The Griffins are selected to become a Neilsen family, and after exerting his influence over local television with one Neilson box, Peter steals a hundred of them and forces the television industry to bow to his every stupid whim. Television soon becomes dumber and dumber, until nobody wants to watch anything anymore and Peter is solely to blame.
I never thought I’d say this again, but this episode was absolutely fantastic all the way through. “Ratings Guy” is full of the absurd, surreal humor that made Family Guy a hit in the first place, and I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the best episodes in the entire series.
The episode starts off with a visit to the local fire station, where the chief explains that back in his day, they had no hoses, and fires were fought with your bare hands. It’s this kind of humor MacFarlane & co. have always excelled at, and in “Ratings Guy” they’ve managed to work these things into the plot of the episode rather than going to a cutaway every four seconds. The cutaways that are there still spring naturally from the story, as most of them are giving us a glimpse into just how idiotic TV has become under Peter’s rule.
We’ve got a metric boatload of guest stars this week, and their presence makes one hell of a lot more sense than usual as Peter destroys television and then tries to put things back together. “Ratings Guy” doesn’t just rely on known actors for pure star power; the guest list includes actual television producers as well, such as JJ Abrams and Dick Wolf as themselves. We even get a cameo from Homer Simpson, and he’s actually voiced by Dan Castellaneta. It’s a really wonderful use of guests and references to enhance and support the story rather than steamroll right over it for a gag.
This was a great story concept for the series because it allows Family Guy to play to its pop-culture referencing strengths, while still staying with in the framework of the story Commenting on JJ Abrams’ penchant for bizarre mythology driven shows or parodies of the fake documentary Office style sitcoms isn’t a detriment here. Pop culture itself is the plot.
There are a coupe of gags that don’t really work, like Tom Tucker having a swastika-shaped birthmark on his face beneath the mustache, but it goes by quick and the rest of the show is so overwhelmingly awesome I can’ stay mad at it. There’s also a long cutaway with Peter hosting public radio and eating loudly into the microphone. It might not be to everyone’s taste, and usually this kind of joke isn’t to mine, but for some reason it gave me a case of the giggles anyway.
“Ratings Guy,” much like South Park‘s “Raising the Bar” is an examination of the current state of television. While South Park argues that we’ve let the lowest common denominator rule our programming for too long, Family Guy says that TV is better than it’s ever been and doesn’t need to be meddled with. It says that the audience wants creative, smart TV.
I happen to agree with both sentiments. There’s a lot of horrifically stupid shows on TV because they’re cheap, and for some reason they pull some huge ratings. On the other hand, there is such a wealth of well-written, intelligent drama on the airwaves there’s no way you could ever follow it all. That’s a great problem to have. Over the last decade or so, we have had an unprecedented level of cinematic, intelligent fare with jaw-dropping production values. The Sopranos is often given credit for this shift in the medium, but it’s not entirely true. Before The Sopranos we had Buffy and Angel, before them Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9; The X Files and Twin Peaks. You could trace this all the way back to the 60s with shows like Doctor Who, Star Trek or The Prisoner. Either way, it’s only in the last ten years we’re really enjoying the fruits of those groundbreaking series.
It’s strange to hear a message like that coming out of the Family Guy writers’ room since they’ve been so often derided, and rightly so, for weak plots, unfunny jokes in a crass attempt to be “edgy”, and having more cutaway gags than plot. That said, this episode is so fantastic and hilarious from beginning to end, I have to wonder just what they hell they’ve been doing all these years. Either they are still capable of some truly genius comedy writing and just don’t bother most of the time, or the manatees got really, really lucky.