A crossover episode between Family Guy and The Simpsons has been inevitable since the former premiered. The only surprising thing is that it took this long for it to finally happen. It’s a smart gimmick, regardless of your personal opinion on Family Guy, because regular viewers of The Simpsons will check in just to see how big of a wreck it could be. And last night’s convergence really was a wreck that showcased the general awfulness of Family Guy by introducing its offensive brand of cruelty to the town of Springfield.
Like all Family Guy episodes, the setup is very simple: After Peter provokes the town’s ire by drawing a misogynistic cartoon in the newspaper, the Griffin family flees Quahog and ends up in Springfield, where they meet the Simpson family. At its best — and I use the word “best” very, very loosely — “The Simpsons Guy” employs lots of meta jokes, self-awareness, and cheap shots to pit the two shows against each other.
The quick rivalry that develops between Peter and Homer, based mostly on their preferred beer brands (Pawtuckett Ale and Duff Beer, respectively), is grounded in references to how Family Guy is basically a cheap ripoff, whereas The Simpsons reached its peak about 13 seasons ago. (There’s also a sad nod to Bob’s Burgers when Bob appears and Peter points out that The Simpsons and Family Guy have to carry him.) Both are apt — and obvious — points, and the writing doesn’t do much to elevate them, so the show just continues to belabor it. The joke also misses the important point that the recent FXX marathon highlighted: The Simpsons may have peaked years ago, but it still regularly produces solid episodes. They may not be as memorable and quotable, but they’ve still got the essential attributes of Simpsons episodes: sweetness and humor.
“The Simpsons Guy” is undoubtedly a Family Guy episode: cruel and unfunny. This becomes pathetically clear early in the hour-long episode, when the much-publicized rape joke pops up at the 12-minute mark. Bart does one of his usual prank phone calls to Moe. Then Stewie follows suit by calling and saying, “Hey Moe. Your sister’s being raped,” before hanging up. That’s the entire joke — no setup, no punchline, just the word “rape.” It’s the kind of frustrating, “edgy” non-humor that we expect from Family Guy, but it’s not what we’re prepared to see with Bart Simpson standing there.
Last week, while watching the screener sent out to critics, I jokingly compared watching the episode to watching your childhood dog die in front of your eyes. It’s definitely an exaggeration, but there’s a bit of truth there if, like me, you formed an unhealthy emotional attachment to the Simpsons family at age two and then continued to grow up with them. The closest I had to a curfew as a child was the requirement that I be home in time for The Simpsons; every teacher who had the misfortune of teaching both myself and my older brother likened us to Lisa and Bart; I still fall asleep to Simpsons DVDs most nights.
It’s natural to love this show so much it can hurt you. And if you were on the Internet at all during the FXX marathon, then you know I’m not the only one with an obsessive addiction to rewatching the “golden years” of The Simpsons. Maybe that’s why “The Simpsons Guy” felt so much worse than it should have: It wasn’t just a bad episode of television; it was one that seemed hellbent on destroying the goodwill that’s usually at play in a typical Simpsons episode.
Take the aforementioned rape joke, for example, or the later scene where Stewie seeks revenge on Nelson by literally torturing him. The difference between Bart and Stewie is very clear: Bart is a mischievous kid with a slingshot, while Stewie is an evil asshole whose humor comes from the idea of a baby with murderous intentions. Seeing them side-by-side clarifies the different ideals and intentions of each comedy, and demonstrates why they don’t necessarily mix together very well. The scene takes Bart’s “Eat my shorts” catchphrase and makes it literal, turning the silly phrase into something actually cruel — a metaphor for the entire episode, actually.
But it’s necessary to remember that this is a Family Guy episode. There are going to be rape jokes, cutaway gags, dark and sadistic “humor,” and unbalanced writing (Lois and Marge don’t really have anything to do here; Lisa and Meg’s half-baked “storyline” turns into “girls are inherently competitive”). It all culminates in a yawn-inducing bloody fight between Homer and Peter that runs about eight minutes and is devoid of all humor (but will definitely be called “epic” by its fans).
“The Simpsons Guy” is a lame Family Guy episode that would never be talked about by anyone outside of the series’ core fanbase if it wasn’t also for the appearance of America’s favorite animated family. Family Guy is never going to be as great as The Simpsons, and both shows are aware of that. But “The Simpsons Guy” is bad for both of them: Family Guy comes off worse than usual, and it’s both frustrating and sad to see it try so hard to bring The Simpsons down to its level.