or elsewhere. The secondary plot had the opportunity to take risks but failed to really go where it typically would in a “Brian the writer” episode. Let’s hope this isn’t the start of a trend and that Family Guy isn’t hitting its “Simpsons Season 8″ moment.
Rating: Two Giggitys out of Five.