Deep down, we all knew that a Simpsons–Family Guy crossover was inevitable. Despite the shows’ potshots at one another (culminating in a rape / murder joke from Family Guy that pushed me off the show for good, except for when I need background noise) the idea of putting the two together was too much of a cashgrab to deny. And so, a few weeks ago, it came to be … the Griffins went to Springfield and met the Simpsons during The Simpsons Guy. While brief flashes of potential danced around the edges, the entire thing came across nihilistic.
The story itself was mostly just a way to prop up the families’ meeting: Peter gets a job writing comics, angers online feminist with a series of offensive cartoons, and so they skip town for a few days. Their car ends up stolen and they go to Springfield to find it and you don’t even care. Hell, even the show itself doesn’t care, pointing out in the end that the original thread remains untied. The special is bookended with a pair of meta references to the plot, but acknowledging you’ve written a half-assed episode doesn’t make it any better. It’s just a half-assed episode sandwiched between lukewarm apologies.
Continuing along with the sandwich metaphor, the meat of the crossover is the Griffins’ interactions with the Simpsons, the A-story being between Peter and Homer. Over the years, Homer’s gone from a lovable but dimwitted oaf to being a somewhat more self-centered oaf. It’s a testament to his character and the show’s writers that they still manage to make him lovable, but putting him next to Peter makes him look saintly by comparison. Like Homer, Peter’s gotten harsher over the years to reflect the tone of his show, but ultimately, Peter isn’t lovable. He isn’t likable. He’s callously cruel to everyone and everything around him, and whatever spark he had as the heart of Family Guy died years ago. Both shows have honed their edges over the years, but seeing the two of them together emphasizes just how clumsily Family Guy wields its brand of humor.
The B-stories revolve around Bart / Stewie and Lisa / Meg. Obviously, there’s no real progression to the Bart / Stewie line, since the two of the are coupled as a means of comparing each show’s most marketable stars, but Lisa / Meg almost comes close to an actual storyline. Both daughters are known for being the odd ones out in their respective families: Lisa, being an overly earnest intellectual, and Meg for being a beautifully vulnerable if slightly histrionic everywoman. Having Lisa help Meg find something inside of herself to love, and actually follow through on it, provided a brief glimpse of what The Simpsons Guy could have been at its best. Like anything with the Family Guy stamp of approval, it refuses to let any semblance of growth or humanity go unstomped for too long, but in that small moment where Lisa lets go of her ego so that Meg can feel loved, there’s a spark of something real.
I’m purposefully glazing over the Brian / Chris storyline, since that one is less of a Simpsons crossover and more of a Family Guy subplot that takes place in Springfield. Not that I didn’t like it: The fact that Brian and Chris don’t have one-to-one counterparts somewhere in Springfield means that they don’t have a mirror image to show how willfully grotesque Family Guy has become, and it offers a chance to explore Springfield, which is in and of itself its own character. The only downside is that it doesn’t have any real stakes, and as such I just couldn’t really care about their story. And of course, Marge and Lois didn’t bother getting a storyline, because women in the Family Guy universe are generally just there as a disapproving shake of the head for Peter’s latest f*ck up.
I didn’t love The Simpsons Guy. I laughed a few times here and there – the one upside of Family Guy’s rapid-fire joke delivery format is that you’ll laugh at least twice, which is enough apparently. — but what was delivered were smears of ugly disillusionment over the warm familiarity of Springfield. It’s easy to point fingers at The Simpsons and cry inertia, but at least there’s a heart and an opportunity for growth and beauty.
Which brings me to my major problem with Family Guy, and why I would never qualify it as a good show: It refuses vulnerability. It refuses growth. When it comes to sitcoms, audiences expect a soft reset by the show’s end. We learn a lesson, but we return to square one by next week to learn another. With Family Guy, it feels like the writers are so terrified of showing any hint of humanity that they’re willing to hit CTRL+Z on their universe before the message sinks in. Yes, the show will occasionally show the briefest hint of something more, but any beauty or honesty is thusly killed off before it can develop. It’s not that Family Guy can’t be a great show; it’s that it purposefully chooses NOT to be a good show so that it can appeal to a jaded and cynical market.
But no, let’s make another joke about the ratings for Bob’s Burgers. At least you’re not THOSE guys, right? … Right?