What is the Meaning of “Life of Brian”?

In spite of swearing off Family Guy roughly three years ago due to feeling like the show’s creators had zero respect for their audience I watched an episode today for a single reason which Gordon brought to my attention. It branches off pretty naturally from last week’s Culture War Correspondence and post from early 2012 about cartoon death, though that was primarily concerning younger audiences. That reason is, of course [obviously a SPOILER after the jump]:

BrianIsDEAD

Brian Griffin, the family dog, is dead.

Before we even get into the why and how of all this I do want to make it clear that in spite of swearing off MacFarlane cartoons in college I had watched roughly 8 full seasons of Family Guy. That being said, I want to firmly maintain that Brian completely deserves his place in the show’s opening sequence as a member of the main cast; if anything, he’s vastly more fleshed out than either Meg or Chris, if not both combined. Living in a household with Peter Griffin as its patriarch would drive the average person insane, and the family dog has long been the voice of reason, someone to break through the dysfunction, and even teach us a little about life. Not only that, but we’ve been witness to what lies beneath his sensible exterior in one of my all-time favourite seasons of the show:

Furry, flawed, and also one half of the wildly popular dog/baby adventure episodes, Brian was probably the least likely choice I would’ve given if asked which major character would be killed off this season, news I missed having little to no interest in the show. To be fair, he’s one of three characters the creator voices [with Peter and Stewie being the other two], so that was probably a strike against him. Still, I’m with the AV Club, I would’ve guessed Meg.

A Blow-By-Blow of The Incident [Pun Absolutely Intended]

Anyway, I’m going to recount the main events of “Life of Brian”, the 6th episode of Family Guy‘s 12th season in images. Pretty much exactly 1/3 through the episode Stewie has left Brian in the road setting up a street hockey net, and then:

BRIANHIT

BRIANUNDERWHEEL

BRIANSBROKENBODY

BRIANGETUPPLEASEBRIANPLEASE

And, while the family was understandably concerned after this brutal event, we were somewhat assured that everything would turn out fine due to a squirrel spitting on Brian, kicking him, and informing everyone that “That guy sucked.”

Then, at the vet-

BRIANSVET

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Griffin, but Brian’s injuries are just too severe for us to save him. I don’t know how much longer he has but I suggest that you all go in and say your good-byes.”

BRIANSPASSING

Brian’s last words: “Y-you’ve given me a wonderful life. I love you all.”

And, if you absolutely weren’t convinced, Brian even had a funeral in a people cemetery.

BRIANSFUNERAL

Honestly, in retrospect the dropped clues are pretty obvious, with Stewie’s time machine as a stand-in for Brian himself. The two of them discuss it being demolished-

“Your time machine, it’s like your crowning achievement. I can’t believe you’d just destroy it.”

“Trust me Brian, it’s for the best. And hey, at least I’ve had some fun with it.”

And then soon after, once it’s just been crushed-

“Well, I guess that’s it, this is like the end of an era.”

“Oh sack up, you twink. It’s just a machine!”

No, Brian’s not a machine, but he is just a fictitious construct. Characters die all of the time [insert obligatory George R. R. Martin reference here], but what really matters is whether or not their death was effective, whatever that means in the scenario it takes place in.

So Did It Work?

Here’s the thing, everyone, Family Guy is a comedy. Comedies by definition must be funny, and that’s why even when Brian was bleeding and broken in the street we ended with a joke before cutting to commercial. Heck, the funeral had a handful of gags, one of which was really funny [Joe the cop being beaten around the head with a purse by a Black woman]. They kept it pretty sombre, but ultimately this is a show that’s meant to make us, at the bare minimum, smile.

Just two weeks ago, in “A Fistful of Meg”, that episode’s titular character died. Not only was that retconned, as you can see her mourning above, but incredible amount of violence has been used on the show for laughs a lot. Here’s one of the show’s most famous clips that revolves around a baby beating five shades of stuff out of the family dog:


That’s all to say that his death certainly wasn’t portrayed as being humorous. In all my years of watching this show I’ve never seen so many minutes tick by without a joke thrown in there. Since the death wasn’t set up to be amusing maybe it may have something to do with Seth MacFarlane himself.

Apparently he’s said,

“I talk to the fans and in a way I’m kind of secretly hoping for them to say we’re done with it. There are plenty of people who say the show is kind of over the hill… but still the vast majority go pale in the face when I mention the possibility.”

Which feels a lot like he’s very ready for things to finish up already. Couple that with Eric Thurm’s observation over at the AV Club that Brian is “the character [he] (and probably a sizeable chunk of the show’s viewership) [identifies] with most, and the one who most often tethers the show before it veers off into total insanity” and it feels like MacFarlane is pushing to see how far he can go. The Metro website believes this so strongly they outright ask if this was an act of sabotage.

As far as him potentially coming back one day [a possibility that the show sought to make inevitable with the time machine’s destruction] the comments section of that very review provides the following observation, and one that plagues comic book storytelling with its many deaths and resurrections:

IFBRIANCOMESBACK

The only way this death is really going to justify itself is if, and I didn’t even mention that this occurred, the Griffins’ replacement dog Vinnie ends up [consistently] bringing something fresh to the show. Replacing a main cast member is serious business, but it’s also the opportunity for new material to crop up.

VINNIEANDSTEWIEHUGITOUT

I’m not going to keep watching the show to see where this is all going as this was more of a one-time thing for the blog, but I think I’m going to applaud their decision. The moments of mourning really dragged down the episode as a whole, but the promise of a significant shake-up is something I am very interested in.

I can’t say I’m personally going to be missing Brian, since I stopped watching the show such a long time ago, but I’m hoping that Vinnie will grow to become a character others miss when the show inevitably comes to an end [it’ll be the one instance where no one will be able to say “Simpsons did it first!”]

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6 responses to “What is the Meaning of “Life of Brian”?

  1. Well, the Simpsons kind of did it first. They’ve permanently killed off characters before, and even killed off the pet cat Snowball 2 (the actual Snowball on the show is something like 6 or 7).

    I like this move by Family Guy. I like the gags that make the audience wonder whether Brian is more of a dog or a human. He’s obviously extremely anthropomorphized, so any time he acts very dog-like was a good spot for a laugh. Losing a pet (especially a dog getting run over by a car) is an incident that is extremely easy to relate to. A dog’s lifespan is not the same as a human’s. Killing off Brian before the end of the show was like one last gag that he was, after all, just a dog.

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