April 1, 2009

Not All Dogs Go To Heaven

The atheosphere was all abuzz with news of a recent episode of Family Guy, "Not All Dogs Go To Heaven." So I watched it last night. Yes, Brian the dog came out as an atheist in the face of another character's annoying conversion to Christianity (complete with book-burning). The episode plays in to atheists' fears that they will face social rejection and even persecution if they do come out and it does show just how tedious it can be when someone close to you becomes very evangelical.

I suppose in the abstract I like how the story showed Brian the atheist, although persecuted, still unable to free himself from his other personal problems -- specifically, he likes his booze a little too much, and got in a decent, if overly-long, joke about him faking a conversion to Christianity so that the guy at the liquor store would sell to him again. In that sense, there was some nuance.

McFarlane's story was more poignant, though, in its portrayal of the motives of the early-teen Meg's conversion. (Yes, that's right, I'm calling an episode of Family Guy "poignant." This part of it was, despite the barf jokes.) She is sick, confined to her room, depressed, and feels unsupported emotionally by her family. At a very low emotional moment, she watches some evangelical television and is told that Jesus loves her even if no one else does. The poignancy here is the way the show demonstrates that religious appeals work particularly well on the emotionally-vulnerable. We the viewers are left with the impression that had young Meg been healthy and felt like she had a decent support network with her family, it is unlikely she would have felt the need to reach out to an imaginary friend.

But the real problem is, with a few exceptions, those parts of the show just weren't all that funny. You can't be preachy and funny at the same time, and Seth McFarlane was trying to send a message. Family Guy is hit or miss comedy, and it only hits when it makes a quick throwaway pop culture reference (one that actually works, which it does less than half the time) or when it violates a boundary of social convention, played up for laughs.

The rest of the time, it's either floundering around for attempts to set up one of those jokes, or verging into the absurd. This episode was heavy on the absurdity (more in its other storyline, about Baby Stewie kidnapping the entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation and having to entertain and feed them while they acted like petulant children). Absurdity isn't particularly funny on its own; it usually requires some pointing in the direction of either a violation of a social convention or a more traditional sort of joke in order to cross the line from weird into funny.

And the ending to the show was just plain odd.

Now, I don't claim to be able to do much better. My earlier post below demonstrates the best attempt at humor I could come up with on short notice. So go ahead and watch the episode if you're interested or you kind of like the show. Otherwise, you can skip it, because it's not particularly funny.

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