overthinking the idiot box

January 30, 2006

Family Guy: Vols. I, II, and III

by Vicki Karigiannis

One could say that Family Guy was made for the DVD format: with its outlandish humor and great ability to piss off various group cohorts, it is a wonder the show stayed on primetime television for as long as it did. And it is no surprise that its resurgence came from late-night airings on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup and through DVD sales.

Since it premiered on January 31, 1999 in the coveted post-Superbowl spot, Seth MacFarlane has been battling the censors. "75% of my job on this show is battling standards," MacFarlane quips in Volume 1's commentary on the pilot, "Death Has a Shadow. "Omigod, it worked!"

Work it did, and even though he and his group of writers and animators never consciously or intentionally went out there to offend (well, maybe just a little), the show made its final low-brow joke and pop cultural reference on February 14, 2002.

Thus came the first two volumes of Family Guy on DVD after repeated attempts on fans' part to save the show - campaigning since the summer of 2000 - failed. The DVDs were a great success, breaking records in sales ( 1.6 million units for volume 1 and 1 million units for volume 2), as well as the 1.9 million viewers that tuned in on Adult Swim.

The success was well-deserved, as the Griffin clan was dismissed before its time. The first two volumes seemed to be a gift to the ever-devoted fans, who ripped at the wrapping with glee and slipped the precious DVDs out of their slipcases with greedy fingers and anxious eyes.

Volume 1 (seasons 1 and 2) isn't much en lieu of extras, with but 8 audio commentaries, some Internet promo spots and a short Behind-the-Scenes featurette. The commentaries with MacFarlane as a constant, along with various executive producers and cast members, featured comments at jokes that offended, did not offend, made the final cut but almost didn't, and others that sadly did not.

In the abovementioned commentary of "Death Becomes a Shadow," a scene where scrawny Adolf Hitler glares angrily at a buffed-up, chick-laden Jewish man originally "seemed harmless" and came "before we learned tact."

It is interesting to observe MacFarlane and co. commenting on the graphics and animation, how bad they were at the beginning and how they have evolved as the series progressed, something fans can attest to. The voice actors, such as the wonderfully witty Alex Borstein, also comment on the looks and voices of their characters, and how they have changed over time, as well.

As for the FOX-aired Behind-the-Scenes featurette, it's nothing more than a brief introduction to the show and its characters, as well as a How-To on how an episode of Family Guy comes to be, from the table-read to the sound booth recording to the animation process.

The second volume, featuring season 3, is more of a bittersweet treat. The package synopsis on the back refers to it as "this hilarious final volume" and its entire content seems to be a final thank you and goodbye to its audience.

Aside from the requisite commentaries, with the usual jokes, banter, compliments towards each another and awkward silences, there are the "Uncensored" and "Series Overview" featurettes, 28 deleted scenes, the original series pitch, and the unaired "When You Wish Upon a Weinstein."

Regarding the latter, MacFarlane gave viewers a look in the commentary at the hecticness that went through with the production of the episode. It originally caused much controversy for stereotyping Jewish people, as Peter claims they are all smart and are good with money. While Rabbis contacted them and agreed that it was funny and Peter did, eventually, learn the right lesson, it was too controversial for TV, but would still be produced.

The "Uncensored" featurette is pretty much the story of the show's life, its endless battles with the censors and the network. MacFarlane takes pride in the fact that they are the edgiest and controversial TV program, and states religion was always "a big taboo for FOX." A lot of word substituting went on, and loads of bargaining with executives as to which words should stay and which ones should go. But, in the end, there was always a "good balance of off-color humor."

The "Series Overview" is just that, recounting the history of the series' conception (MacFarlane was given $50,000 to fund the pilot and spent six months animating it from his kitchen counter), character observation (Peter the dumbass with the good heart; Stewie's closeted homosexuality), and fan push and petitioning, to eventual cancellation.

It was these two volumes that slapped FOX in the face and prompted the network to bring the show back for a fourth season, and thus the third volume of DVDs you are holding in your hands.

The look is newer and sleeker, the slipcase cover having a new look of the show's opening sequence, as opposed to the previous two boxes' sunny graphics. The main menu is different, as well; still with snippets of selected episodes as you scroll through the menu, but with more of a pop and slightly more pleasing to the eye.

Features are in abundance and with the second volume having this somewhat somber sense of finality to it, this one contains a renewed sense of vigor as you watch and listen, everyone just gosh darn happy to be back.

Watching the cast interact and laugh at one another and at themselves pretty much having a damn good time at the workplace just enforces the idea that the tone was set for a fun-filled season.
A behind-the-scenes look at some of the cast's table-reads is proof of the fact: watching MacFarlane jump from Peter to Stewie to Quagmire is a treat in itself, but watching the cast interact and laugh at one another and at themselves pretty much having a damn good time at the workplace just enforces the idea that the tone was set for a fun-filled season.

In the commentary for "North by North Quahog," it is chockfull of compliments to everyone involved, from animator Peter Shin and composers Ron Jones and Walter Murphy. (A deeper look at the music and compositions of Family Guy can be found in the "Score!" featurette.) FOX fully embraced this episode and were "amazingly supportive," according to MacFarlane. The jokes are wonderfully and utterly meta, a huge celebration for being back. (And nice digs at Mel Gibson, to boot.)

The fourth season is homage to its earlier seasons, and the crew made every attempt to ensure a feel of never having been away. A lot of the original writers, producers, actors and animators were back with full-force, setting the bar very high and attempting to do the first 3 seasons justice. Boundaries are pushed even further, jokes are edgier. Family Guy was not on the air during Nipplegate and missed the immediate wrath that ensued upon television. One would think that with FCC being extra cautious over what was said and shown on TV, Family Guy would return with fewer raunchy jokes, fewer images of cartoon butts, and fewer jabs at, well, everything. That, however, did not turn out to be the case, with season four filthier than ever. Bornstein herself was excited to "get the poo-poo humor out."

This DVD set shows that Family Guy lacks nothing and that season four stands up to prior seasons. DVD sales for this volume have not disappointed so far, and with an equally funny season 5, ratings and DVD sales should pretty much continue to remain stellar.

Look forward to Volume 4, which should be in stores come spring. And Family Guy, of course, makes its home on Sunday nights at 9 on FOX. Be sure to watch; we don't want to lose it again.

(Watch and pimp Arrested Development, too! Heck, if FOX can give one show a second chance, surely it can do the same with another. That's be freakin' sweet!)

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