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Family Guy: Blue Harvest

A long time ago, yet somehow in the future…

The wonderful thing about myths is that they essentially repeat. All the great and epic stories have been told time and time again, from the first cavemen passing the time by a late night fire through to the matinée screening of the latest big budget blockbuster. Each generation creates their own variation of the myth, putting their own spin on it – some parts are given more emphasis in this iteration, while we shy away from others. In writing Star Wars, George Lucas acknowledged his debt to Joseph Campbell, the author who proposed a “monomyth” – the idea that there is one single overarching story which has been told tim and time again. I reckon that it’s this timelessness is the root of the film’s success, and what makes it such a ripe target for Family Guy.

Click to enlarge...

I love Family Guy. Sure, it’s frustrating sometimes – the writers have a tendency to get a little bit heavy-handed, which doesn’t fit so well with the show’s irreverent tone. However, the real magic of the show is the way that it takes all these pop culture moments and feeds them back into one another. Many deride the show for this, claiming it’s a weakness – it’s true that any person who isn’t emersed in the last thirty years of television might get lost. However, I don’t see this as a problem – I think it’s an example of how pop culture is continually recycling itself, feeding back in on itself, a snake swallowing its own tail.

As obvious as it is now, with all the remakes and reboots and re-releases, this endless cycle of reinvention has always been a part of storytelling. Family Guy just takes all these loose ends that don’t really work without a frame of reference and ties them together in a bizarre, almost improvisational fashion. South Park famously gave us the image of manatees picking balls containing random words in order to generate the show’s jokes, and it’s not too far from the truth. It’s free range concept association, which quite possible appeals to the writer in me – putting two elements of different stories and mythologies together and reconciling them with a cynical eye.

Some light entertainment?

Perhaps that is why Family Guy is so suited to the task of playing with Star Wars. In a way, it’s just one big cultural reference which we all know and love. It’s instantly recognisable the world over – the fact is that nobody could look at the superb poster artwork from these three specials and be at a loss as to what the crew were attempting to do. Family Guy gets to take that classic story which George Lucas has already filtered through space opera, and filter it through another layer of reinvention.

To do that betrays a deep respect for the original work, perhaps surprising to those familiar with the work of MacFarlane, who hasn’t made too many friends among various media watchdogs for his work over the years. And yet, for a show which thrives from feeding off pop culture, this rich fictional construct – perhaps the greatest myth of the twentieth century – must seem so tempting. Of course, there are any number of jokes which will upset a wide variety of interest groups, but the specials demonstrate an honest regard for the source material. Hell, they even use the original explosions from the movies.

The crew clearly had a blast working on this...

Of course, any number of other pop cultural moments are inserted at key intervals, without any explanation or reason – these things are so universal that we should just “get” them. Leslie Nielson makes an appearance from his iconic role in Airplane!, while Judd Nelson pops up from The Breakfast Club. The show doesn’t mention either film by name, but it doesn’t need to – these are almost universal popular culture experiences. It’s a random cocktail which doesn’t appear planned or constructed, but seems literally like it was just skimmed from right out of the writer’s head after watching too much television, but it works. the moment were Luke signs in with his squad (including Red Fox, Red October and Simply Red) is pure magic.

However, despite these references, the specials work best when they play with the Star Wars myth itself, seemingly playing out the movie frame-for-frame (it’s pleasantly surprising how faithful the adaptations are) while pausing at various intervals to draw attention to something they’ve noticed. When one of the Imperial officers remarks that the Death Star is 99.99% impenitrable, Vader remarks that “I wouldn’t be doing my job” if he didn’t ask about the left over digit. Revealing the two-metre hole in the surface which we all know will be the downfall of the planet-killer, Vader demands that they fix it, like any reasonable boss. However, on being told that it can be done tomorrow, “if money’s no object”, his inner bureaucrat instructs his minions to “get estimates.” Similarly, two technicians working the laser pause to complain each other about health and safety in the Empire, while we’re informed that Ben Kenobi is probably going to hell because “the Christians don’t look too kindly on the whole force thing.”

I hope I don't choke when I'm asked a question by Vader...

While critics may deride the show for its short attention span, I’ve always found it some endearing, especially as the series toys gently at the fourth wall like a child playing with new gift. It’s that sort of geeky enthusiasm which endears the show to me, creating a sense that the guys behind the scenes are just having a little bit of fun, being well aware that they work in entertainment. The show is at times aware of its existence as a television show, which allows it to enjoy this tribute to one of its favourite cult franchises as much as the viewer. It’s great to see Chris, one of the characters, acknowledge the superb work of John Williams on the score, asking him to play the theme from The People’s Court. Chris (as Luke) is devastated when the family farm is attacked, if only because Williams and his orchestra were caught in the crossfire. “Great,” he remarks, “now we gotta do the rest of this thing with Danny Elfman.”

It’s that sort of reference which lets us know that we’re not to treat all this too seriously – after all, we all want to have a good time. While the argument at the end between Peter and Chris about Robot Chicken (who staged a Star Wars special well ahead of Family Guy) does hint at a deep level of insecurity buried beneath the humour, it also demonstrates that the show isn’t pretending to be any bigger than it is.

No wonder Han prefers to be Solo...

Blue Harvest is perhaps the best of the three specials, but perhaps because it feels so novel. You can’t go home, after all, so returning to the same well three times in quick succession might seem a bit cheeky. Generally, there’s enough affection and enjoyment in these little episodes to carry them through.

We’ve got reviews of the complete Star Wars Family Guy specials, if you want to check them out:

2 Responses

  1. I love these specials, even if I don’t particularly like the show.

    • I thought, much like The Simpsons, everyone used to like the show “when it was good.” I’m a stickler for it though, although it has gottne quite a bit less consistent in recent years.

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