On Family Guy: The Narrative and Postmodern
In the popular television show, Family Guy, which airs on a variety of different stations, a selection of different communication theories can be easily applied to the overall makeup of the thirty-minute animated episodes. The television show revolves around a similar concept to The Simpsons, albeit one that is highly focused on a very direct satire of contemporary culture and its impact on society, especially in terms of everyday American life. The show features a seemingly standard American family, consisting of Peter Griffin, the father, Lois Griffin, the mother, Chris Griffin, the son, Meg Griffin, the daughter, Stewie Griffin, the baby son, and Brian, the dog. Throughout the many seasons, the show focuses on exposing the ills of society in a funny, yet politically incorrect fashion. Peter Griffin, for example, works for a toy company owned by a tobacco conglomerate; even Brian, the family pet, has commented on society, which is especially apparent in the joint episodes where he becomes addicted to cocaine, spirals out of control, and eventually enters into a rehabilitation paradise in hopes of recovery. Two theories which will be applied to Family Guy are narrative theory and postmodern theory; despite the selection of only two theories, almost all well known theories can be applied as well. However, there are two key aspects that relate best with the show such as more traditional aspects of narrative, including the character development and the plot structures, as well as focusing on driving concept of the show and its embrace of postmodernism in its humor.
As Jakob Lothe of Oxford University believes, “there are narratives not only in literature, but also in other cultural utterances that surround us” (3). In the case of our modern day culture, television is a thriving arena in which we can find solid narrative structures. The first method of analysis will focus on the narrative aspect of Family Guy through the understanding of the structure and usage of narrative elements. To begin with, the overall format of every episode of the show remains largely constant with only a small variation, often in the case of joint episodes or season ending cliffhangers. In each episode, there is a main story which is mixed into a group of smaller stories which will inevitably feed into the main story. In the story itself, the viewer is presented with a new variable being added to the static nature of the family and society in which it lives. For example, Peter happens to find out that the toy company that he works for is being bought out by a huge tobacco conglomerate with the intent of making children aware of smoking and even possibly encouraging them to smoke cigarettes. However, in order to get to this situation, smaller events, like Peter’s rash decision to skip work and go to a baseball game where he happen to see his boss and is told to report to his office in the morning, must occur. As well, events that feed into the larger story include Brian realizing the supposed evils of the tobacco company and attempting to quit, thereby antagonizing the family with his frustration and nicotine addiction. Later in this episode, we find out that because Peter was in the right place at the right time, he has been given a raise and is expected to help lobby for tobacco companies in Congress.
However, the concept of an equilibrium cycle plays a huge part in the end of this — and every other — episode: without this key element, the story would constantly be changing without returning to the status quo, meaning that missing a single show would lead the viewer to be very confused about the situation and how it has changed. This is extremely apparent in a show like Family Guy where its highly illogical nature changes the setting and situation almost constantly. To correct this potential problem, the equilibrium cycle comes to play a huge part of the story, especially in terms of the discourse. The cycle starts, obviously, with the introduction of Peter’s new position, interrupting the supposed equilibrium. Although many other smaller events occur throughout the process of this episode’s plot, they are events which do not affect the return to stasis negatively or contribute positively to the return. In this example episode, Stewie is caught smoking a cigarette, so Lois decides to bring back equilibrium by going to Washington to convince Peter to not lobby for tobacco companies. While he disagrees with Lois and continues his campaign, Peter hears Stewie coughing in the crowd and reconsiders his decision, going against the tobacco companies and therefore returning to the state of equilibrium. In each episode, a closely related, if not exactly the same, structure is followed without any exception except in rare cases.
The physical organization of events in the episodes is also highly formulaic. The story is presented in a strictly beginning to end fashion; that is, the syntagm never has a divergence with actual flashbacks or flashforwards. Although “[many theorists] devise modes of analysis of the time structure of the story (order of events, temporal distortions such as flashbacks or flashforwards…)” (Landa 28), the distortions in Family Guy do not actually change the plot, and therefore do not impact the story in a traditional way. For example, Peter has a flashback to a dancing frog in one episode while he should be recalling important information that his wife told him earlier in the show. Flashbacks and flashforwards merely appear to serve the satirical element of the show, focusing on more postmodern concepts instead of furthering the discourse. No matter what “temporal distortion” appears in the episode, it is restricted to being a nonessential element and acts as an interruption in the actual discourse but still may somewhat contribute to the story as a whole. Despite being distinctly direct in its syntagm, Family Guy exhibits a wide variety of stories based upon popular culture to keep it unique from week to week, whereas flashbacks and flashforwards could be used as divergent plot elements in other television shows.
However, it appears that the major element which keeps the show intact is the large list of static characters. Of course, one of the key elements of a narrative is that “…[it] needs human characters” (Coste 28). Because of this, the characters play an incredibly prominent role in the show. While in most forms of literature at least one character is a dynamic entity, changing from the beginning to end, television largely relies upon static characters which do not change greatly – if at all – between episodes. This concept is put in place for the same reason as that of the equilibrium cycle: a viewer must not be confused about the nature of the overall story from episode to episode (or season to season). While gradual changes are phased in, a large change in one episode will usually not come to pass, unless that episode is the first or last episode of the season. For this reason, the characters play a huge part in the development of the weekly plot.
Peter Griffin is an obese, moderately unintelligent oaf (similar to Homer Simpson); Lois Griffin acts as the voice of reason in keeping the family unit together; Chris Griffin serves to antagonize any conflict or to create one if there is not already a conflict (usually involving Meg as the subject); Meg Griffin acts as an entity which bows down to society in order to attempt (and fail) at fitting in with the social norms of the diegesis; Stewie Griffin is used to reinforce the stupidity of his family and the society in which he lives his life; and Brian is used in a variety of roles, usually to remark on the stupidity of Peter (and not society as a whole). Each of these characters, while acting as a family in the show, exhibits a large selection of different features. Yet, they are designed to fit with each other and take up a niche in the show, such as playing a hero, villain, false hero, donor, reward, and otherwise. Although each character can play a different role in a different discourse, their underlying character traits are made to dictate their actions with little variation (largely in aspects of morality and social conscience). Still, the characters revolve around the tenet of fitting into a special area of expertise. Without Peter, for instance, the show would have no central focus and nothing exceedingly illogical would occur for the other characters to critique. As whole, the family unit acts to preserve the underlying concept of the show: a humorous, yet decisively cynical viewpoint of the contemporary society in which we live in.
All of these elements of the narrative are used in their particular ways for a very specific reason. Largely because of “the fact that most novels and short stories come to us through the voice of a narrator [which] gives authors a greater range and flexibility than filmmakers” (Mitchell 128), television shows such as Family Guy must rely on their consistent conventions to keep an audience understanding and supportive. Without a stable basis, or narration in the case of novels, a narrative would lack enough information to stand on its own. Simply stated, without the flexibility of a narrator in novels, creators of television series must rely on other aspects to convey a subject matter. In the case of Family Guy, this aspect includes the static, if not formulaic, approach to analyzing and critiquing our society. The creators focus on keeping a varied selection of characters to fulfill long term plot goals while still satisfying the simple, more direct plot changes. Although the long term plot goals usually involve pointing out the flaws in everyday American culture, the traditional “narrative aspect is absolutely crucial both for the way the [show] functions and for its effect on the audience” (Lothe 8). Without the narrative base, the long term goals would not be expressed because the narrative is the story in which the problems needed to be addressed are shown to the audience.
Still, this long term goal of the show is best analyzed through a different, if not a more contemporary way: postmodernism. The entire basis of Family Guy is in fact postmodernism. From every attack of our culture in which the show is founded upon, postmodernism is expressed; in fact, from nearly every underlying character design and situation, it can easily be seen as a postmodern school of thought, which both embraces and assaults “pessimism, disenchantment, and melancholy” (Turner 123) in the response to “the lack of stability in ethics and values” (Turner 123). As Turner describes it, the postmodern movement is a rethinking of all modern examples which stems from the dissatisfaction with the modern culture as a whole. Although shows such as The Simpsons attempted to exploit the postmodernist culture in more subtle, strictly plot based coincidences, Family Guy represents a more direct, in-your-face approach to postmodern reflection. Its use of blatant postmodern theory is especially apparent in both the writing and the overall style of the show; it embraces a viewpoint that postmodernism is a way to reflect upon our own mistakes as a united culture. The show plays upon the idea that “[o]ur commercialism… mesmerizes us [and causes us to] lose our historical and social bearings” (O’ Neill 19). Basically, the show attempts to ridicule the past and the present, including ridiculing many postmodern aspects of society by the way of parody, irony, and satire.
To begin with, the entire show as a whole can be viewed as a simulacrum; that is, it is based completely upon the fake real of an American family in seemingly everyday situations. Pastiche is used extensively throughout every episode: from the integration with 1980s music videos to the sudden appearance of, and borrowing of style, from characters in The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, the amount of both subtle and direct pastiche is amazingly apparent in the show. Because of the easily mutable nature of animated series, Family Guy is also easily to incorporate a strong sense of hybridity of style. As briefly mentioned, the show mixes a variety of animation styles, such as the generic 1980s music video or throwbacks to “classic” animation; the show has also mixed its animations with actual film footage to create dramatic effects.
To go along with these common postmodern elements, intertextuality invariably follows suit. The creators assume that the viewing audience has a knowledge (or at least a basic, experienced understanding) of the different eras of American culture. While the creators generally relate their shows to contemporary information, there is also a considerable amount of focus placed upon modernist, romanticist, and other eras of thought. The show often addresses one certain era while subtlety exploiting another viewpoint. Still, the main focus has always been on exploiting the wrongs of the more modern and postmodern portions of American culture. It especially likes to critique the strength of big business in everyday life and explore the relationships of consumer culture. Through the use of the narrative portion of each episode, the characters are given the chance to relate their seemingly real life situations to those in other movies, television shows, and other popular media.
However, one incredibly prominent feature of Family Guy is placed upon the combination of metacommunication and reflexivity. In several episodes, the characters in the show directly address the audiences, often in the forms of pseudo moral lessons at the end of the episode’s story. If the episode does not use that technique, there will be an interruption in the story in which the characters will acknowledge they are in a cartoon and being watched by an audience. Even still, in every episode, it is implied that metacommunication is nearly the entire dialogue as postmodern critiques are the focus of the show. Despite the fact that these are designed to be humorous shows, the actual concepts are expressed on a deep level, utilizing most elements in postmodern theory. Still, the largest amount of content comes from the knowledge that the cartoon is not supposed to just be a story but instead it is designed to represent a certain depiction of society and its interactions. Postmodernism also attacks the bearer of culture, the institution, claiming “that institutions define the discourses” (Lash 164). Predictably, Family Guy is seen attacking the institutional forms of power, from the government to the media to the majority at large; of course, this largely depends upon current events and current trends, which happen to influence a significant amount of the show’s content.
The overall goal of this postmodernist approach to a television series, as previously mentioned, is an interesting take on this medium as it opposes itself to some degree. It bases itself on a postmodern interpretation of society while using a postmodern style to create the interpretation of itself. In other words, it is attacking what it is also founded upon, as well as the concepts of modernism and other past theories. A prevalent part of the postmodern culture is the desire to get away from the structure of society, potentially in terms of our dependence on the idea of a consumer-based culture. Yet, in this attempt to escape from the social wrongs of consumerism, it remains abundantly clear that “the postmodern condition is integrally yoked with consumer capitalism” (Lyon 74). The show often strongly embraces consumer capitalism while selectively critiquing other unfavorable aspects of society. For example, the show will go after a range of different topics from abortion to racism, but it will skip topics involving mass consumerism as they have become so ingrained into our culture, they no longer seem abnormal or misplaced. Simply stated that although the show tries to vary itself, it is a postmodern show created from the fruits of the postmodern era; therefore, it has no choice but to succumb, at least in some degree, to the same problems it is intending to critique.
It can be argued that Family Guy is attempting to“[e]scape the shackles of modernist assumptions and expectations” (Lyon 70) by “relaxing in a playground of irony and irreverent pastiche” (Lyon 70). Still, that energy expressed by a postmodernist interpretation is considered to be “frivolous and wasteful” (O’ Neill 16). Regardless, audiences have come to know and even respect the social commentary they receive from Family Guy as a form of higher, intelligent humor, despite its wasteful use of energy. The point of the show is probably not to completely tear down all aspects of our society, but the ones that are popularly discussed or ones that are clear in other media such as other television shows or magazines. In this way, postmodernism is unpredictable in its approach. It takes a casual view on what to select, largely because the structure of modernism is the main target of postmodern schools of thought.
The overall conclusion that comes from this analysis is that Family Guy is definitely at the forefront of postmodern entertainment. Although the narrative exists in every episode, it primarily exists only to serve the purpose of aiding in the establishment of reasons to critique our society’s faults and wrongdoings. It appears that the show is a mixture of elements, but is generally concerned only with attacking the established norms. The established norms that are attacked are varied, but generally fall into a depiction of conglomerates interaction with consumer culture. While this show follows a very formulaic pattern in each episode, its connection to popular culture allows it to survive not only on simple plot twists and basic narrative structure but rather the underlying idea or concept that is behind the episode. Both theories are easily applied to the show but for different reasons: narrative theory is easy because the narrative only serves to establish a reason for the postmodern critique whereas postmodern theory is equally easy to apply because the entire show is distinctively based upon a postmodern approach and inherently draws from a vast assortment of postmodern concepts and ideas. Again, the narrative seems to just be a scaffolding of sorts in which the show is able to launch a series of hard-hitting assaults on our culture’s composition; in this way, it appears to be that the show is definitely a comedy which truly fits into the postmodern category the best, while the other categories would still work due to its encompassing discourse on the nature of our society. Overall, it appears that the “practices of looking” are completely apparent in this show. The show itself is a critique on culture, just as modern communication studies are also a critique on media and, in turn, culture itself. Simply stated, Family Guy is the ultimate definition of postmodern entertainment and a valid critique on today’s society. Works Cited (MLA)
Coste, Didier. Narrative as Communication. Minnesota: University of Minnesota, 1989.
Landa, Jose Angel Garcia and Susana Onega. Narratology: An Introduction. New York: Longman Publishing, 1996.
Lash, Scott. Sociology of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Lothe, Jakob. Narrative in Fiction and Film: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Lyon, David. Postmodernity. Minnesota: University of Minnesota, 1994.
Mitchell, W J T. On Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
O’ Neill, John. The Poverty of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Turner, Bryan S. Orientalism, Postmodernism and Globalism. New York: Routledge, 1994.