On “Road to Rhode Island”

February 22, 2010

Pointlessness is certainly nothing new in popular entertainment. The point of entertainment, after all, is to entertain, but the only way to determine if something is entertaining is to subjectively decide whether or not one likes it or is amused or engaged by it. My aim in this forum, however, is to determine if something is art, and to do so in a more or less objective manner. I do not deny there is a high degree of subjectivity in what I do, but I do strive to provide objective analysis of entertainment, regardless. One television series in particular that deserves attention in terms of pointlessness and entertainment is FOX’s Family Guy, a show that embraces pointlessness to the fullest and seeks to entertain with varying levels and styles of humor. The focus of this analysis is Season Two’s “Road to Rhode Island,” which originally aired May 30th 2000 and is directed by Dan Povenmire.

“Road to Rhode Island” opens with a flashback that establishes the episode’s main internal conflict: Brian has abandonment issues because his mother did nothing to prevent him from being taken away from her. The main external conflict is established later on in Act One: Brian and Stewie lose their plane tickets and must find alternate means to return home. This external conflict is also fueled by the interpersonal conflict between Brian and Stewie; their relationship is primarily based on jokes at the other’s expense, and Stewie also wants to rat Brian out for being irresponsible.

The external conflict is resolved when the travelers return home and Stewie covers for Brian, which shows a change of heart from Stewie’s earlier attempts to tattle on him over the phone, which Brian thwarts by physically restraining him. The internal conflict is resolved by Luke the farmer, who assures Brian that his mother wanted him to leave and find a better life. Brian also gains closure by absconding with his mother’s stuffed body and giving her a proper burial in a park. The episode ends with Brian contentedly reading a newspaper at home, his mommy issues now behind him.

The B Story features Lois and Peter’s adventures with marriage videos that help improve communication but ultimately turn out to be a ploy by Lois to turn Peter on. There is some conflict here because Peter is obviously terrible at communicating and then believes he is keeping a secret from Lois, except Lois apparently doesn’t care about Peter’s lack of communication and is in fact secretly trying to improve their sex life. The conflict is unimportant; the only purpose of the B Story is to provide the humor of expectations being defied through the reveals that the videos are actually sex tapes and that Lois knows it all along.

The main conflicts of the episode are irrelevant, as well—they serve only as a vehicle to the climax, which is a musical number that extols the journey of the travelers and reinforces the bonds between them. The number features cheesy Broadway choreography, cliché dress-up montages, and delightfully bad lyrical and non-lyrical barbs between the singers, all of which serve to mock the musical genre and make fun of a pointless narrative device while reinforcing its merits at the same time. The lyrics even go so far as to take jabs at FOX and the censors, because the very device of a musical number takes the audience out of the narrative and the writers choose to take them even further out by drawing attention to the network and the nature of the entertainment being consumed (thus infusing the song with humorous metafictional elements).

As a story, this episode is basic and weak. The plot is nothing more than a generic series of events around which jokes and gags may be displayed. There is no real emotional content to be had—Brian’s internal conflict is resolved by two lines of dialogue from an incidental character, and then he recapitulates with his mother by burying her, but any emotional impact is instantly deflated by Stewie’s nonsensical eulogy. There is no emotional impact in Stewie and Brian’s bonding, either—it simply culminates in another defial of expectations (one expects Stewie to make Brian his slave à la an episode of The Brady Bunch, but really he only wants him to record said episode). Family Guy doesn’t care about emotional content, though—it only cares about laughs.

Ultimately, Family Guy succeeds as a work of pointless entertainment, but lacks the element of beauty requisite for art. Of course, beauty and perhaps even emotional content are hardly concepts that can be objectively defined, but they are still unavoidable aspects of this analysis and must suffice for discussion purposes. Though my exposure to Family Guy is limited, it does not strike me as a work that strives to be beautiful, and is therefore content to be entertainment. This particular episode goes out of its way to parody the conventions of the buddy genre, and does so to fair comedic effect (the title sequence is even altered for this purpose, which perhaps even separates this episode from other “regular” episodes in the series). Though aspects of the show are clever and it succeeds in providing gags upon gags, Family Guy is not something I would classify as art.

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