Tuned In

All the Things That Make Us Laugh and Cry: Family Guy and When Sitcoms Kill

It can be sad when dramas kill off characters. But it's the deaths in comedies--even cartoons--that hit closest to real life.

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Warning: Spoilers for Sunday’s Family Guy, Sunday’s Boardwalk Empire, and various no longer running sitcoms and dramas follow:

Sunday night, two significant TV characters were killed off their long-running series. (Or should I say at least two. There is a hell of a lot of TV Sunday nights.) I wrote about one of them, Richard Harrow, the disfigured WWI vet who was one of the most beloved characters on Boardwalk Empire. But the one that really unsettled America was the death of a dog, on a cartoon: Brian, of Family Guy, run over by a car.

The reaction makes sense: Boardwalk Empire is a successful show for HBO, but Family Guy is an institution that’s aired (with breaks for cancellation) since the last century. You don’t exactly think of Family Guy as a show that forges deep emotional connections, but Brian was frankly the most likeable and rounded character on the show–articulate, sympathetically flawed, and more subtly funny than any of the two-legged, two-dimensional Griffins.

But beyond that, serious, consequential* deaths on sitcoms are just affecting in a way that deaths on dramas can rarely be. Dramatic series kill a lot of people these days. And where the death of a series regular–Bobby Simone, say, on NYPD Blue–used to be a landmark event, programmed for sweeps and carefully built toward, series like Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, and The Walking Dead have made sacrificing big characters the minimum table stakes for seriousness.

*(I say “consequential” of course, knowing that Family Guy is a cartoon, and, well, it’s Family Guy. For all I know Brian could be as permanently “dead” as a DC Comics superhero or Kenny in the old days of South Park, as this cryptic countdown to an “announcement” suggests is possible. But he’s dead this week, anyway!)

When someone dies in a drama, it can be deeply sad, traumatic, even. But it is, as they’d say on The Wire, the game. When someone dies in a sitcom, on the other hand, it’s not just sad on a personal level; it’s existentially unsettling. It disrupts the sense of natural order, it tears the fabric of accepted reality. (Which is after all what actual death does, even if it’s the most natural and inevitable thing there is.)

There’s a tendency, especially as TV dramas have gotten more ambitious and more seriously respected in the larger culture, to see them as more emotionally real than sitcoms. But while dramas may get most of the thinkpieces and critical analysis, people probably actually have a deeper emotional connection with the sitcom characters they follow. You may be deeply affected by the deaths in the final run of Breaking Bad, but unless you’re a cop or a druglord, you probably have a certain remove from their circumstances.

Not so with sitcom characters. Even in an unrealistic, exaggerated sitcom, you’re generally following sitcom characters through the simple activities of life: holidays, dating, work, family squabbles, weddings–things you do and experience yourself, if not exactly in the same way. When someone on one of your sitcoms dies, it’s personal.

Sure, it’s TV. And sure, sitcom deaths are often precipitated by off-screen causes: an actor leaves the show, or dies in real life, or insults the producer of his show in the press and experiences a lengthy public meltdown. That doesn’t necessarily make it easier to take. When Coach died on Cheers, the show’s pitch-perfect handling of it–emotional but not maudlin–allowed us to grieve him like family. Whatever you thought of the final season of Roseanne, the revelation that Dan had died for real gave the finale real gravity.

And the ’70s–the period that Seth MacFarlane, the youngest alterkocker in sitcoms, owes so much of his sensibility to–was the Golden Age of Sitcom Death. The “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode of Mary Tyler Moore, though not treating a major character, remains one of the great TV episodes of all time, a moving and gut-busting examination of the discomfort of death. Back then, before Hill Street Blues or the rise of HBO, it was dramas that were escapist and sitcoms–at least the best of them–that brought uncomfortable reality. Plenty of kids of the ’70s like myself must still be scarred by Radar O’Reilly’s wrenching announcement of the death of Col. Henry Blake on MASH:

or Florida Evans’ heartbreaking and terrifying outburst after her husband James died on Good Times:

I have no idea if Family Guy is going to be as devoted to the repercussions of Brian’s death as these shows; the non-sequitur-heavy show was having a hard time keeping a consistent tone even by the end of Sunday’s episode. MacFarlane, as we’ve seen throughout his career, has a habit of taking inspiration from his sitcom idols like Norman Lear, and being able to commit to it for about five minutes. But I give Family Guy credit for now, anyway, for taking its most human character and letting him die as he deserved, like a dog.